fb-pixel Skip to main content

Poems of life . . . and its opposite

Josef Kaplan’s poems are suspicious packages. His 2012 collection, “Democracy Is Not For The People” had all the foreboding of an abandoned duffel bag — the poems openly ruminating on assassinating the president, crudely airbrushing impossibly happy endings onto terrorist attacks, and plainly calling for poets to arm themselves against the state with “fully automatic assault rifles with armor-piercing bullets.” Was that Kaplan in there? The poems refused to show identification.

In 2013’s “Kill List,” he dryly batched the names of 232 contemporary poets into quatrains, tagging each as either “a rich poet” or “comfortable.” Its motives were less obvious than its result: mass discomfort inside the poetry bubble, and outside, not a peep. It forced its readers (i.e. other poets) to inspect and dismantle it. Perhaps its cruelest suggestion was its tacit indictment of contemporary poetry as, more often than not, an empty threat.


Kaplan’s latest, “Poem Without Suffering,” attempts to follow through: The 85-page poem describes (in rich detail) the path of a freshly fired bullet as it tears through the air, though the skull of one child, and the abdomen of another. It’s not here to have its brutality mistaken for beauty.

Kaplan’s poems can feel vicious, clinically literal, like vivisections of their ideas — intimate but removed, the words still twitching on the table. But here, his realism is channeled through a series of lurid special effects, a kind of poetic CGI that stretches its gruesome instant beyond recognition.

He strips death’s “biological frenzy” of tragedy, detailing and depersonalizing the body (“the index of the ‘child’ ”) down to a five-page list of damaged arteries. And though the poem charts a thin, straight scrape down the page, Kaplan sidesteps and segues, interrupts and derails, pitches platitudes and otherwise mimics the ways we disengage from atrocities even as we obsess over them. Kaplan exposes the unspeakable as unremarkable, disables euphemism, and tests our roles as readers — and thus, witnesses.


The bullets that here and there pierce the pages of Tonya M. Foster’s newest collection, “A Swarm of Bees In High Court,” land quite differently than Kaplan’s:

“As always, t/here is/ love tossed among vials, spent shells,/ t/his quiet leaving”

“Bullets can/ pepper a body, like salt falling –/ a startled cook’s hand”

“A bullet ain’t got/ no name, no neck, no notions/ of right, time, or left.”

In this panoramic “biography of life in the day of a particular neighborhood” (i.e. Harlem), Foster achieves a strikingly high fidelity not by zooming in past the personal, but by going panoramic — considering the “multiple as subject” and allowing Harlem’s clamor of voices to speak for itself.

Taking the “vibrant chromatic chaos”of a Max Ernst painting as an inspirational starting point, Foster’s haikus reflect, refract, and scatter each other’s meanings like imperfect prisms. Often they come paired, their asymmetrical echoes flashing off of each other — the glare of difference:

“Bent, brown body, your/ bobbing head anoints pavement –/ slight prayers like roaches.”

“Bent, brown body, your/ bend, your bob under faint light/ — articulate bullets.”

Within the poems themselves, Foster’s splitting and splicing of words (through various slash strategies and parenthetical inserts) not only reinforce the multiplicity of her mosaic, but shows a poet boldly embracing the fluidity of language — even if at times it can feel like holding a handful of water: “ ‘We-might’ could make/I-am soar/sore, make ‘I’ commit/ to be an other.’’


Here and there, the haikus give way to incantatory departures and short prose passages, which broaden the imaginative scope of the sequence (see: “To Shake Or Be Shook Down” ), but more impressively serve to highlight the tension and mastery of Foster’s restraint elsewhere.

Sometimes her haikus function like independent vessels, giving temporary shape to the poems before their ideas flow onward and take new form. Elsewhere, as in a sequence which alternates refrains on bullets and rain, they showcase Foster’s control, even as she allows for herself to surrender it: “Rain, clear this/ moment’s deadlock of was/will./ Wash us in do/be.”

Foster’s collection couldn’t be more different from Kaplan’s. They stand like structures at opposite ends of a rapidly changing neighborhood. From Harlem’s “meager stoops,” Foster fully immerses us in the “darkening heat of a summer’s meanness.” She draws deep breaths to carry a host of voices, and the poems examine the fluidity and fragility of community. Meanwhile, Kaplans’s mix of forensic chill and cinematic gore subtracts humanity altogether. His dissection of American violence has no shortage of spilled blood and shattered bone — but the worst thing you might see in his poem is your own reflection.


By Josef Kaplan

Wonder, 96 pp., paperback, $13.95


By Tonya M. Foster


Belladonna, 144 pp., paperback, $16

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur