Josef Kaplan’s latest book, Poem Without Suffering, is a long poem that begins in medias res then follows, in forensic detail, the trajectory of a bullet through the bodies of two children. There are states—the state of emergency, of rigor mortis, of embarrassment, of affairs, of life, of the art, and, not to be outdone, the State itself—that layer in mimetic continuity. The poem is inscribed with inevitability but is neither flippant nor sardonic, even as it abstracts the bullet’s motion in an extended metaphor that morphs into lists of appropriated apologetics, arteries, and quotidian digressions, all chambered in the dramatized, narrow sluice of the poem’s form. It closes with likening the birth of a child to firing a gun or, in a moment of antinatalism, to not firing it.
Despite its plot, the poem is not a polemic; otherwise, Kaplan could just make a speech. He could say, Don’t fucking kill children, or don’t have children in the first place unless you want to risk the inevitability that this shit world will at some point blow them away. A man with a gun will pull into a park and eradicate your child without warning; a man with a gun will stalk and kill your child outside of your home; a man with a gun will kill your child at school; and, as Langston Hughes writes in “Kids Who Die,” his 1938 poem and the political antecedent to Kaplan’s work, “… the gentlemen with Dr. in front of their names, / White and black, / Who make surveys and write books, / Will live on weaving words to smother the kids who die… .” All these men will either fail to be indicted, be deemed not guilty by verdict of their peers, simply end themselves with their gun, or continue to function in a system that welcomes their vile labor. These assholes always get away.
This is the unambiguous reality of Kaplan’s text, that the shooter is still at large. The poem does not expressly name a perpetrator and denies any immediate assurance that one is known. It doesn’t even give the assurance of instruction, being without introduction, dedication, acknowledgements, or blurbs. Kaplan permits few intermediaries between the reader and this poem or, more precisely, the book, which is like all other objects that “… are only / meaningful / in relation / to the objects / or concepts that / they simulate… .” So, here I am, pulling the trigger of this book and likely missing the entire point. I am on the outside of an object that so well simulates a symbol of the US American reality and maybe the very thing that propagates it, and while I am a participant in the reality that the book codifies and whose paradoxes it magnifies, Poem Without Suffering is demonstrative in that if there is an outside to the repetitious reality of the book then there is an outside to this reality I am in as well. I am here holding this book that is a fairly unadorned, matte-black object with some discernable though unassuming lettering and a serial number on the exterior, deciding what I think about it when I should have known better all along. No matter the exegetical histrionics I could submit this object to, it is fabricated to suffer the folly of analysis. In a poem without suffering, it’s the poem that suffers us.