Tag Archives: Jerome Sala

The Self vs. Apollo the Dork: Ish Klein’s “WE WILL FREE EACH OTHER”

Klein’s complete poem is in the previous post and following the essay below.
         Two things about Ish Klein’s poetry have consistently grabbed the attention of reviewers: the voice, which is conversational yet poetically sophisticated; and her use of exclamation points both in the title of her first book (Union!) and sprinkled throughout her poems as the emotion associated with the “bang” arises and overflows.
          Klein’s poems exude personality, and that inimitable voice of hers makes them fun to read. It’s what Frank O’Hara might have sounded like if he had texted his poems.
          And just for fun, here’s a comparison of two passages showing the exclamatory trademark of each poet:

                    O’Hara, from “Autobiographia Literaria” (3):

                    And here I am, the
                    center of all beauty!
                    writing these poems!

                    Klein, from “WE WILL FREE EACH OTHER” (6):

                    I hissed

                    and he hissed back.
                    It was so ugly!
                    I cried and he cried
                    and I thought pathetic!

          In her essay “Frank O’Hara: Nothing Personal,” Elaine Equi writes of O’Hara’s “giddy” and “orgasmic” use of the exclamation point. She also notes that such instances can be read as “a curious mix of the heartfelt and the insincere. . . . His poems ask to be read as genuine, even as they retreat into irony.” And in Klein as in O’Hara, what saves all those exclamation points from being irredeemably hokey (or a little “too happy,” as Jerome Sala puts it [qtd. in Equi]) is that they serve a richer purpose beyond simple wonder or crankiness.
          In the following, I talk about Klein’s famous exclamation points, but first I want to zoom out and consider broader themes in one of her poems (“WE WILL FREE EACH OTHER”), within which enthusiasm and its signature punctuation mark are players on a dialectical stage.
          I wasn’t expecting to find the Genesis myths of creation and Eden lurking in Klein’s child-like speaker, but in fact they form the backdrop for her struggles with a conflicted self. First, Klein opens the poem with a hint of the biblical story of creation: an image of stars and the idea of things coming into being, expressed with a sense of awe and excitement:

                    [. . .] the stars,
                    they were wondering, “When is X coming out?”
                    Considering the material, X will be something!”

Also, the speaker sometimes uses biblical diction, reinforcing the allusions to biblical mythology:

                    As a stone on the base of [the mountain] did I make me.

Moreover, echoing the story of the Fall, the speaker takes the form of a “serpent.” After the “dorky actor” (more about him in a moment) insists on imposing form on the speaker, she “hiss[es]” at him in annoyance, whereupon he hisses back. Lastly, at the poem’s end, the actor and the speaker simultaneously lament that they “sold [their] birthright for food” to satisfy hunger—another reference to the Fall.
          A major theme in the creation myth of Genesis is the division of the previously amorphous universe into hierarchical dualities as God differentiates light from dark, land from sea, human from animal, male from female. In Klein’s poem, the theme of division plays out on several levels, including, at the opening, a Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy between the enthusiasm of the exclamation point and the “dork” of an “actor” who arrives to contain the Dionysian excess and impose order.
          First, let’s consider the exclamation point, for Klein the punctuation mark of the Dionysian: “A glamorous anus . . . mark[s] the sentiment” of the sign, which also connotes excess (waste, appropriate to the anus) and superfluity:

                    Always it was exclaimed.
                    It was exclaimed!!!

Those who have taught Freshman Comp (or who have ever been young, for that matter) will recognize the novice writer’s tendency to signal such emotional excess, regardless of the rhetorical situation. Students are taught to curb this tendency in formal writing and save it for texting friends. But in the above passage from Klein’s poem, free reign is given to the diction of overflowing and youthful excitement, also emphasized by the repetition of the sentence “It was exclaimed.”
          These two lines not only heighten the theme of Dionysian excess; they also enact a little self-reflexive moment: “It was exclaimed!!!” with its excess of exclamation points enacts the enthusiasm it announces. That reflexivity is a harbinger for the larger theme that emerges in the interaction between the speaker and her alter-ego, the “dorky actor.”
          And it is this actor who emerges to spoil the Bacchanalian fun, demanding form and accuracy and coming after the speaker with “calipers.” This Apollonian presence gradually merges with the speaker through his mimicry of her: he is characterized as an “actor” who merely “pretends.” Yet this actor also remains at a critical distance of the self, which is characteristic of Nietzsche’s exploration of the Apollonian overseer of the self:

                    . . . the measured restraint, the freedom
                    from the wilder emotions, that calm of
                    the sculptor god [whose] eye must be
                    “sunlike” . . . (35)

          At the opening of the poem is an echo of the Apollonian “sunlike” eye and of the eye of God. Both Apollo and the God of Genesis impose order on formlessness, but Klein satirically figures the eye of Apollo/God as “larval”:

                    Yes, yes larval,
                    larvalous was eye–the stars,
                    they were wondering, “When is X coming out?
                    Considering the material, X will be something!”

“Larvalous was eye” echoes Psalms 118:23:

                    This is the LORD’S doing; it is
                    marvellous in our eyes.

as well as numerous biblical passages referring to the eye(s) of God. And there is a hint of the “eye/I” play on words as well—for the poet-speaker is also a maker and a shaper. But here the eye of the divider (whether of God, Apollo, or the self) is a mere larva, all potential rather than action. Klein, in one concise image cutting the divine Apollonian down to a potential insect, hints at the larger battle that develops between ecstatic enthusiasm and formal restraint.
          I have been pointing out Klein’s talent at foreshadowing themes, such as that of reflexivity in the sentence with three exclamation points, and of the dethroning of the Apollonian in the “larvalous eye.” The poem is rich in such moments, and I want to examine one more such instance. In the very image of the exclamation point (“line dividing over a little black hole”), the dividing line foreshadows the arrival of the Apollonian impulse of the actor, and seems to contain within one little symbol the dichotomy worked through later in the poem: the division between chaos and order, between Rimbaud’s “je” and “autre.”
          The remainder of the poem develops the struggle between the self and its Other, the enthusiastic “I” fighting against the dorky “me,” all calipers and control and “seeing-me-capacity,” and trying to outsmart and evade her shape-shifting pursuer.
          The poem’s playfully Romantic enthusiasm (its Wordsworthian “spontaneous overflowing of powerful feelings”) comes across more like a spoof, a cartoonish mimicry of Romanticism. In this cartoon, the caliper-wielding hunter pursues the hunted speaker, but every time the latter turns around, she seems to be looking into a mirror. The two forces within the split self may be endlessly duking it out, but there’s also an underlying identity between them, an identity that becomes ever more apparent at the end. The actor

                    mouth[s] my every mood. Instantly I say,
                    “Don’t believe him–he isn’t it.
                    He isn’t something; he’s pretending.”

                    Which is what he’s saying.
                    Then he says (and this comes from my mouth, too),
                    “Sold for food.
                    I sold my birthright for food.

                    I was hungry.
                    I WAS HUNGRY!”

                    But I am not hungry.

                    But I said it anyway.

          In this retelling of the myth of the Fall at the end of the poem, there’s a movement like a pendulum coming to rest at the mid-point of its arc. Throughout the poem, the self and the “dorky actor” have been reacting to each other. In the end their identities become one, like Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre.” They dissolve into one another and what’s left is indecision, a self conflicted: Hungry or not hungry? To say it or not to say it?
          The self-conscious self is a paradox. On the one hand, the self is in a sense discrete: an undifferentiated “aspic, unset,” or an Icaraus-like being, “the sun touching only me.” It is simultaneously the “pretender” who, having located his “seeing-me-capacity,” comes after the speaker with evaluating “calipers” and points at her.
          Klein’s self is never resolved but remains a seething contradiction, saying that hunger made it eat the apple of knowledge, yet simultaneously denying its hunger. The self and its “dorky” other may be mouthing each other’s words in an ongoing chain reaction of mirror neurons, yet it’s still a story of “he said/she said.” Knowledge may be power, but it’s also problematic. It’s like a detective story in which two criminals point the finger at each other, and as long as they continue to do so in the absence of evidence, the case will remain open.
          And what of the title? Have the self and the dork freed each other? I think the poem itself is proof that they have.

Here’s the complete poem:


Yes, yes larval.
Larvalous was eye—the stars,
they were wondering, “When is X coming out?
Considering the material, X will be something!”

Always it was exclaimed.
It was exclaimed!!!
The expectation and their faces like the mark:
a line dividing over a little black hole.

A glamorous anus was the mark of the sentiment.
And then, and then came the actor.
The dork who wanted form. And he figured
where the seeing-me-capacity was and he watched me be.

This guy had been practicing accuracy
and still he came upon me with calipers.
Calipers! Still he pointed towards me
until I hissed

and he hissed back.
It was so ugly!
I cried and he cried
and I thought pathetic!

So I rolled up and grumbled.
I put a mountain in my mind.
I broke from it—a boulder me
and I hurled down a slope—the hardest part of the mountain.

As a stone on the base of it did i make me
and then I said slowly,
“Mountain. Go. Away. Leave. Me. In. Space.
The. Actor. Can. Look. At. A. Rock.”

When I looked out the actor was a rock,
a rock who may have been there before me.
I should not have been so astounded.
So much the fool was I being.

I was, I was, I was
just short of being nothing
and the actor was more on top of it than me.
This actor—watch out!

If you see the actor, evaporate—
find a place—be there instead,

I returned to the serpent form. I said,
“Stop looking at me while I’m working on stuff!”
And I know you know this. I know you know
he’s saying when I say this at the same time

the same exact time. And maybe even—
No. That’s just me but some would say
he’s saying it first. Some would say,
I said it first.


What do you want then?
What do you want?
So weakened was I then being, indeed, NOW recounting
recounting turns me into an aspic, unset—

a drooling reverberating—just recounting,
and I have been recounting for hours,
every day in some point, in stone time,
although I am not now a stone girl.

In-between-worlds / during / visiting
under the heat lamp sun, the earth—
our incubator. Within this context
of incompletion, I am coming to power in space.

So it’s electric flying too
over grey and glinting paths,
the sun touching only me like so
because it’s my feeling

and wild-eyed I find myself aloft
and taken away: hurray, hurray
I say, “We’re here!”
and the ground comes up

and the actor is on the pavement splayed,
mouthing my every mood. Instantly I say,
“Don’t believe him—he isn’t it.
He isn’t something; he’s pretending.”

Which is what he’s saying.
Then he says (and this comes from my mouth, too),
“Sold for food.
I sold my birthright for food.

I was hungry.

But I am not hungry.

But I said it anyway.

Works Cited

Equi, Elaine. “Frank O’Hara: Nothing Personal.” Conjunctions 29 (1997): n.pag. Web. 14 Mar. 2012.

Klein, Ish. Moving Day. Ann Arbor: Canarium Books, 2011.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Birth of Tragedy.” Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Tr. and Ed. Walter Kaufmann. (New York: Modern Library, 2000). 1-144.

O’Hara, Frank. The Selected Poems of Frank O’Hara. New York: Vintaqge Books, 1974.

Camille Martin