Steven Kleinman’s Life Cycle of a Bear, winner of the 2019 Philip Levine Poetry Prize, selected by C.G. Hanzlicek, is an antidote to a moment defined by fatalism and fake news. The effort to imagine the specific, to show truth and prove it no matter how violent, dominates these poems: a man can be a bear, a death can happen again and again, a dead friend can be every villain while also being remembered as the source of everything good in the world. Kleinman’s poems cleave unapologetically to metaphor not in an effort to obfuscate the world, but in order to transform it.
Steven Kleinman is the winner of the 2019 Philip Levine Poetry Prize. Homeschooled, he grew up in suburban Philadelphia, where his parents ran a wood shop – first in a rented garage, and eventually in a large warehouse. His poems navigate the edge of the American Dream, the violence of work, where the lies and hopes are the thickest. His work has appeared in Best American Poetry 2020, The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, The Gettysburg Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, and many other fine journals. A graduate of the University of Maryland with an MFA in poetry, he is the director of Creative Writing at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and a contributing editor to the American Poetry Review.
I was instantly haunted by the rhythms in Steven Kleinman’s poems. Through parallel phrasing, he builds a momentum that seems partly song and partly incantation. Incantations can be a dangerous thing, and he does indeed take us to some dark places, but he also has a playful mind that can lead to hilarity (see “The Last Supper”). There are surreal touches in many of the poems, but those touches never seem arty or gratuitous but rather spring from the urgency of what he is witnessing, and witnessing is what the book is about. As Kleinman says, “It matters / what I could actually see and why.”
— C. G. Hanzlicek, Judge, Philip Levine Prize for Poetry
The deep image is alive and well in the hands of Steven Kleinman, who, in Life Cycle of a Bear, has managed to talk to us about what’s on our minds once we turn off the news of the day. The biggest surprise is the “Bear” poem sequence, which is one of the finest I’ve read in the past ten years. Once you read it, you’ll do like I did: you’ll flip back through the pages to read it again, realizing, Yeah, “what you wanted, what you want, is freedom,” which Kleinman offers in this inspiring debut.
— A. Van Jordan
In Steven Kleinman’s Life Cycle of a Bear, men are bears, wolves, starfish, and clowns, but they are also fathers, addicts, veterans, failures, and friends. This is not another book about how bad men have it. There are no heroes here. Instead, it is a book of vast imagination and steadfast intimacy, of compassion and clear-eyed dissent, about one locality and thus our world. Kleinman’s reckoning with the mythologies and communities born of the violence of men is as tenderly wrought as it is tenacious and true.
— Jennifer Chang