Bottled Air by Caleb Klaces

Bottled Air by Caleb KlacesI read this book twice in quick succession. It’s only a short collection, 70 pages of generously-spaced poems and a few pages of notes, so it didn’t take long. Interestingly, the two readings were very different.

The first time, I didn’t really understand the poems, but loved the way they made me feel. The words washed over me and I enjoyed them for their rhythm and arrangement. It was a bit like listening to a pop song in a foreign language.

The second time I read it with the benefit of the notes at the back, explaining that one poem was about the Pyrenean ibex, which went extinct in 2000 and was briefly brought back to life through cloning in 2009, while another was based on refugees from the Soviet Union defacing Chinese caves in 1920, and so on.

On the second reading, I had more understanding of what the poems were about, but I enjoyed them less. Perhaps poetry, after all, is not about understanding but about feeling. The obscure references and allusions are probably satisfying for those who get them instinctively, but don’t work as well when you have to look them up in footnotes.

In the past, I’ve often shied away from poetry because I thought I just “didn’t get it”. Now, inspired partly by poetry enthusiasts like Stefanie and Kinna, I am starting to read more of it. I believe that my mistake was in reading poetry like prose: quickly, and in search of meaning. Now, I am reading it slowly, line by line, savouring the freshness of the words and images, and not worrying so much about getting it. I’m viewing it less as an intellectual exercise, and more like eavesdropping on someone else’s dream. It’s working out well.

I’d recommend this collection to people like me, who are relative poetry novices, but I also think there are a lot of deeper layers in there for people who  are prepared to tease them out.

Here’s a sample, an extract from the series ‘Cats on Fire’.

The author of the book, a Polish reporter, one evening
on a balcony
in Dar es Salaam,
drained by hungry mosquitoes,
copied into his notebook
a passage from The Histories by Herodotus,
who had heard
that when a house is on fire
the Egyptians don’t run for water
but position themselves around it
to get in the way of the cats
that slip between them,
jump over them even,
to dash into the fire.
The reporter was shocked.
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.

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There are 8 comments

  1. I read this one with little knowledge, too. I do wonder if reading about the inspiration behind the poems added to the time it took to appreciate them, yet it’s impossible, when you don’t ‘get it’ and even when you just want to know the background, to not want to do that. I like that the variety means you know that once you ‘get it’ there’s a lot to go back to.

    1. Hi Charlie
      I saw your review as well, and enjoyed it. Yes, it’s impossible not to want an explanation or just some background. Maybe the background was not what I expected or wanted – I’m not sure. In any case, you’re right that there’s a lot to go back to in these poems.

  2. I struggle with the same issues when it comes to some poetry. I do look a little too hard for meaning sometimes. On the other hand if one misses what the poem is about entirely then I think that one is not getting much of it. Perhaps three readings, two like the ones you describe, then a third where one can meld understanding and feeing is the key!

  3. Nice review, Andrew! This looks like a really interesting book. I enjoyed reading about your thoughts on the difference between your first and second readings. Sometimes understanding things takes away the pleasure. I loved your thoughts on how reading poetry should be like ‘eavesdropping on someone else’s dream’ – so beautifully put! The poem that you have shared is quite nice. Thanks for this interesting review.

    1. Hi Vishy

      Glad you enjoyed it. This is certainly an interesting book, and worth taking a look at. I’m still relatively new to poetry, so my thoughts about different readings etc may not be right, but it’s where I am right now!

  4. I’m a regular reader of poetry and think that although notes may add another level of interest, another dimension I don’t think that they are necessary to enjoy the poem. I’m trying to remember the name of a songwriter (but can’t) but remember what they said when someone defined what their song was about. The definition was not what the songwriter had thought, but thought that the definition was as equally valid. As an amateur word botherer myself sometimes the words arrive & you’ve no idea where, but can come up with a possible idea with hindsight.

    Definition of Introspection

    We close our eyes and submerge,
    looking for our roots.

    Octavian Paler

    1. Thanks for the comment, Parrish! That’s a good attitude to have, about accepting other people’s definitions. I tend to be like that with my writing too – when I’m doing talks and readings, sometimes people come up with completely new interpretations of the book, and they surprise me but I usually think, OK, that’s valid. I definitely know what you mean about the words arriving and you’ve no idea where from – that’s the best stuff in my experience. Doesn’t always work when you force it. Maybe there’s room for some more mystery and less understanding…

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