by Daniel Sarah Karasik.
Book*hug Press, 96 pp., $20, April 7, 2022, 9781771667357 Written by: Cy Pacht First of all, I do not want to review Plenitude. “Review” strikes me as narrow, juridical, prematurely conclusive. It summons images of stentorian judges in powdered wigs antsily stroking their gavels, weighing evidence, approaching a verdict: to read or not to read? Otherwise it evokes the nostalgic scene of televised film critics pondering whether their thumbs would go more suitably up or down. To some readers, who do not recognize authors and critics as ‘writers’ alike, it would appear wars are constantly being waged between the two groups. When the critic deems a book to be worthwhile, a truce with the author is reached, honored; when it’s found wanting or worthless, all bets are off. Plenitude, Daniel Sarah Karasik’s sixth book and second poetry collection, certainly falls into the ‘worthwhile’ category, while making me feel silly for pointing it out. Karasik is an expert leveler of dichotomies, reshaping or obliterating not just the ‘yea or nay’ arena of book-recommending, but distinctions like identity/universality, art/activism, passion/exploitation, Palestinian/Jew, sex/gender. (For those interested in mapping the dichotomies onto the poems, for the first four I’m thinking mainly of “messianic time,” “Where Tear Gas Can’t Reach,” “make/work,” and the tremendously moving “silences,” about the price of a Jewish “false calm” in Israel/Palestine. Sex and gender feature throughout, and can hardly be pinned to specific poems.)
Reconsiderations of identity guide the collection. From “messianic time” (“imagine there were no oppression to shape our identities. instead: / limitless forms of descriptive difference...”) to the magnificently provocative title poem, Karasik seeks whatever self might exist behind the bland facade of identity. The speaker of “Plenitude” celebrates themself, à la Whitman, with a fantasy of being incarnated with “a cock & pussy both.” It is an invigorating moment of discovery, and it’s also worth noting that this is the first book that introduces Karasik with “they/them” pronouns on the jacket; this poem reads as the “coming out piece” in the middle of the collection. A character soon emerges—a straw-woman stand-in for TERFs—to admonish the speaker for desiring female genitalia:
c’mon, admit that craving to appropriate a pussy (given all you have, all your enormous privilege) is, frankly, entitled—acquisitive.
But our narrator is undeterred, lacking any trace of bashfulness about ‘them-splaining’ the nature of vagina-hood to the TERF:
I say: do you believe these things are zero-sum? Like, when I claim dissatisfaction with my cock alone, and voice a wish to have a cunt also—do you think this requires someone else lose their own? As if the global store of cunts were finite?
The speaker of “Plenitude” is utterly confident that by saving themself, they can save the world. Self-actualization and living authentically will give others permission to do the same. The ‘plenitude’ of the book’s title, as I understand it, refers to the non-zero-sum quality of all forms of liberation in Karasik’s vision. In this particular poem, the noun refers not only to that, but to the feelings of fullness and abundance which would be conferred by a hermaphroditic, genderless existence. These feelings are challenged by the phantom buzzkill TERF inquisitor—more a pastiche of attitudes than an actual person—whose pretense of concern eventually collapses, revealing uncomprehending mockery as the true motive:
I’ve seen you in the patriarchy Saw you at that club one night The Patriarchy Nice tunes there Did you see him I saw him he was there And now he wants to be a she? a they—?
Ha ha ha Ha ha HA! HA HA! Guys maybe we don’t need to laugh HA HA—!
The scattered indentation is suggestive of transphobia crawling out of the woodwork, attacking from all directions. Constantly, the speaker is called upon to justify their right to a morsel of womanhood, of feminine self-identification, or anything which purports to contradict the cock that they carry. “But I make no claims of membership,” they confess;
I have no narrative to offer where from childhood I felt sure I was a girl. To measure by the company in which I felt at home, more likely I believed I was a book.
Their claim is softer than the haters and doubters assume: not that they necessarily are or want to be a woman, but rather
the whole of it, is just: I’d love to have a cock and pussy. Interchangeable to suit the day.
Are they merely trolling their interrogator? Is Karasik teasing the reader? Perhaps. (Read the poem and you will find that the last stanza certainly is.) But there’s always an impulse toward justice behind the games. In “Against the Law,” the speaker introduces a retrospective fantasy—what if they had been secretly wearing the tight panties their lover had gifted them, which make for such pretty selfies, while they were taking the LSAT? This bawdy thought experiment paves the way for striking observations about the equation of maleness, seriousness and authority in the legal profession. For law
is male in its forms of enactment, phallic in its sophistries, its stern Socratic certainties about the weight of argument in settling or discerning right.
Sounds convincing enough. Well, it’s a long road from panty-land to here. Karasik’s commitment to both whimsy and philosophical searching holds the collection together, as it detours through closets and riots, strikes and silences, settler-colonialism and indigenous rights, communism, socialism, autism, love, queer comradeship, the “polite knife” of liberalism, tight pants (in addition to tight panties, there is indeed a poem called “Tight Pants”), the creative process, protests in Hong Kong, Chile and Ecuador, and prison abolition. (I first became aware of Karasik five years ago when we met as volunteers at a writer’s workshop at Cook County Jail; it is heartening, in a way, to watch them continue in this struggle.) If these themes seem disparate, they converge in one vision of solidarity, with the abolition of gender the innermost layer in a Russian doll of abolitions. The only poem that gets a chapter all to itself, “trans-socialist,” is a manifesto of economic-erotic liberation politics. No more than five lines per page, blanketed by white space, “trans-socialist” defines and redefines itself at every turn, as in a public that would be good and safe for trans people ... as in a communism that would abolish debates over when and how to say “communism.” ... as in the condition in which gender is transformed because it’s no longer mobilized to serve institutions of social domination.
as in the condition in which gender is reborn as pure play. This societal rebirth through gender-norm-less communism is articulated bluntly and earnestly, laid out with a retro-commie yet futuristic aesthetic which wouldn’t turn any heads in the Twitterverse; but in published poetry this level of openness to speculation and something like nostalgia is refreshing. (Plenitude even bears the epigraph, “For my comrades.”) At the collection’s weakest, the poems come across as either obvious or jargon-laden, academic. “stages of grief” comes to mind. Here, we are bombarded with a series of abstractions about the “disclosure” and healing of pain (which kinds of pain?), followed by nebulous allusions to the “political mechanisms” that interfere with our healing (which mechanisms?), and talk of “dominant systems” and “foundational assumptions.” “portrait of the autist as a young whatever” shares this vagueness, as its title suggests. And for me, despite its reaching for greatness and universality, “trans-socialist” shares some of this schematic quality. I read an interview in which Karasik said they organize their ideas as Twitter drafts, and for all that the writing bowls me over, I cannot unsee an imagined 140-character constraint in the terser or slangier of these poems. On the rare occasions when Karasik fails to water either the humorous or the aesthetic in Plenitude, the poetry withers. If anything like the revolution Karasik envisions materializes, the anthemic pieces will become redundant, the sloganeering dated. But I suspect the personal poems, the cutesy and the imaginative and the sad ones, will linger for a long time. So will the political ones that resist abstraction, and I’m determined to thrust this book into the hands of anyone who insists on equating idealism with a lack of intelligence. This is a bold, clever book. Few writers attempt half as much as Daniel Sarah Karasik does here, and almost none can prophesy or spitball publicly half as gracefully.