The Strange Hours that Travelers Keep, by August Kleinzahler

The metaphysical jet lag of nostalgia
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The Independent Culture

The American poet August Kleinzahler has a tabloid journalist's knack for eye-catching titles. From The Sausage Master of Minsk to Green Sees Things in Waves, his books announce themselves with a shake-and-shimmy kind of whimsy. It seems appropriate, given this linguistic virtuosity, that Kleinzahler's latest book should be about (among other things) travel. Indeed, these poems spend more time in the air then President Bush did on 11 September. From Las Vegas to Austin, Rome to Chicago, and onward to Antwerp and Cologne - just flipping through this book is bound to give a reader jetlag.

Like Sofia Coppola's terrific film Lost in Translation, The Strange Hours that Travelers Keep captures the ecstatic nausea of having one's Circadian rhythms obliterated. The title poem begins with a litany of futures trading: "The markets never rest/ Always they are somewhere in agitation/ Pork bellies, titanium, winter wheat." You can almost imagine the frazzled poet sitting up in a hotel bed at 3am, watching CNN Marketwatch.

Gradually, things calm down. Kleinzhaler is able to give us the kind of insights only travel can bring. "Coronado" unfolds in the US, but sends the poet into a swirl of self-regard when three army attack jets bisect the horizon and then return, reminding him of his country's lethal military might.

What brings us back to the now is always the senses. A series of poems called "The History of Western Music" take place in foreign cities, in which music freezes time, crystallising experience. The first recounts a hilarious evening in Rome, where the poet watched as a notorious lothario worked up to proposition one of the two underage singers at a post-concert dinner. Just as he opens his mouth, a diner rises and breaks into song. The predator becomes hypnotised: "unimaginably out of character - about to weep".

There are other kinds of journeys involved in this book. The hardest planet to understand is the one inside our own skulls. What to make of the memories, of the selves shrugged off and revisited? In "Back", a person returns to visit a life left behind. It might be just a memory, or perhaps a trip home: "Away for so long I'm other than I was,/ Having again to learn simply how to be here,/ as if having another go at the piano/ after how many years."

Here is the metaphysical jet lag of nostalgia, that feeling that comes when the effort of retrieving a moment exhausts one more than the memory itself. In this regard, we are all travellers, Kleinzahler elegantly implies. Going back to any scrap of what came before requires movement. You have to forget yourself. Perhaps that's why travel itself is so liberating. Even when you have your passport, chances are that you'll wake up in the hotel room and forget - for once - where you are.

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