By: Dan Kaplan
Reviewed by: Michael Marberry
The National Poetry Review Press, 2008
“Let me guess: you knew a guy named Bill” is the sentiment that begins Dan Kaplan’s investigative poetry collection, Bill’s Formal Complaint—a group of thirty-two poems, ranging from sonnets to prose poems, that seek to answer one question: who exactly is Bill? Or better yet, what is Bill?
Of course, as is often the case, this question is not so simple as it sounds. The real Bill in Kaplan’s work is not so much a person as he is an amalgamation of postmodern forces, each demanding the utmost consideration from its host, being Bill himself. In many ways, Bill is a contingency, the eventuality of a mindset where one feels, paradoxically, a simultaneous link to and separation from all things. Thus, this Bill is always in constant flux, a character attempting to translate and negotiate meaning in the world around him—seen in everything from Bill’s linguistic explorations into Swedish, Hungarian, and English to his “week of dreams that make / everything of consequence: / a chicken in orbit, an armless orchestra.” The result is a Bill who feels highly recognizable and virtually indescribable.
Kaplan’s strength as a poet seems to be his insistence on being even-handed with Bill and his willingness to provide a protagonist who is openly (and sometimes exceedingly) annoying—a quality seen most clearly in Bill’s complaint itself, as the character laments his condition by allocating blame to others: “If mother hadn’t fed me with that busted / spoon, I’d be hilarious now.”
Though his work here is surreal and playful, not everything is perfectly executed in Kaplan’s collection. The poet’s investigations into cultural forms, like a medical dictionary (“The Definition, More or Less, of Brainwash”) and an atlas ("The New Rand McNally World Atlas, C6 210"), fall a little flat. Furthermore, the poems in which Bill fades into the background are noticeably less enjoyable than the ones in which he is front-and-center, in all his postmodern essence.
Bizarrely, this last weakness may be, in its own way, the greatest strength of Bill’s Formal Complaint—the effect being that we, as readers, eventually come to like a character that, for reasons mentioned above, we probably shouldn’t. We see a bit of ourselves in Bill. Kaplan’s collection hinges and ultimately succeeds on this little act of self-recognition. Is there any surprise then that when there is “Someone screaming ‘Bill!’ in the terminal, everyone [is] looking,” half-expecting to hear his/her own name called?
Michael Marberry lives in Tuscaloosa.