Books & Ideas

Union!

November 01, 2010

Union!
by Ish Klein,
Canarium Books, $14 (paper)

Ish Klein’s stunning first book takes on such diverse subjects as love, loss, and the beauty of Lithuanian sunsets. While thematically varied, Klein’s work consistently explores the conflict between authenticity and literary convention, a concern that gracefully unifies the collection. Pairing high diction and mock-melancholy with cris de coeur, Klein both invokes and parodies poetic tradition, suggesting that artistic tropes and rhetorical flourishes are ill-suited for describing everyday triumphs and tragedies. In “Lock Down,” she writes: “Picture row upon row of one-person cells. / Almost no one gets a mirror. When we extend a hand—BAM! // ‘Wherefore art the pain?’ sayeth myself unto me.” Confidently juxtaposing Shakespearese with colloquial speech, Klein renders loftiness discordant with an earnest expression of distress in a way that quickens the reader’s response. And even as she presents such conventions as outmoded, she also creates a unique narrative space in which literary history coexists with modern life, ultimately contemporizing the loftiness of the Elizabethans, the melancholy of the Romantics, and Modernism’s fascination with the poetic image. In “World’s End With Sympathy,” for instance, Klein’s arcane diction and syntax evoke such classic nautical works as Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and Longfellow’s “The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls”: “Some time ago was I, mid-ocean, lost / with dog. Unfortunate, drifting board / to board until a skiff of three survivors / did like our shades enough to save them.” Paired with the quirky subject of the poem, these disharmonies prove erudite, playful, and in their obvious wrongness, distinctly right.

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