Prose Feature: A Review of Peter Kline’s DEVIANTS (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2013), by Casey Thayer

February 13, 2015

While considering the literary quality of rap lyrics in a review of Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry, Adam Newey writes, “You could argue that the whole direction of 20th-century poetry was towards weeding out poetry that was ‘poetic.’” One imagines Newey pointing to the abdication of the ruling iambic line, the renunciation of sestinas and pantoums for free verse, the acceptance of the unlineated, genre-bending prose poem (see, notably: Claudia Rankine). This diagnosis is certainly arguable (what with the lingering ghost of the New Formalists), but when one considers the movement toward open forms, it is a claim that holds some legitimacy. At the very least, there remains a distrust or discomfort toward formal poetry—with all of the options available for expression, why limit oneself to old forms burdened with history and, as Annie Finch writes, “a troubled legacy”—why self-censor, why restrain, why use artifice, why stylize? At the very least, strict formal poetry, where one’s ability to navigate the parameters and limits of the form are assessed and valued as much as the subject of the work (or is considered at all), no longer functions as the default mode for younger poets trying to carve out a career.

In the aftermath of that battle over New Formalism (and I don’t mean to open old wounds by merely invoking the name), I’m surprised whenever I encounter the work of a younger poet writing consciously and with purpose within form. Of course, many poets write with an attention to sound over sense (and many critics advocate for this type of poetry; see: Wiman-era Poetry), but few organize manuscripts around verse forms. In his debut collection of poetry, Deviants, Peter Kline does just that. He proves that a poet can successfully craft a book, brick by brick, not by turning away from but by reaching for the “poetic,” by mixing ghazals and contemporary haiku and aubades and nonce forms, creating an arresting and ambitious first collection.

Closed forms dominate the first half of the book before giving way to free verse and a handful of loose sonnets in the second half. At their best, of which a reader can count many, Kline’s poems mask their form. His technical skill becomes backgrounded by the intensity of the poem’s utterance, the organic unity between the structure and sense. Consider the build up in the repeated lines in the second and third stanzas of “Overture,” a pantoum from the first half of the book:

That old romance with death—
more strictly, a transaction.
Pink lips on a snaggletooth
or a pilsner glass of bourbon.

Forgive us our transactions?
Gotta pay your tab in full.
A pilsner glass of bourbon
for a nickel’s worth of soul.

Notice how “more strictly, a transaction” transforms, through variation and humor, into “Forgive us our transactions” in the following stanza. This subtle revision infuses the language of economics with that of religion and petition, giving the line a deeper resonance. And the poem culminates with a powerful closing stanza, usually the place where less accomplished pantoums fall apart:

Out to find yourself a place
to be alone, alone,
you’re getting dangerous.
It’s happening again.

Kline’s mention of danger here morphs, from an implied external threat and the speaker’s near cockiness in the poem’s first use of this line, to something more insidious. It suggests the desire to do self-harm or at least the need for isolation, creating a deeper sense of intimacy between the speaker and reader and serving as a cry for help that makes the insistence in the pantoum form feel natural and necessary.

Although in some poems, the stiffness and rigidity of the form and the rhythm seem forced and overly stylized, at odds with the poem’s subject, Kline impresses with his control. He calls up a variety of deep cuts, among them the rare hendecasyllabic and the triolet, and in “Slow Jam,” a villanelle, he updates “My Papa’s Waltz,” describing in buoyant iambic tetrameter the difficulty of dancing with a man (presumably when a man yourself).

Even when Kline foregoes form, there is still much to delight in regarding his language. His “Out-of-Work Song” evokes Kay Ryan in its density of rhymes (“I’m / trouble-tired. Double- / time rhymes go jingle / on a keyring to nothing”). “Deviants” illustrates an impressive use of slant rhyme: “a cocksure cruiser of bad-liver bars in borrowed clothes, // I go where everyone goes / and I go unseen.” “Sic” draws on the echo of spondaic feet: “my runaway / joke broke up the scene / bang-clang, dragging / spark-spray from the punchline.”

Frequently, Kline’s poems are a joy to read aloud (I had trouble picking which to share, as the book is an embarrassment of rich sounds): “Spit / whistle, thumper finger, / tin can clang I’m / your one man band”; “I’d like to make a meteor / out of my death and birth, / name all that falls, and, falling with it, / shine my own name forth”; “Driving once through the desert past Loreto, / flame-tipped Palo Adán and white-faced ospreys / speed-blurred in the arroyos.”

But Kline’s deep probing into questions of identity and desire, specifically as tied to gender, keep this book from being, simply, an exercise in form: “A man for a woman for a woman for a man for a man. / Tell me again how it’s suppose to be.” In “Consent,” Kline works against any expectations readers might bring to a poem with such a potentially incendiary title by reversing roles. After a woman tries to entice her man into sex, the poem ends with an ambiguous message regarding authority and power, usually the male trait: “Technically / consent means he / wakes and likes it.” The speaker of “Triolet for a Bad Obsession” admits, “I only want to get until I’m got.” Elsewhere, speakers struggle with the weight of expectation and one’s own culpability: “I did a thing I wasn’t meant to do” and “What words I miss / every time I stop your mouth / with mine.”

The book also deals with themes of voyeurism (“In this performance, I’m the watcher”), a disconnected speaker lacking agency, and a deep, disturbing sense of frustration (“I wait to wait to wait to wait again”). Kline illustrates these themes most directly in the book’s namesake, centerpiece, and most sustained work, “Deviants,” a six-part sequence with each section given its own page. The speaker of the sequence is a “lurker in dark corridors’ / half-open doors” who “understand[s] the way the killer works.” The sequence tracks the speaker’s disappearance: “I had more power the more I went unsaid”; “I grow less”; “I want new ways to be erased.” But even here, the darker aspects of the poem give way to something more complex and metaphoric, the “passing” referenced in the final sequence less a humble brag about the speaker’s ability to escape prosecution (“It never happened if I don’t get caught”) and more a stand-in for his confused identity. The final two lines of the sequence clarify this: “Someday I’ll pass right through / to someone else.”

When considered against these themes, Kline’s verse forms, rigid stanza structure, and condensed, overly sonic language could seem curious choices. In a collection concerned with transgressing barriers and struggling toward a more nuanced view of sexuality and gender, the form argues against deviancy. It reinforces a structure of privilege, a patriarchy. It forces the speaker to contain himself within existing, received forms. This counterintuitive idea is reflected in the book’s opening poem, “Swish,” where the speaker wants to dress a woman “as a man”:

I want to draw you straight up and down
with the tight swish of silk slacks
around black captain boots,
flatten you out with a greatcoat,
stack your shoulders up with pads.

Conversely, I tend to see this as another measure of the book’s success, an additional layer of dissonance and frustration in a richly textured collection. Kline’s use of form speaks to his conscious choices and his ability to control all aspects of his work. By setting these themes of deviancy and the desire for autonomy within strict forms, he creates a complex and deep, and therefore more satisfying, conflict. It’s the ambitious reach of this collection and the formal pyrotechnics that first impress, even threatening with their brilliance to distract from some of the more subtle currents pulsing through these poems. But it is this combination of themes and forms that makes Deviants memorable. In the book’s penultimate poem, Kline writes, “I don’t disappear.” Given the achievement of his debut, I certainly expect this: that he will not only fail to disappear, but that he will keep emerging with new, challenging, and formally rigorous work.

—Casey Thayer

Casey Thayer

Casey Thayer received an MFA from Northern Michigan University. His first collection, Self-Portrait with Spurs and Sulfur, is forthcoming from the University of New Mexico Press, and his work has appeared in American Poetry Review, North American Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. He holds a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University and splits his time between Oakland and Chicago.

Previous post:

Next post: