There’s a moment in Nate Klug’s most recent collection, Hosts and Guests, in which he gives a supercharged—and very personal—gloss on the word quiet. It’s anything but. “If, in my family, you were quiet, / it might mean you were happy. It might / mean that you were angry, / and someone had to find out why … ” If still waters run deep, they also pack a lot of force, a vast and latent energy. Klug is writing some of the strongest poetry you can find in American letters these days. Stoically fierce and vividly alert. The signature surfaces of a Nate Klug poem—even his incredibly vibrant and lithe translations of Virgil, gathered in Rude Woods some years ago—are often somehow simultaneously beautifully smooth and a little edgy. But they are also chiseled and efficient, and these qualities together are a sign of the richness in the depths they signify.
Hosts and Guests follows on Klug’s first book, Anyone. This second book comes in four distinct sections, and the poems range from Klug’s itinerant life, sometimes in New England and Iowa—one of my favorite poems plunges us into an awkward encounter in a Hy-Vee grocery store—to the poet and his family’s new life in bewildering California, land of “relentless positivities” where “tourist couples compete for tables.” Klug’s gloss on quietness—I wanted to write quietus, but that has a strong whiff of extinction to it, relevant I suppose in complicated ways—emerges in the collection’s third part, a longer poem called “First Lent in California.” For it’s in California that the poet, who is a UCC minister, feels the full confusion of his role as both a guest and—leader of a church, new father—a host. It’s not just an energy in these depths but also, sometimes, a sadness: “if you were angry, in my family, / it might mean that you didn’t know yet / (no one knew) you were sad.” Part of that sadness, it seems, is occasioned by the relentlessness of all change, the way it keeps a body from getting hold of reality for more than a moment. Is change, endless change, a kind of existential noise? In any case, a quiet that’s embraced, intended, waded into—this becomes a sweet silence, the sort of hush, as any writer or parent knows, that can be as restorative as it is generative. “For Good Friday,” writes the poet, “your spiritual / director suggested silence.” And the poem ends with words of reconsideration straight from the Gospels: “Though afraid, and far from home, / Mary Magdalene looked. // What she thought had changed, changed twice.”
And while the voices in these poems are looking, sometimes flailingly, for a foothold—“which way that we turn / faces our life?” is a stunning and understated example of how the poet articulates this crisis of being—they are not without scruples. Which is to say, resistance. Resistance to the conventions and the capitalist and technological pieties of our times. The poet observes a great blue heron in New Hampshire at Spofford Lake. In a brilliant display of the way description, to quote Seamus Heaney, is revelation, Klug lets slip an ars poetica: the bird, balanced and seemingly frozen mid-stride, is testing the surround “for deceit,” compelled to “elaborate” dozens of minute “dangerous / adjustments” for hours. And channeling Marianne Moore in style and substance, the poet describes the bird as “contemptuous / of audience.” The bird doesn’t care who is watching; its work is as urgent as it is singular, as necessary as it is particular, as lonely as it is natural. Resistance, in fact, is a theme in the book—a stubborn irreducible element, a determination to do more than just survive. So there is a flash of the lust and longing of the long-married in “Late Afternoon on San Pablo Ave.,” that East Bay artery running from downtown Oakland to the Carquinez Strait, threading through the flats. That love, the urgent almost-whisper insists, is like “the high-schoolers / who have turned their backs / and rushed to cross against the algorithm.”
JESSE NATHAN: You’ve described to me some of the ways you’ve come to think about this latest book. One was that you felt it’s more personal than Anyone. What does “personal” mean to you? There still seem to be many poems in which there is no lyric “I,” and relative to much of the work out there, you seem often—not always but often—to put the self in the background. Even in Hosts and Guests. Curious what you make of the lyric “I” these days. What credibility does it have?
NATE KLUG: Simone Weil wrote, with her characteristic pointedness, that “the principal claim we think we have on the universe is that our personality should continue.” Weil didn’t believe this was a good thing! I’ve always been excited by poetry’s potential for reaching beyond the circumference of the surface self. How can a poem discover what it might feel like to die (Dickinson)? How can a poem travel back in time to the Middle Passage (Hayden), or emerge out of the close study of a landscape and its history (Bunting)? In this way the art troubles the equivalences we sometimes assume between identity and personal experience. The essence of who I am can feel thrillingly suspended, called into question, or expanded (“Are you – Nobody – too?”).
On the other hand, for a poem to be alive, it must be saturated with human particulars. Maybe I should distinguish between the personal and the biographical: any poem that demonstrates a compelling engagement with its subject matter, that achieves a complex quality of feeling, is surely personal—to whatever extent the poet’s biography figures into the subject.
I’ve written elsewhere about the productive tension between personality and personae in lyric poetry. To repeat a little here: I sometimes wonder if the pressure exacted upon thought and feeling in a successful lyric means that every such poem should be considered a “persona poem.” The transformative task of handling language at its most dynamic grants the poet access to some emotion, paradox, or way of seeing that was previously unfamiliar. Whether for Sappho or Thomas Wyatt or Rickey Laurentiis, a poem (at least temporarily) leaves its maker a different person than when they began, which explains why poets often describe a sense of estrangement when looking back on their own work.
In Hosts and Guests, the poems’ subject matter does intersect fairly often with my biography. Part of this must have to do with getting older, moving to a strange (for me) place like California, and becoming a parent. After my first book, Anyone, I wanted to write a collection with a more discernible central speaker. In Hosts and Guests, my wife Kit appears regularly as a companion, and in the final section, our first child is born, punctuating (and puncturing!) the guest-host roles that are explored throughout the book. In poems like “The Proof Cloth,” I try to explore the simultaneous exuberance and ambivalence that parenthood can trigger.
But you’re right, there isn’t always a “lyric I” present in the work. This isn’t because I have any hardcore theoretical resistance to the idea of a “lyric I,” though I heard a lot about that in college. It’s just that the “I” doesn’t always feel like a necessary ingredient in what I’m trying to do in a poem. When it does, as in “First Lent in California,” it goes in.
I’m reading Thom Gunn’s letters right now, and I’m drawn to Gunn’s own attraction to a tradition he describes as combining “the ballad and the reflective lyric, joined by ties of economy and impersonality.” It seems to me that I don’t have a particularly strong poetic “voice.” I don’t know whether that’s because writing in such a voice is not reflective of my poetic priorities, or whether it’s just not something I can do.