“One must open great books again”

Bottled Air, Caleb Klaces, Eyewear Publishing, £12.99
reviewed by Fiona Moore

Bottled air: more wasteful than bottled water. Breathe in, breathe out… We take in the world and put it out again differently, whether as art or anecdote, CO2 or rubbish.

Caleb Klaces puts out a lot, from ancient cats on fire to Thomas Browne and WG Sebald, from sinking refugee boats to a reincarnated girl living in a Philippines graveyard-slum; foam, caves, and of course air. And a thousand other things that might make sense of living in today’s mad world, or not. I just opened the book at random (low risk), and found ‘Speaking of which’:

I used to believe that families lived inside the Berlin Wall,
            which I assumed to be as thick as my house
and hollowed out like a baguette. Nobody noticed that
            until I had eaten the evidence,
but where would the rubble have gone? Where
            does it ever go? Space seems to have
plenty of space. But it is a kind of idea, out there.
            Here, things are so heartbreakingly material.
On the steps of the Blue Mosque
            someone hands out little blue plastic bags to snap
over visitors’ shoes. That the means we have of being holy
            crackles on the soft carpet
like a baby’s nappy.

That’s over half the poem, to illustrate Klaces’ associative style. He mixes stuff up: ideas and things, imagination and reality, weird and unweird, real and virtual globalisation, modern and ancient, far and near.

Stuff comes at us from all sides… so why read this book? Klaces’ mortar is his poetic fluency. Flexible, fluid rhythm, and line breaks that place the emphasis right. Syntax that delivers a one-and-a-half page one-sentence poem (‘Vapours’) and is often refreshingly unusual (e.g. ‘My Line I’). Idiosyncratic thoughts and turns of phrase as if he’s trying out sounds like lumpy sweets. Nice tricks, see those bags: “plastic.. snap.. have.. crackles.. nappy”. Tone, poised between amusement and anguish, see that line containing “heartbreakingly”; content a mix of funny and serious.

Bottled Air has four sections, and it’s a hardback – these factors combine to form a psychological barrier to dipping in and out. You can’t flip through a hardback so easily. The first section is set in a Bulgarian orphanage for disabled children; I’m not sure that Klaces has yet found a voice for this admirable material. The six poems are in diverse forms, as if to illustrate his casting-around. This is from ‘Her’, about being unable to like one child:

And was it, if we were honest – honesty
we’d decided was important –
something like spite
that made her only click and growl?

Subject matter overwhelms the poetic devices, and the poem reads as chopped-up prose.

One part of ‘Cats on Fire’ contains an account of an analogous subject matter / poem problem. This sequence tells a sort of story, with guesswork. More stimulating than kitten videos. Here, a character is reading Herodotus:

There had been no cats in The Histories before.
One must open great books again,
he remembers,
if one is to catch
falling from between their pages
their hidden cats
dashing into their hidden fires.

Bottled Air feels very substantial, as a (first) collection. Many poems benefit from being read singly, despite the multiple connections. The book should come loose-leaf, so one could isolate a few pages and catch their hidden cats.

Fiona Moore

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