Dreamlife of a Philanthropist:
Prose Poems & Sonnets

Janet Kaplan
Winner of the Ernest Sandeen Prize in Poetry
Published February 2011

Interest in Dreamlife of a Philanthropist starts with the cover, even from across a room: bright shiny red, with one oversized black carpenter ant crawling purposely—or randomly, could be either—toward the title. Thumbing through, curiosity is increased with the discovery that all of the non-sonnet poems have their bold, sans serif titles underneath the body of the poem, not so much inviting or guiding as finalizing or reminding; and that the “sonnets” in the subtitle are really prose poems made up of fourteen numbered paragraphs that are an assemblage (purposeful, not random) of cryptic observations, mini-stories, dictionary definitions, and quoted lines. Then when you begin to read the poems, you realize that the departure from traditional layout and form is the least of what’s new, even for prose poems.

One after the next is strange, amusing, true and… delicious. It might be just the juicy sound and look of the words— “The man wanted Peking duck. He was tall with scraggly ankles and a thick neck” (Travelogue). Or how words are corralled with other words—“A Cup, a field, a universe. A cat, a rose, a stray book” (Dreams)—wherein, through the list of six objects (and no verbs) we are taken from an interior, outside the window, and all the way up to the heavens, then back on a path through the animal-plant world to the table again—a wide and elegant swinging pendulum of images. It could be tenuously connected sentences sharing a repeated word in such a way as to insist on their association—“I’m waiting in the oven for them to come to their senses. I have a guitar, a kind of oven, which I play while pressing through the crowd, collecting coins” (also from Dreams). Or it might be a curious image (“the pelican takes up the entire house” –Travelogue again)—surreal, but still easy to picture—or a mounting series of images: “I’m being rinsed in a future bath. The future, which softens, no matter how the water runs. My childhood miracles, spun with utter conviction and a straight face. Grandfather mixes seven parts water, three parts soap, one part tallow. Grandmother washes her loneliness in the world’s... (One Hundred Years of Fabric Softener).

The effect is not unlike some of Gertrude Stein, only these poems do not mess with syntactical logic, and they are also not driven by political agenda, so on both counts you tend to trust them from the start. You know you are not reading non-sense (as some have said of


Stein) for its own mystifying, rebellious, musical sake; rather, they seem important— seem to hold something you need to know. Certainly they are each full and satisfying; the oems do not peter out at the end (the vertical-horizontal weave of each sonnet is too strong for that, and the title at the bottom of the others won’t let them).

Aside from the more surface play with words, this collection has a sustained richness, an irrepressible energy, at a deeper level. The voice is so consistently free of the usual taint of writer-ego—but at the same time is so steady and confident—that one almost gets the feeling that the poems have written themselves. In fact, multiple speakers claim these poems: first-, second-, and third-person point of view are all used freely. And when first person is used, it’s no more or less intimate or revealing than second or third; it’s more of an unanchored all-I. Whatever the point of view, the voice is not self-conscious and instead is rather matter-of-fact, allowing the poem to speak from its core, as in these lines from Life and Times:

I began like hens in sunlight, their brief souls in which there’s almost a spark. I’m winding down like a basement: shelves of urns and tablets, ashtrays, human forms. […] I became a stewardess singing businessmen to sleep, drank booze from their leftover cups. […] Now I’m mayor of a town known for symmetry.

or these from Long Life Restaurant:

The baker’s hands are a specialty, the butcher’s spit. The carpenters eat the table with their spoons. A cherub on the ceiling swirls a phosphorous cloud. God’s a light bulb, an elegant, serifed O, a pale body with its lentic dream of peace. […]

Because the observations, pronouncements, associations, and discoveries are not tied to a single ego or persona, the reader comes to believe and trust that anything is possible in these poems. We are open to the sense of mischief, both with words and with the basic building blocks of reality, and are ready to follow along. Each poem is a new stretch of uncharted territory, but we proceed (tiptoe, run) with a sense of curiosity, not fear or doubt. Kaplan leads us into each strange corner with such sureness that we are willing to go, honored to be there, and satisfied after each one that we have been shown a glimpse of something rare.

The ants pictured on the covers (and repeated as a graphic design element dividing parts in the Table of Contents and in the body of the book) may be a reference to the poem that ends “Make love on a mattress of ants” (Newscast) or a general illustration of other similar critters mentioned throughout—but more, I think, it lets the reader know at about what magnification the poet will follow a thought, and, likewise, how carefully you will find yourself listening to her words—and how greatly you will be enlightened.
•Ellen Clay


From DREAMLIFE OF A PHILANTHROPIST: In addition to the perfect “Little Theory” (already included on THIS website under the “Learn More” link as an exemplary prose poem), here is an excerpt from the sonnet “Animals”:


Just as it was proper to have public clocks and sundials, there would also be for the townspeople mammoths and speckled eels.


When these were no longer objects of artistic merit, they were removed. However, one can still see traces: a slimy skin, a second hand. The mayor often spends an afternoon dusting Town Square, where timepieces and beasts once lingered.

. . .



Janet Kaplan is the author of two previous poetry collections, The Groundnote and The Glazier’s Country, and her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, online and in print. She is the recipient of the Poets Out Loud Prize from Fordham University Press, the Alice James Books New England and New York prize, and grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Vogelstein Foundation, and Rattapallax Press (the Godot Grant in Poetry). She teaches at Hofstra University and Fordham University, where she is currently Poet in Residence.

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