Josef Kaplan’s first book, Democracy Is Not for the People, is angst-fueled by the crisis of democratic capitalism. Legal norms, always geographically and subjectively uneven in capitalist society, and capriciously flaunted in any average year, now seem inoperable in the post-crisis Eurozone, the US, and several other advanced capitalist countries. The activists, robots, gods—along with nasty CIA agents, not-so-nice Jihadists, and the globe’s resistance of hooded youth—populating Kaplan’s book of borrowings and collages are quarrelsome figures derived from this post-2008 political landscape. These figures of contemporary geopolitics occupy the shadows so far of a neoliberal, business-as-usual crisis politics in the US; but for Kaplan, they take center stage. The following comes from Democracy’s first poem, “The Epiphanies”:

        Before closing my eyes, I call the venerables, reverends, to organize in solidarity to make
        sacrifices. We have used all of the accepted protest methods available to activists, including
        marching, protesting, and writing countless articles and letters. Close to a thousand leaflets.

and later:

          My position is that I only get one death. In a room in a small hotel on Ly Tu Trong Street.
          I want to protest the present government and economic system, and the cynicism and
         passivity of the people. It is a waste of energy to get angry and gripe at the government.
         The government must be replaced.

The language here is intentionally leaden, even tedious, but Kaplan, borrowing from Ron Silliman’s Ketjak, conjures accumulative effects and whiplash contradictions, as in the above final sentences’ surprising stance on “the government.” The performative “death” of the speaker (author? is everything a quotation? is this his exit exam for the non-MFA Xerox degree?) here seems suggestively coordinated with numerous cases of political assassinations or examples of self-immolation enumerated in the poem (“...make sacrifices”), including that of the young Vietnamese revolutionary and martyr Lu Ty Trong, a street name in Ho Chi Minh City. Contemporary political desperation conditions the ambience of Kaplan’s political poetics. As Brian Ang has pointed out, this poetry’s not far from the last words of Mohamed Bouazizi: “If you don’t see me, I’ll burn myself.” It’s a bad time.

Not much develops for very long in a Kaplan prose poem, but para- doxically everything appears possible, if fleetingly so. Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory makes the relevant contradictory point about Kaplan’s sort of desublimated, self- undermining avant-garde: “The forfeiture of what could be done spontaneously or unproblematically has not been compensated for by the open infinitude of new possibilities that reflection confronts. In many regards, expansion appears as contraction.” Death-driven, even nihilistic, the bodies keep coming in the next toneless poem, “Gifts of Cloaks.” The prose here offers a brief history of people killed by robots, beginning with: “Kenji Urada, born in 1944, was one of the earliest individuals killed by a robot.... In 1981, while working on a broken robot, he failed to turn it off completely, resulting in the robot pushing him into a grinding machine with its hydraulic arm.” What was once imagined to be a robotic and cybernetic future gets a dystopic knell. Kaplan’s hobbled and stilted forms signal that the future and poetry have disappeared. To further emphasize this affectless and terrible irony about the destituteness of the genre, two poems in the first book’s four sections (called “Tilt Shift”) borrow titles from well- known Robert Creeley poems, “I Know a Man” and “For Love.” Such copycat gestures seem the therapeutic application of poison in order to avoid Creeley’s (and by extension poetry’s) compelling and painful gravity in the first place. Two other notable poems from the first section are “Tributary” and “Grammarsci.” The first here parodically, riffs on the current racialized notion of Jewishness, noting the Jewish “roots” of several well-known revolutionaries, including Lenin (“Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, a Russian revolutionary...whose maternal Grandfather was Jewish...”). The whole poem is carved out in perfunctorily Wikipedia idioms: as with much recent appropriated or process work, it makes Le Degré zéro de l’ écriture look phraseologically sublime. The poem is commanded to disappear.

Several other poem-things from the first section manage to hang together, including “Samizdat,” a catchall term for the universe of underground Soviet literature. Money over everything, money on its mind, the poem describes the scrupulous folding of different dollar denominations until they finally become a bill half that value.

         Then the $10 bill is placed so that backside is facing up, then only the white edges are
         folded over.... the folded end-flap containing the “10” is then tucked into the edge of the
         vertical piece to create a ring, and the bill is therefore recognizable as a five.

Deface the coinage! the old antinomian slogan goes. But the second section’s sequence, “Ex Machina,” dedicated to and derived from poet Joey Yearous- Algozin, misses the mark for this reader. Like weaker poems in the opening section it doesn’t quite separate from the materials it seeks to satirize, becoming a victim of its own overly obvious joke. Each “short story” in the series features a different suicide bomber (“Amar Salah Diab Amarna,” “Hamas operative Ra’id Zaqarna,” etc.) in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. At the conclusion of each short vignette, we’re told, “And all lived.” The absence of surprise makes for plodding persistence here. The point seems to be to send up, with a measure of mocking torment, the way an anonymous Palestinian male name appears in news reports. Instead the poems don’t really go anywhere and might even windup solidifying into the ideological notion they seek to criticize—the elevation of Israeli victimhood over the suffering of Palestinians. But even when things fail for Kaplan, his preference for volatile materials still makes him something of a fire-starter, rather than merely complacent. 

Kaplan—an actual poet with an explosive ear, and with quite a few lyric- as-criticism feathers in his cap—has waded into today’s turbulent experimental waters. Prolific, he defies easy categorization. Like other 20-somethings on the scene, his aesthetic has been forged in the conflicts of recent years, where terms for self-similar styles of technique contend for coveted if marginal attention. Awash in textual scrims, estranging mediations of the already enframed, some of the procedural and formal work today seems to ride an ever bigger bicycle with ever fewer hands. Much discussion of poetry now takes place in the terms derived from cultural studies’ one-upmanship, or from antinomian strains of identity politics. Appropriated language and writing procedures, the core formal practices at stake in this contemporary scene, tend toward a bland (“unreadable”), occasionally lyrical, sometimes outright dull, and even intentional cliché. Kaplan’s anti-aesthetic, by contrast, isn’t entirely un-dramatic and bone dry, thanks to the richness of its diction. (Some radical politics makes a difference!) Local effects accumulate; there is a sum result, even if Kaplan makes the novelist Tao Lin—known for the alienating infantilism of his characters and G-chat idioms—seem like Flaubert. Anti-romantic above all, development can be inconsequential to this “writing” where everything proceeds according to the executive act. As a “reader,” I longed at times for wittier and looser encapsulations of these sometimes-prosaic undertakings, not unlike Kaplan’s own short poems, none of which are collected here. Lineation plus tighter juxtaposition might offer a more shaded irony.

In Democracy—knowingly amateurish about its avant-garde gestures— Kaplan juts out substantively to the left of some more established US experi- mental poetry. Lautréamont figures in this radicalism. An incomplete list of the book’s blithe antinomian contents follows: mild blasphemy of ancient religions (in “Poem that Is Pro Heaven); regicide; a racist story of miscegenation; entrails of decaying corpses; political assassination—all laid out in a restrained, kind of creepy way. At their best, these borrowings from Lautréamont seem calculated, written. The final poem in the book best avoids the deliberate trap of inconsequential development. The call to violent disorder in “Poem that Is Pro Violence” may be the closest thing to some of Amiri Baraka’s “this is a stick up” poems to have emerged in the recent past. Like Baraka’s poems from Black Magic, or Ted Joans’s from Black Pow-Wow, Kaplan’s share a historical period of riotous rebellion in the global streets. In this final poem, Kaplan offers a new plan for artists, who so often function as unwitting foot soldiers of bo-bo gentrification. The furnace of its culminating moment is worth a look: 

         If poets and artists were willing to corner, beat and mug rich people, take their money
         away, then poets and artists would no longer appear to the wealthy as a worthwhile
         investment strategy.

However difficult it may be to take this seriously, at least this (post-? conceptual?) poet isn’t trying to become a corporation (for safe graduate school investment strategies). Remembering that the greatest danger for radical art under capitalism remains cooptation, Kaplan has armed himself with a sharper cynicism, a lethal irony. He might even strike a bit of fear into the heart of the enemy. In uncompromising radicalism, exhibited even in flashes, there remains a terrifying power. Work like Kaplan’s, whatever his other weaknesses, raises the stakes for being saturated in contemporary politics. 

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