KR Reviews

“I wish more poets would write about money”: On The Market Wonders by Susan Briante

Boise, ID: Ahsahta Press, 2016. 116 pages. $18.00.

In the opening prose poem of Susan Briante’s The Market Wonders, “Towards a Poetic of the Dow,” the poet offers an organizing principle of her collection: “The poem and the stock market welcome speculation.” What follows is the poet’s exploration of the art of poetry, capitalism, parenthood, light and trees, the atrocities of current warfare, and the political lack of will to address inequality through a random consideration of numbers associated with the closing of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Near the top of her copious notes section, Briante explains how the Dow closing numbers that title the majority of poems in The Market Wonders led her to online texts used to “formally mimic the way the closing number of the Dow exerts an influence over our lived experience.” The success of the book hinges largely on how well a reader feels Briante has accomplished the complex task she has set for herself.

The Market Wonders is structured with great care: longer prose pieces open and close the collection, while poems titled by date and the Dow closing number are broken up into three smaller sections through two sets of poetic asides—titled “Meditation” and “The Market is a Parasite that Looks Like a Nest” in each. That each section focused on the Dow includes a separate poem running as stock ticker on the bottom of the page is but one of the formal ways that the author attempts to earn the line (from the first “Meditation” poem): “I am the avant-garde, I am the avant-garde, I am the avant-garde.”

Briante as examiner of art’s role in invoking change in the social, political, and economic arenas is apparent throughout her collection; her personification of the Market in each of “The Market is a Parasite that Looks Like a Nest” poems shows this inclination at its best. The Market in the first poem is equally physical and reflective. It scowls, fucks, aches in its feet and calves. It “wonders where the soul goes” and “worries he is nothing / but a pile of stones when he feels so much / inside of him slipping in and out of place.” The second Market poem shows a Market older, wiser. “Archeologists will know me better, the Market thought,” and we, too, should think. Or:

We know nothing but this living
the Market thinks, not to go on forever
without a beginning, middle, end
but a chance to learn something
else, a single breath
beyond this story, a book he saw
with paint-covered pages,
paragraph by paragraph erased,
whole neighborhoods,
friends, memories
turned white space, blind spot, skeleton, poem
in place of a thick life of prose and no one
to teach him how to read it.

If the Market doesn’t lose his memory in the “blind spot” of old age, it is lost at the moment “beyond” his life’s story. The final three lines of this last section of “The Market is a Parasite that Looks Like a Nest” are among the most beautiful and desolate in the entire collection.

Much like a nest, Briante’s poems are made up of whatever material is available. Her first set of allusive Dow poems weaves numbers, biblical references, proverbs, and more around the pain of a miscarriage. The second set of Dow poems build with trees and leaves, Gertrude Stein, death, drought, doubt, and the hint of a new child. Unlike the first set, these Dow poems do not always have a clear reference to associate with the title’s Dow number, which leads readers to wonder how necessary the titles really are to the poems individually. For instance, “July 2—The Dow Closes Down 9686” is noted to reflect on a Bartlett quotation, “I am here, I shall remain here,” that is tied to an unexplained war story that leads Briante to contemplate the world’s “softer boundaries”:

Physicists say the universe might be a projection
on the edge of a screen, shadow by the door
or the boundary between the Muskogee and Cherokee
nations more nothing than anything else
smash the smallest parts to see if nothingness breaks
. . .
this morning I saw the word “dog” in the hair
left in the bathtub and no matter how I turned
I could not get it to read “god”

The third and fourth lines of this poem highlight Briante’s exquisite use of line breaks in many of her poems; the poem’s movement from the physical world to spiritual questioning is equally strong. Yet the tie to the Dow Jones Industrial Average seems incomplete. This disassociation between the poem’s title and its content is even greater in the third Dow section, which carries a daughter, the devastation of round-the-clock news, physics, drones, and denominations.

As such, the market concept of her collection can seem forced at times, despite or because it is so carefully wrought. The economic ideas that Briante calls on readers to consider are not particularly avant-garde and, by the end of the book, offer no new economic structures that could meaningfully replace capitalism. The poems—most often collages of disparate thoughts and images—show incredible attention to craft and detail. Many contain lines of precision and resonance, even in the face of modern horrors. From poems in “The Lesson of the Nest,” the penultimate section: “A penmanship branches across sky, stiff as dialect, hard as the 14th amendment”; “An instrument might be a string of equations, technique, process, transaction”; “And by daughter I mean any obligation and by mother I mean any tragedy”; “I spend the day poem counting. One book gets you a job, two get you tenure. The poem machine turns factory.” Yet the poems, even with ticker lines as footers, are not as obviously innovative in a day when many poets utilize image randomization as a central method of form.

While countering the seemingly intransigent influence of market forces in daily life in The Market Wonders, Briante shows how her family confronts and conforms to the necessities of the market and asks necessary questions about what American society values and is willing to give no value. The book struggles to express a very modern conundrum about the reach toward a societal level of equilibrium—of ease and prosperity—that unfortunately belies the record of human history, so full of an individual’s tendency to self-interest.

Lisa Higgs’s third chapbook Earthen Bound was published by Red Bird Chapbooks in February 2019. Currently, Higgs is the Poetry Editor for Quiddity. Her poetry has been published widely, and her book reviews and interviews can be found at the Poetry Foundation, Kenyon Review Online, and Adroit Journal.