It has been the constant sensation that things (literally) don’t add up. Expenses have moved so far out of the range of normal and salaries have stagnated for so long that your income can put you in the middle class—and yet the expenses of medical care, home ownership, child rearing, and/or retirement (just to name a few) make you economically vulnerable, force you to make impossible choices, or both.
And so our whole notion of working class/middle class/upper class has become destabilized.
To me the fact that many of us don’t actually know where we fall within the spectrum of the lower 99 percent signals a kind of economic dysmorphia that keeps us from understanding how we are both victims and beneficiaries of late capitalism. Without that knowledge, it may be impossible to imagine solutions to our current problems.
HOW HAS THE GREAT RECESSION AFFECTED YOUR POETRY?
Even before the Great Recession, I was working on Utopia Minus, a book that takes its inspiration from “found monuments:” abandoned commercial properties, the remains of a bull-dozed apartment complex, the ruins of economic boom and bust.
The opening poem from that book, “The End of Another Creature,” contains the lines “The Market migrates; the Market scatters across the Metroplex./ The Market dreams…” I was responding to the constant personification of the market in the news media: “the market reacts,” “the market sheds gains,” etc. I wanted to explore that personification further. Who would the Market be? I imagined this bumbling baby-boomer and turned him into the central character for the chapbook, The Market is a Parasite that Looks Like a Nest. I don’t think the market is bumbling, but in a post-boomer generation, you grow up with the rhetoric of idealism, the War on Poverty, for example. To see how far we've come from that idealism to this radical inequality suggests an impotency as well as irresponsibility that was appropriate for the character I created.
As the recession cut deeper, I looked for a way to demonstrate how the stock market seemed to lord over us all, whether we were invested or not. I began recording the closing number of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Then I plugged that number into search engines: Google, Project Gutenberg, Bartlett's, even an e-version of Paradise Lost. I let those searches lead me to texts and let those texts exert their influence over a series of poems much in the same way the closing number of the Dow exerts an influence over our lives. I am finishing a full-length manuscript from this project under the working title $INDU or Ghost Numbers.
At a time when people are in the streets standing up against the economic system, it’s important to question poetry’s role in this movement/moment. What can poetry do? Sometimes I want to call for a new confessional—an economic confessional. What’s in your bank account, Poet? Who paid for your down payment? What do you owe? It’s not about getting at any kind of smug epiphany or feeling sorry for ourselves, but we have to locate our place in an economic continuum before we can honestly define our needs, understand the needs of others, activate our sympathies, act for change.
PLEASE SHARE A POEM(S) ADDRESSING YOUR EXPERIENCE:
From Utopia Minus:
3000 BLOCK KINGS LN—DEMOLISHED APARTMENT COMPLEX
central set of 8 steps to the courtyard,
small rock garden,
kidney-shaped pool, 8-feet deep,
blue flox, purple crepe myrtle,
white plastic laundry basket
in a parking lot beyond cyclone fence
Apartments for Rent
1-3 Months Free Arignon Realty,
railroad ties, cracked foundation,
It’s all George’s fault in black spray-paint,
and black-eyed Susans
to which I feel no relation
From The Market is a Parasite that Looks like a Nest
The Market scowls,
crosses the street against traffic, settles, hovers
over a spread-sheet with his administrative assistant
as if it were an infant, sleeps in another bed
after 3 ½ years of marriage,
can only sleep on half of the bed
after 43 years of marriage, sees a coffin
in shop window, grows nostalgic
for shop windows on crowded city streets
where men made picture frames, repaired
television sets, piled tools in doorways, nursed
machines to roast and grind coffee,
a press to print newspaper. The Market wants to apprentice,
cannot apprentice, looks like a nest in a tree. The Market
is the parasite that looks like a nest in a tree, howls
through the ventilation system, hairless, blind, a newborn
calf sleeping on your chest, the curdling Market
whose milk has come in.
From $INDU or Ghost Numbers :
OCTOBER 15—THE DOW JONES CLOSES UP 10062
I thought if I wrote it all down, if I tracked it, if I consulted tickers and windows, measured blood flow, read the rise and fall of my accounts, the tarnish of leaves,
I would see the world differently
a veil would tear, a web would sparkle dew strung, rope bridge
a newspaper would curl at the bottom of the driveway, inverted pyramids of morning,
to capture the innocuous day
I thought I could feel these numbers in my hands like Whitman at the rail of a ferry
gauging the vibrations of an entire nation
networks of pop and ping, 40 years of economics.
The Dow rose above 10,000.
My dog scratched his ear. Numbers lay down in their ledgers.
Rains cleared, but the cold arrived. The unborn kept their distance.
A lamp buzzed on its timer.
I made a dinner of brown rice, buttercup squash and kale.
some [thing event] or my body in its [suchness]
(Poem first appeared in the journal 1913)
ABOUT THE POET:
Poet, translator and essayist, Susan Briante is the author of two collections of poetry: Utopia Minus (Ahsahta Press 2011) and Pioneers in the Study of Motion (Ahsahta Press 2007). Of her most recent collection, Publisher’s Weekly writes: “this book finds an urgent language for the world in which we live.” Briante’s poetry has appeared most recently in Canteen, Third Coast, and 1913. She has also published a series of essays on the relationship between place and cultural memory some of which can be found in Creative NonFiction, Rethinking History and The Believer. She is an assistant professor of creative writing and literature at The University of Texas at Dallas.