Hollyhocks in the Fog: Selected San Francisco Poems by August Kleinzahler
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017. 74 pages.
Reviewed by Leah Kiureghian

Hollyhocks in the Fog is a collection of August Kleinzahler’s poems set in, about, or having to do with San Francisco. As an object, the book is lovely. Flip the book over and you have Before Dawn on Bluff Road, Kleinzahler’s New Jersey poems. It is a thoughtful and intelligent design, allowing the reader to inhabit Kleinzahler’s San Francisco before being flipped around to experience his New Jersey. It would be impossible to talk adequately about both books in this microreview, and since I slightly prefer the San Francisco poems, I’m limiting myself to Hollyhocks in the Fog

Why do I prefer it? Without spending too much time on the differences between the two books I should point out to the new Kleinzahler reader that one of the joys of his books is the different voices (or registers, dialects, personalities) he employs. This is the most common praise one reads of Kleinzahler. This is used to good effect, in Before Dawn on Bluff Road. What is interesting about Hollyhocks in the Fog is how firmly it sits within one register. The choice to abandon a mode so praised is interesting and raises questions about the inability to fully reside in the speech pattern of an adopted home--one can never really get the dialect quite right. Existing, for the most part, in one voice suggests that this is the “true” interiority of the poet—the voice he uses when he isn’t trying on other voices. If we take this to be his default I have to say that I really enjoy it. I even prefer it to his registers “ferociously on the move” as the judges of the Griffin Prize describe them. There are a few poems that play with dialect and voice (“After Lady Murakami,” “Ebeneezer Californicus,” “Rain”) but the register the speaker most utilizes is quiet, meditative, detached, and bemused.

In keeping with this voice, the atmosphere in these poems is solitary. There are interactions: the speaker orders chow mein (“The Single Gentleman’s Chow Mein”), friends come to visit and bring their children (“Friends Through at New Year’s: 1987”), intimacy is shared while “sharing one last smoke” and the speaker realizes he’s never seen the sky in that particular neighborhood at night (“Visits”). There is sometimes a “you” addressed in the poems but one gets the sense it is still the poet talking to himself or, rather, keeping notes on all he sees. 

It’s hard to quote lines to show the delicacy, the careful construction of Kleinzahler’s syntax. He is a poet who works within the sentence rather than on the level of the line. There is enjambment, hesitation and lyric playfulness, but each poem ends quite definitely with a period. A good example can be found in the poem, “San Francisco / New York.” The speaker asks, “Is New York fierce? /The wind, I mean. I dream of you in the shadows, /hurt, whimpering. But it’s not like that, really, /is it? Lots of taxis and brittle fun.” The idea in the sentence is carried over several lines and the hesitation mimics the dual nature of the question: what is fierce in New York?

When one records a day, as Kleinzahler does in “Summer Journal,” one produces segmentation, breaking the day into parts. This segmentation of temporality is striking in the way it complements the segmentation that is the recording of place and experience. The idea of things being observed and recorded is reflected in the titles of the poems—every poem is titled. Though the titles are often very simple (“Rain,” “Rooms,” “Lock Shop,” “Back”) this is never to the detriment of the poem.

The poems are also filled with things and things within things: San Francisco, parks, streets, the common names of flowers. It’s lovely to consider, as Kleinzahler does, the many moments of pleasure in the day: the meal, the poem, the poem within the book, the room in a home, the home in the rain. 


Leah Kiureghian was raised in Arizona. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Brooklyn College. Her most recent work can be found in SAND and American Chordata.