When Ben Franklin famously wrote “Nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes,” he was not only ripping off Daniel Defoe, but he was also failing to anticipate Michael Klein’s second poetry book in 17 years, then, we were still living. Klein doesn’t actually have much to say about taxes, but he might take issue with “death” being “certain,” at least in the fatalistic way we tend to perceive it.
Klein transitions into a different kind of vocabulary on the topic of death without setting off any alarms, subtly restructuring the way we perceive the chasm between the living and the dead. His treatment of the matter is so casual and understated that the leap feels natural and comfortable. By the time we notice him tiptoeing around our preconceived notions, he has already stomped straight through the heart of them. Moreover, he knows he’s secured a captive audience as he conveys privileged information we’ve always secretly wanted to hear.
Klein uses September 11 as the backdrop for his message, which can initially seem a cause for concern. September 11 poetry often feels entitled to devolve into indulgent sentimentality without providing textual justification, but while Klein’s work has a tendency to be melancholy and thoughtful, it never encourages gratuitous sniveling. He avoids this gaping pitfall, much to the reader’s relief, partly by using the terrorist attack as both example and metaphor, but never as end in itself. The poems are “about” something else—a recalibration of life and death, an inversion of our dearly held philosophies that no longer hold up.
Life and death mirror each other. Though there is an impenetrable wall that separates them, they are simply parallel worlds. In “The mirror,” the speaker sees his dead twin brother in his passing reflection. His brother’s old mannerisms greet him on the surface of the glass before the speaker regains control of his reflection and, “just as fast – it’s me / as I am in life with him, and as he is in death with me.”
The condition of being a twin highlights this bizarre fluidity between life and death. In “The twin,” the speaker reaches out from a state before embodiment, just after conception, when he has a soul but no form of his own. “I wasn’t supposed to have a body. I am not from a family of bodies.” His “family” here is not his nuclear, biological one, but a “family” of hypothetical twins—duplicates, beings whose only purpose is mimicry. He speaks of “[m]y soul,” using the possessive pronoun to indicate that he “has” things. But if he is disembodied, exactly what aspect of him possesses the soul? Does he “have” one, or is he one? Alternatively, perhaps he exists in some chasm between life and death, where being a twin allows him to experience non-being in ways most of us couldn’t comprehend. He admits:
My soul was already confused.
It didn’t know how consciousness pulled the body
into the world or pulled it out of the world.
My soul was inside the inside.
So there is another realm, a place one can be “inside,” whence one can talk about not yet “living,” as the unborn twin does, or about having “lived” before, in the past tense. Alternate states of being exist, but we don’t notice them until we have a reason to pay attention and get back to the basics of human nature. Death and life are the same thing—a division, a membrane that separates one condition from another. Sometimes there exists an “abyss” or passage between them into which we spill, transcending our physical boundaries. In “We can’t live with the dead,” the speaker has found a way to “feel the dead” by inhabiting
a space we forgot something in. We think this
is still my life when really it is you emptying
into a sublime coda for the dead a falling.
This is what happened on September 11, when we could all “feel the dead,” because we were forced to walk into that space “we forgot something in.” In “2001,”—a poem that invokes both the year of the terrorist attacks and the ominous sci-fi Stanley Kubrick film—Klein reminds us that the attack on the “twin” towers “wasn’t like the movies and it wasn’t real.” It was neither reality nor artifice (known nor unknown, life nor death), but something in between: “our entirety emptying into the fully realized emptiness.” And that moment, we, as a collective consciousness, understood what the disembodied twin was struggling to convey while his soul was searching for a vehicle. “Then,” Klein says, expertly and beautifully closing in, “we were still living.”