Friday, October 14, 2005

There are two poems in the new Cue that fascinate me. Both are by Janet Kaplan, of whom I had not previously heard. That in itself is something of a story. She has two books out, The Groundnote and The Glazier’s Country. Both books were prize winners & are published by respected presses, Alice James in one instance, Fordham University Press in the other, that may well get a few copies into the Borders and Barnes & Noble chains, but which virtually ensure that somebody like myself – who picks up as many as 500 new books of poetry, year in, year out – will never ever see them, never hear of them, never notice them being reviewed. She may well be, as Molly Peacock is quoted on the NYU site for The Glazier’s Country, “among the leading poets of the newest generation of American writers,” but to date her work appears to have been produced entirely behind the walls of the School of Quietude. The newer book’s sales rank at Amazon – 1,783,648 on Wednesday – suggests that this approach to publishing doesn’t reach even that many fans of Quietude. This is hardly the first time somebody has done interesting work in the context of schools, summer writing conferences & contests that matter only to their participants only to have the work largely hidden away from the rest of the poetry world – think Jean Valentine – but it would be a shame if Kaplan’s poetry doesn’t reach a broader range of readers.

One might think of the two poems, “Change” & “Meals,” as sonnets in that each is composed of 14 numbered prose sections, each containing somewhere between one & maybe ten sentences. Both poems have painting as a point of reference – “Change” has an epigram that reads “—after Gerhard Richter.” Here is “Meals”

“To be excited not only by the mind but, at last, by a meal....”
                     Damiel, “Wings of Desire”


Wide brushstrokes are meals, black and green and orange. They descend and encroach upon the blue limited plate.

A poached egg that illuminates inward. And here on earth a light that doesn’t reach the foreground and is therefore not the cause of the colors one sees in these peaches. What is the cause? The painter’s mind, her own dual nature? Then there’s the skull.

My father without his glasses? A girl reading sheet music? Some meals are like stills from a home movie, half moving, half still. Some are as lurid as newsreels. So many different kinds of meals.

Two bowls of spaghetti. One is sharp but uneaten. The other is vanishing quickly and so the mind paints over it, actively malignantly abstracts it.


The restaurant makes me ache for the wilderness because it (the restaurant) is too exacting. Isn’t that sandwich too particular? That cutlet too resolute?

Yolks have cholesterol. Knowledge is elsewhere. What I’m tell you to do is make money, marry young, eat healthy meals. What I’m telling you to do has no depth; I don’t believe in these things. Where was I during the party? The back room full of violins splitting at their seams. Where were you when you should have been at work? The laundromat, watching Elsie’s potted plants shake on the spinning machines.

How much is intentional and how much is chaos? Eggs equal gravity. Flour equals dominant subject matter. Mustard equals the disturbance, getting closer to or further from the disturbance. Wine vinegar means that the rectangle, though disappearing, is still very strong.

When I paint I don’t exist. Then I eat.

The lines use red – a streak of sun or ketchup. I think “ordinary” people already understand this. A child: “how’d she make that scribble?”

Wind pushes the fork, rain sweeps away the knife. As in the development of any meal, we’re going to have to experiment. This is not the same as starvation. The children eat locusts in locust season. The parents know how much time between the bloating of the feet and death. Tick tock tick.

Otherwise, one can like rain, not too little, not too much. One can admire the particular green of new corn. One can send seed packets and water tanks. One can ask, all one wants, Would I share my last kernel with my neighbor?

One can like form or one can like chaos. A man was chosen to race against his own meal: “Go, man, go!”

Is it terrible to enter the mind of the hungry man. And so he recedes and the meal gains the foreground. Convenient and appealing – solid, for something so small.

The placement of the condiment is often a paradox.

There is a curious, perhaps even deliberate, inelegance to the writing here, the need, for example, to reiterate “the restaurant” in parentheses. There is also, just behind the surface of the writing, a figured landscape, a not quite identifiable referential frame. It is not a short story so much as it is a veil behind which one might just be taking place.

One can like form or one can like chaos. That is a wonderful sentence, one I’m going to remember for a long time. I find it interesting – and not at all obvious – that these two terms should be posed as opposites. Think, for example, of Jack Kerouac’s concept of wild form. It seems evident, reading these two pieces in Cue, that in this taxonomy, Kaplan likes form. But she loves the feeling that chaos is near. And it’s that dichotomy, exactly, that draws me so powerfully to this work. The reader senses it earlier, as well, in that fabulous eighth section. I for one am willing to put up with a lot in order to get to moments like those in the writing. They are what convinces me that Kaplan is the real deal.

Reading the two poems in Cue gave me the sensation that I was doing something akin to watching a potentially great & powerful swimmer, but one who is unwilling to let go of the side of the pool. I might prefer it if Kaplan were to spend less time at Yaddo and more closer to home at the Bowery Poetry Club or St. Marks. There are interesting things to be learned out in the deeper waters of the poetry community. But even if Kaplan holds back, I think it’s likely to be impossible for somebody with this much energy, intelligence & at least the desire for the desire for risk to be anything but fascinating to watch. I’m going to have to read more of her work.