Josef Kaplan
Poem Without Suffering
Poetry | $13.95
Publication Date: Spring 2016

To have it happen,
but to have it not
be considered
tragedy, at least not
in the traditional
sense, the way in
which one senses
form in drama
as human suffering.

Poem Without Suffering is a book-length elegy, composed in slow motion alongside the path of a .224-inch, jacketed hollow point bullet — one that’s been fired into the bodies of at least two children, maybe more. Combining Alice Notley with a ballistics report, Tobias Wolff with Antonin Artaud, Kaplan’s relentless examination of grief evokes a poetics through which the mechanics of atrocity are indistinguishable from those of the literary imagination. At turns tender, comic, and soberingly extirpative, Poem Without Suffering presents a thin column of writing from within a world of ever-expanding cruelty.

Poem Without Suffering produces catharsis of the most extreme kind, partly through the tensions it sustains throughout. To the lethal speed of bullets, Kaplan opposes a relentless durational performance. To common pieties, the exactness of forensic knowledge. To knowledge in general, its utter inconsequence when it comes to reversing the damage. Awful, and yet I’m in awe.” – Mónica de la Torre

“Poem Without Suffering undoes all of Josef Kaplan’s hard work to pretend he doesn’t give a shit about what’s “poetic.” It’s so serious. It’s a serious fantasy of description and its movement—the movement of a bullet through a child’s skull, in very short lines—and the lines’ brevity assists the absurd degree of detail that delays bullet. This “content,” begging you to still think he’s trolling, includes not just the bullet’s path, but also many other deaths, pains, and boils, including a few by Artaud. But it does troll: as invested as the poem is in questions of representation, materiality, life, and comparison—Kaplan loves to invert the simile, telling you what something isn’t like for pages before reminding you he’s describing negatively—it sometimes falls back into the boys’ schoolyard, with toilet humor, crass dismissals, non sequitur murders, and other limp efforts to stave off the seriousness of death. The poem writes through some unlikely proposition that might be realized by poetry: that death might happen without suffering, that life might be only a matter of “the will . . . to express,” that the specificity of description might function. Like Kaplan’s pedestrian, the poem is “so very sorry” for this tension between childishness and the child’s death; “Pardon Me,” “I’m so very sorry,” he says, on his walk through the crowded, extended simile that tracks the walker’s movement. Poem Without Suffering  is not a Confession, but an Apologetics—sorry for writing, sorry for speech, sorry for beauty, sorry for linebreaks and their insistence on meaning, sorry for meaning, too.”
– Diana Hamilton

“To use art, to measure its speed against a bullet’s, to test its potency, its potential for so-called risk in a world where little kids are shot in the head, that’s the phenomenological work of Josef Kaplan’s Poem Without Suffering. What is happening that we deserve a poet who fracks into us, blowing every molecule of sympathy out of our crevices, at the same time puffing it back in like a bad stoic philosopher, reminding us of another death (birth) in which we did not experience suffering, “because suffering is irrelevant / to the act itself.” Yet we are here wishing for equilibrium, to have never been born, to be suspended in a historical moment of “regression / receding as / much as it / proceeds,”  that, we agree, is better than the film’s ending.”
– Monica McClure


“Who cares about a dead kid except for like every person on earth?  In Josef Kaplan’s terrific new book Poem Without Suffering, the “kid” in question is painstakingly literalized.  Deprived of the abstract qualities which make any kid normally the breathing guarantor of futurity, the kid in Poem Without Suffering is just a bunch of epigastric arteries walking around waiting to get shot.  And yet if that’s where Kaplan’s poem begins, it’s not where it leads.  Through its radically unsentimental look at death, this book actually gives us a vision of life:  a life which includes epigastric arteries, vacuous politesse, the gruesome spectacles of contemporary warfare, the magnificence of birth, the endlessly beautiful scenes of parents and children at play.  Maybe our lives, maybe the lives of kids, are just toilets, inheriting and remitting piss and shit.  Maybe this book is a song of those toilets.  I mean, maybe toilets sing.  I love this extraordinary work.”

– Brandon Brown

Josef Kaplan is the author of All Nightmare: Introductions, 2011-2012 (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014), Kill List (Cars Are Real, 2013), and Democracy Is Not for the People (Truck Books, 2012).


06/21   Quarterly West
05/23   The Believer
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