Bill’s Formal Complaint
by Dan Kaplan
The National Poetry Review Press 2008
Reviewed by John Deming
Kill Bill Vol. 2 (see Vol. 1)
A couple of weeks ago, Matt Soucy reviewed a book called Bill. That book follows an everyman character called Bill, and is written by a man named Bill. The book I’m reviewing, Bill’s Formal Complaint, is also about a Bill. Except it’s written by Dan.
Bill and Bill’s Formal Complaint both sustain a generic character called Bill—so immediately, each book compromises the other’s potential for originality. But the existence of both titles also proves each author’s thesis, in a sense; Bill is common. Says Dan Kaplan in his book’s opening poem: “The question is: who doesn’t know a Bill?”
True. Here’s a Bill:
Here’s another Bill:
And here’s another Bill:
In Kaplan, we develop again the sense that the name Bill, in its commonality, belies any single person’s capacity to possess it. Bill is a stick figure, a flipbook animation—the idea that all humans are related by the simple fact that they live life and have experiences. The notion of the generic everyman is also counterbalanced by the essential fact that an “everyman” doesn’t exist. He is imaginary; the world is made up instead of individuals with individual cells and individual struggles. What would Bill Clinton, Bill Murray, and Bill Cosby talk about if they sat around the dinner table together? They would tell each other great new things, sure. For that matter, throw in Bill Walker, that big aquarium-owner who used to live across the hall from me.
Though he constantly undercuts his “generic Bill” idea (“There’s Pecos Bill, / Big Bill Broonzy, Bill Bixby…”), Kaplan’s Bill is a bit much. For starters, he’s in too many poem titles. There’s “Hammocked, Bill,” “Bill’s Dream,” “Bill Translates Swedish,” “Bill Translates English,” “The Love Life of Bill,” to name a handful. In a number of these, Bill is mentioned only in the title, not in the body of the poem. They don’t need him. The best of these, the book’s namesake, “Bill’s Formal Complaint” begins:
If mother hadn’t fed me with that busted
spoon, I’d be hilarious now. And given
proper chance, I could cleanly shuck
the sharkskin pants off a runway model…
We don’t need “Bill” to intuit it is a cultural universal, or perhaps an American universal, to apply blame when things ain’t right. These lines demonstrate some of Kaplan’s greatest strengths: using outlandish ideas or examples to reinvigorate common concepts. One could easily “blame Mom” in a variety of familiar ways—that boring “my parents screwed me up” argument. But Kaplan’s Bill places value on being “hilarious” and on “shucking” the pants off a model. The sentences are stated simply, the voice of an everyman, but the absurdity also deprecates the principle at hand; blaming others for one’s own unfulfilled ambitions is really just denial—and to commit this kind of denial is the real absurdity.
But again, most of the poems with “Bill” suffer as a result. They are trying to do something, and appear desperate to fulfill a heavy-handed concept. I got sick of reading his name. The concept doesn’t work; I’ve read better books by lesser poets this year. With Bill nowhere in sight, Kaplan shines brightest (the “concept” might imply that Bill is in these poems too; believe me, he’s not). Read gems like “Question #2” and “Today #2” and you’ll see my point. There is something crazed in Kaplan:
Sunlight clamps the grayish buildings,
swells their height. Note to self: tweak wiring
behind the cloudless backdrop, watch
as needled skyline pricks the sun with dark.
He writes poems that stand alone and don’t need a concept, or a name, imposed upon them. I’ve seen too many books lately that rely on one repeated “name” throughout to serve as an everyman, as a metaphor for everything and nothing: Bill, Victor, Roger, even Hitler. The “one great metaphor that encompasses everything” idea is too simple. The heavy-handedness might be “the point,” but even when Kaplan surprises us with his own name (“Dan”) in the final poem, we’re reminded what a boring device everything-and-nothing name repetition is. In fact, the worst poem in the book (titled simply “Bill”) is little more than an attempt to fulfill this concept: Bill this, Bill that, Bill doing this, Bill doing that. The only line that sticks out it is “Bill giving a last over-the-shoulder look.” Goodbye, Bill. Hello, Dan.