While reading Leslie Kaplan’s Excess—The Factory this spring, I followed local news of a group of mostly East African immigrants who were striking at the Amazon fulfillment center in Shakopee, Minnesota, a suburb of the Twin Cities. It is believed to be one of the first coordinated strikes at an Amazon facility in the United States. Kaplan’s book—first published in France in 1982—feels freshly relevant as labor issues in the US continue to dominate political conversations, though they have largely shifted from manufacturing to retail and shipping. Unions continue to be broken up by state governments and suppressed by corporations. Politicians seem to mostly care about jobs that pollute heavily (coal and cars) and they want to invest in “infrastructure,” meaning highways, rather than rail and renewable energy. Corporations are still owned by a disconnected wealthy class who intimidate and oppress workers. That Kaplan’s book still speaks to our time over thirty years after it first appeared is not a commendation of our culture. Credit to Commune Editions for making it available to readers of English.
Excess—The Factory is broken into nine sections titled “First Circle,” “Second Circle,” and so on. These section titles—mirroring the circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno—are exemplary of Kaplan’s political positions: they’re present, but she obscures them. Written in a flat, declarative voice, Excess—The Factory resembles, in some ways, the passive headlines about violence: “Man fatally struck by car;” “US drone strike said to kill 60 in Pakistan,” and so on. Take this line in “Sixth Circle”: “The hitting starts, there are reasons. The dress is torn with the skin.”
Or this, from “First Circle”: “You stop, you go to the cafeteria. Then you come back. Teeth bite, the dead meat is swallowed. You don’t eat. Where is the taste? You’re penetrated by odors. Everything is already chewed up.”
The passivity can be unsettling, as if Dante looked at the circles of hell and saw only himself being tortured. “You” have no agency in Excess—The Factory, you simply do what you’re told:
You are in the factory, you go on.
You unfold, you advance.
You move your thoughts a little.
However, the passivity, the “you do this, you do that” sentence structure, gives Kaplan a way to state facts and let readers come to their own conclusions. The poems in Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas adopt a similar tone, resulting in a sense of the collective “we” that would otherwise be obscured by the individual.
In their excellent translators’ note, Julie Carr and Jennifer Pap give context to the book and Kaplan herself, but also offer a glimpse into the process of bringing the text into English. Particularly, they illuminate their use of “you” in translating Kaplan’s third-person pronoun “on,” which they explain has more than one English equivalent. It can be, “‘one,’ a vernacular ‘we,’ or the generalized ‘you’ depending on context.” They go on to say:
We have translated “on” as “you,” which in English has the advantage of sometimes referring to the self, sometimes to a specific other, and sometimes to anybody. “You,” then, offers the floating subjectivities of this assemblage of persons made disconnected by the factory system.
The “you” in Excess—The Factory acts like the “you” in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, implicating the reader and the speaker at once. But again, the underlying sense of the collective is layered in as well: we are all “inside, in the factory, the universe, the one that breathes for you.”
Throughout, Kaplan is precise without ever being specific. “The Factory” makes cables or crackers or some ambiguous thing, but it is cluttered: “Piles of crates, boxes. This and that, rectangles.” Brands are mentioned, but in passing: Coke bottles in a list of trash; the Monoprix retail chain where “you” go, finding “objects spread out in their boxes, detached.” The sense that The Factory keeps people isolated from one another (and themselves) is ever present in these details. Isolation becomes so menacing and oppressive that late in the book, “you look at the easy life of objects.” Being inanimate is preferable to being an exploited laborer.
Kaplan’s circles loosely follow Dante’s: Limbo, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, Heresy, Violence, Fraud, and Treachery. Kaplan’s circles, however, more easily shade into others. The line, “The hitting starts, there are reasons,” is in “Sixth Circle,” ostensibly Heresy, but could just as easily be Wrath or Violence. And perhaps that is part of Kaplan’s point, that The Factory is so dehumanizing that it can’t easily be relegated to a single circle of hell. Another way to read it is that The Factory is a hell itself and its makers belong in every level of Dante’s hell. These multiple layered possibilities, whether it’s the allegorical parallels to Dante or the “you” pronoun that expands and contracts, move Excess—The Factory from plain propaganda into poetry. Where propaganda seeks certainty, Kaplan reaches for ambiguity to embody the boring, painful detachment of The Factory, whatever that exploitative labor looks like.
About the Reviewer
Timothy Otte's poetry has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Sixth Finch, Bat City Review, Reservoir, SAND Journal, and elsewhere. Other reviews can be found in Orion, Plume, Poetry Project Newsletter, and Chicago Review of Books. Otte is from and lives in Minneapolis, but keeps a home on the Internet: www.timothyotte.com. Say his last name like body.