Thursday, November 17, 2022

This Close Poems by Karen Klein


This Close

Poems by Karen Klein

Ibbetson Street Press, 2022

Review - Marcus Breen

Hilary Mantel the late, brilliant English writer who novelized the life of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII and his six English wives in the trilogy, Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, The Mirror and the Light, said in 2020 that she could not have written the way she did when she was young, because “experience weighs heavy.” In other words, there is a point in life when it becomes possible to write knowledgably about the psychosocial aspects of human existence. In loftier terms, drawing on psychoanalytic categories, pieces of meaning about life fall somewhat together as age gives its unique perspective. This is not to say that young people cannot write. Rather, it is to say that wisdom is an affordance that emerges with age. Ask any sage.

Which brings me to Karen Klein’s first book of poems, This Close. In her 80s, Klein brings the reflective wisdom of age to her poetry. It is revealed in an infatuation with the process of unpacking her life. As she noted before a reading in Newton, Massachusetts, on 13 September 2022, her poems are about “romance and its difficulties,” “relationship difficulties.” As an octogenarian, unpacking anything from the messy world of one’s social life involves some risk taking in the disclosures that unfold, as the writer engages in a targeted form of self-exploration, with an important caveat: the writer must have the poetic capacity to convey life’s difficulties. Klein reveals that capacity, in this, her first book of poetry.

Because Klein’s poems are offered from her position as an older or aged person, her poems add to human knowledge drawn from a lifetime of observation about the difficulties of being human. The willingness of her poems wanders into the fraught feelings of life in the social relations she had and expects to continue. It’s a book of the history of memory, recollected as encounters underpinned with the good fortune that allows her to be at the age she is and still writing.

The collection is separated into five sections of poems of different lengths, all following a relatively free verse form. Section one, the curvature of a line consists of two poems, the first in the book “Journal 2017: Bilbao,” places the reader in relation to the sense of history-memory, rediscovered by an association through architecture and movement. This one, the swinging bridge in Bilbao, Spain returns the poet to memories of swinging, to create for the child, “the excitement of reaching.” The following poem “Takeoff,” continues the idea of the trajectory from childhood, a concept rich in psychoanalytical resonances, especially when it is connected with art such as the Brancusi bird sculpture Klein saw with she visited MoMA for the first time as a 17 year old.

see the sculpture

—my breath catches itself—

the free curvature of our bodies

without an image of the body

the desired roundness of flesh


in the curvature of a line.

The following sections are: skin/has its own/vocabulary, use words to find my tribe, They won’t come back next year, and road to nowhere/and everywhere.

The coming of age theme is to be expected in a first book of poems, as the pent up words of dozens of years emerge, as if in liberation after much gestation.

Of particular note in this respect is the poem for the artist Georgia O’Keefe, where Klein, digging way back into the era where correct language for a woman meant no profanity, explains the sensation when using the word “cunt” for the first time, to refer to her own private body. In “Black Iris,” ostensibly a poem about flowers, the effect is that O’Keefe’s flower is translated into a sensibility about Klein’s body.

walked out of the Metropolitan Museum

walked naked to myself

recognized my body in the flower

the iris intimately in me

knew I could say cunt

knew it was good

When Klein read this poem at the Newton reading mentioned above, the atmosphere was electric, even after she had “warned” the audience that the word, often associated with gutter vulgarity, was part of her vocabulary of self discovery. It further signifies the long journey of the coming of age, remembered as thoroughly intimate, not only in this poem but in many of the poems. Furthermore, it points to the feminist heritage she draws on in the liberation of her language that accompanies her maturity, in her 80 plus years.

As well as moving into published poetry, Karen Klein is also known as a dancer and artist around Boston, and her poems reference works of art, such as visual arts, other writers and my favorite, music.

“Hearing the Borromeo Quartet Play Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang,” attempts to take the rhapsodic power on Beethoven’s sonic genius to the poem. Klein gives the music its character, and by the third section the music is palpable:

III. Finally, the melodic phase.

This time the first violin—its timbre firm,

Beethoven after his near-fatal illness,

the composition a product of recovery.

But this is no “holy song of thanks.”

The certitude he brought back

becomes an urgent plea

that when the Dark Angel closes in,

his wings will obliterate fear,

his embrace be compassionate.

Can you hear it? It’s a plea to listen closely, to hear the wings of death while acknowledging the power of the words to sweep up the listener/reader. As a poem it illustrates the many examples Klein offers in this collection, to make sense of life through creativity, as well as the inevitability of death through art.

Old age is a difficult concept, generally disrespected in society today, where young entrepreneurs are presented by the media as god-like figures. In contrast, these poems indicate the power of remembering life in poetry, circulating to humanize readers, reminding us of our shared humanity, even with all of our diverse personal experiences, while they further remind us of the profoundity of the privilege of experience discovered among the survivors. The poems “Tribal Tongues,” “Raspberry Patch,” and “Shower,” serve as humbling reminders of Klein’s Jewish heritage and that not everyone of her family got out from under the antisemitic death heal of fascists in Europe. No wonder, they “weigh heavy,” as Hilary Mantel said, because the challenges of wisely reflecting on life, relationships, art, love, and survival, are not lightweight matters.

One final comment about the writing history that informs this collection. Klein includes several pages at the conclusion of the book to thank the people in a variety of creative communities, who supported her development as a poet. It is a generous and welcome gesture, as well as a reminder that we are not alone, that poets are poets because they are fundamentally drawn to communicate with other humans using this ancient form. As Karen Klein shows in this wonderful first collection, remembering our collective lives depends on each other.


  1. Anonymous7:14 AM

    Great review! Wonderful lead into compelling stanza of Karen Klein's poetry.

  2. Anonymous9:41 AM

    Incisive and insightful review of a wonderful book by Karen Klein.

    1. Anonymous7:02 PM

      A fine review that honors the unique perception of the body, relationships, and the complexity of desire that Karen Klein brings to these fine poems.💛