by Joyelle McSweeney on Oct.17, 2013
This new Kill List poem by Josef Kaplan is easily the best work of conceptual poetry I’ve seen in a long time. I’m an expressionist, not a conceptualist. But let’s face it, conceptualism, as Inger Christensen would say, ‘exists’. This particular conceptualist poem works for me because it invites us to consider an idea, and invites us to turn that idea over and over for as long as the idea interests us. Then it invites us to delete the idea. This is a great poem for FaceBook, for conversations heatedly engaged upon and then abandoned because other pressures such as the need to sleep or shop or nuke a burrito became more compelling. The deleting is part of the ‘reading’. This concept will self-destruct. Unlike a drone.
As for the concept: we are introduced to the phrase Kill List, which for most nice liberal American poetry readers will conjure ideas of drone warfare or revolutionary violence or the opposite of a no-kill shelter or some kind of fatal indexing. Then the poem presents us with 68 pages of alphabetized poets’ names, grouped in sets of four, each identified as ‘rich’ or ‘comfortable’. Like, ‘Caroline Bergvall is rich’ and ‘Jim Behrle is comfortable’.
One senses that this ranking of the poets into the dubious bourgeois or ultra-bourgeois categories is the bait we’re supposed to gobble up. And yet. I just read Inger Christensen’s Alphabet, in Susana Nied’s translation, last week with some students, and I can’t help but focus on that ‘is’.
‘Kill List’ could be read as a litany, it could be reading off a library shelf. The indexical adjustments of ‘comfortable’ and ‘rich’ have a nice, well, ‘comfortable’ sixties feel to them, a now- out-of-touchness, a vagueness. Like ‘don’t trust anyone over thirty’– as expressions of acute political crisis, kind of sweet. In our current context, these could be financial terms or refer to perceived social assets or even how interested the author feels in these poets–or it could be random. As 2 goes into four (ie the binary of rich/comfortable into the 4 line stanza), there is also the alphabetical order itself. Sweet old alphabetical order. Humans made you, and humans love you. But nothing humans make is innocent. Not even orders of knowledge. Moreover we are invited to read these 68 pages as a computer would, scanning for names (names are the only element that changes), data mining an index for names we recognize. Like a drone-operator or a drone. Attention or recognition here is itself weaponized.
This is where I link Kill List to Inger Christensen. Re-reading Alphabet, I was very taken by the poem’s smoothness. It has the smoothness of a big fat bomber high up in the strangelove sky. As it glides, we glide, we can see the whole horizon line of the earth, cities and species and chemicals all becoming visual in the reading-scape of the poem. [nb, I think Kill List is a very retinal poem, since consuming its well-designed pages, its nicely serifed, landscaped font, is so very easy. It’s so easy to consume this book, to be an early adaptor of the predator’s visual viewpoint. After all, computers as we know them were developed in the 20th c. for work on the H-Bomb, for calculating shock waves. The Internet, as we know, is a military installation]. As each noun in Christensen’s poem comes into view, the poem remarks it ‘exists’. But I also felt this word ‘exists’ could function as meaning the opposite– each of these things ‘exists’ at the exact moment it leaves the planet. Alphabet is as much a cold war poem, ‘existing’ in the split second between the dropping of a nuclear bomb and its impact, as Kill List is a drone war poem. Both invite us to think about how poetry ‘exists’ under the aeriel penumbra of war. Both make us realize how puny ‘existence’ is, how puny ‘is’ is. The incommensurateness between the title’s reference to the supposed ‘inhumanity’ of drone warfare (I think drone warfare is humanity itself) and the poem itself might be the point of this poem.
No order of knowledge is neutral because it is tainted with human’s killer instinct. We like to call ourselves ‘sapiens’ because we draw up the very best kill lists and the very best robots or enlistees or acolytes to carry them out. As the very smart J. Robert Oppenheimer remarked, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” Or, nuclear bombs exist. I myself am drone.
Maybe Adam’s MFA thesis in the garden of Eden, naming all the animals, was the first Kill List in western culture. Everything that can be brought into the order of human knowledge is also on the demolition list.