If popular consumption has any bearing on literary history, then ours will go down as an era of life writing. While biography and autobiography have been staple genres since the emergence of modern literary studies, the memoir has more recently taken root. The interest in life writing has also generated a counter-trend in which authors seek to problematize the central conceits of the field: the assertion of truth, the conception of history as a teleological unfolding, the centrality of the individual subject. Poetry, with its formal latitude, has proven fertile ground for these experiments. Matthew Fink’s afterKleist is a sterling example.
Don’t be deceived by the academic-sounding title and somewhat austere-looking cover. This is an irreverent work of mannered excesses and tonal subtleties that takes the life and death of German writer Heinrich von Kleist as a starting point for a novelistic exploration of the gossipy underside of the Western literary canon. Two pages in and you’re already onto the pun of the title — that this is not a series of poems in the style of Kleist, nor is it a sober reflection on his life and works. Rather, the book lays out the world Kleist experiences after Kleist. It’s not exactly heaven, but something closer to that kitschy poster in your neighborhood bowling alley, where Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe play poker with Elvis and James Dean. Instead of pop cultural icons, this pantheon is peopled by a caricatured cast of deceased poets, from Emily Dickinson to James Brown — “Can I scream, Maceo / can I scream?” — in which Kleist is our guide.
“In the Afterworld,” Kleist muses, “mood swings are the norm.” These moody men and women of leisure pass their time in a space known only as The Refectory. We come to know this vague realm no better than do its ethereal inhabitants (who are catalogued in a lengthy closing section). “These are rooms of no discernible arrangement. / And there is, as far as we can tell, no outside. / Entrances are lacking. There are no portals or apertures.” Even with these smoldering descriptions of “vastness,” which seem prescient glosses on the interior expanses of quarantine, the book never takes itself too seriously. This is a notable characteristic in a work that closes with a lengthy section, cataloguing the many denizens of The Refectory. It is an erudite book, but one that never takes itself too seriously. Also, in keeping with its subject, it is a Romantic one, wherein the poems in their cinematic, world-building way bring to mind the intricate absurdities of Terry Gilliam.
One of the ways that Fink plies this playfulness is in reworking the conventions of life writing. While the author shows himself to be a consummate student of Kleist, biographical details take a backseat to the setting. They fade as the work progresses, as our narrator loses his memory near the close. “I am told” he mutters, “I had a life full of incident / and interest.” Early on, however, the biography is foregrounded — though stretched like a reflection in a funhouse mirror, as in “Our Family Circle” (quoted in its entirety):
Word has been getting about that I am
a hermaphrodite. I don’t see things that
way, not now. In a family such as ours
there were only so many sets of genitals to
go around. We were not poor, but a certain
austerity, it was universally held, helps
to build character. So we had to share.
Ulrike and I therefore divided what we had
between us. This you find odd because
presumably one or the other of us had a
complete set. The point is the sharing. Just
as I would have given Ulrike half of my lamb
chop, and she would have given me half of her
tarte au framboises, so we shared the family
genitalia. We were better off for it. And later,
during my autopsy, when the military surgeon
summoned his colleagues, saying hey, get a load
of this, our friend Her von Kleist is afflicted
with ambiguity, a whole intellectual realm
opened up to the small Junker minds by
which I had almost always been surrounded
A dry, melancholic delivery allows the humor to slowly build. In the hands of a more traditional biographer, such a detail would serve as a primal scene in self-making. Instead, Fink has Kleist shrug off the rumor, not because it is untrue (though it is), but because it is unimaginative. Rethinking embodiment beyond sex/gender distinction, Kleist regards genitalia as fungible elements, like costumes in a toy chest or Mr. Potato Head appendages. The point is sharing, he tells us, and yet the point of sharing is to dull the point, to blur the delineations, not only between Kleist and his sister, but between reason and fancy, fact and fiction. The poem also gestures to one of the book’s consistent themes of the book: Kleist’s aversion to Enlightenment philosophy. “As a cadet I learned that a life ruled / by Immanuel Kant is not a life worth living.” By blending fantasy with the surgeon’s pronouncements, Kleist serves to open the ‘Junker minds’ and multiply the story’s mind-altering effects”
Fink, like Kleist, understands the value of opening with a striking premise. The book is filled with first lines that function like peepholes, granting us an undetected glimpse into the social mores of the great beyond: “In their calamity study group they gather / now and again to number their mishaps / and find meaning in their failures.” Or, “Emily, Harry and I have formed / a discussion group called Social Practices / that Came into Being after our Deaths.” And another, “An obscene clamour: the architects want in.” This compulsion to find the most remarkable premise, to capture the attention of the reader in one fell swoop, plays out in the work as a whole. Kleist becomes the grounding premise, a mere conceit, thin as a piece of string upon which Fink hangs observations that bear no causal relationship to each other. While the book has the heft and pacing of a novel, there is no plot or cumbersome conflict to get in the way of its principal pleasure, the fluidity of thought. “I think I might write / an essay” says Kleist, “On the Gradual Elaboration of Dreams while Dead.”
It is on the point of pleasure that the strength of the collection shows. The title might make one think of Jack Spicer’s After Lorca. After all, Spicer too writes of a poet speaking to us from beyond the grave. But it is surprisingly easy to go through Fink’s entire book without making the connection because Fink mines a different history of experimental practice from Spicer’s open-field, New-American tradition. John Berryman appears in Fink’s afterworld, as do Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, and Stanley Kunitz. Kleist keeps especially close company with Delmore Schwartz. The Refectory has all the arch contours of a Paris Review cocktail party. Yet, as with Spicer, who thought a poem should be at least as good as a pop song, Fink has found a way to bring vibrant life to experimental poetry, while announcing the death of life writing.