From Our Staff | October 10, 2008

                               Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From Heav’n, for ev’n in Heav’n his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heav’n’s pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy else enjoyed
In vision beatific: by him first
Men also, and by his suggestion taught,
Ransacked the center, and with impious hands
Rifled the bowels of their mother earth
For treasures better hid. Soon had his crew
Opened into the hill a spacious wound
And digged out ribs of gold. Let none admire
That riches grow in Hell; that soil may best
Deserve the precious bane.

[Paradise Lost, Book I, ll. 678-92)]

As the economy continues to plummet like a falling angel, we thought we might take a moment to consider some books that have the love of money or the catastrophe of debt at their heart. Many of our staff were too busy stuffing their mattresses and minting bullion to contribute this week, but we welcome your own contributions in the comments below! (Note: if you’re a newly registered user, your comments will appear after the first one has been approved by our webmaster.) 

1. Katy Didden, Poetry Editor

Two books of poetry came to mind when we decided on this week’s list:  Capitalism, by Campbell McGrath, and The Displaced of Capital, by Anne Winters.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t track down Capitalism at the library, which could be a confirmation of its pertinence right now, as someone has probably sequestered it in their study carrel for close reference.  I looked it up on Amazon yesterday, and one copy was selling for around $80.00, but today the prices have gone down–a strange phenomenon which I find delightfully ironic, given the title of the book.  In any case,  I did find McGrath’s Road Atlas, which might be just as relevant to this list.  McGrath writes a series of prose poems about specific places, most of them cities in the US.  I’m a fan of the way McGrath uses consumer language in his poems-while I guess there’s an inherent irony in a line like “While Elizabeth shops at Costco, Sam and I play hide & seek/ among the bales and pallets in that vast warehouse of pure things,”  I think McGrath does not just critique capitalism, but admits its seductiveness.  Anyone who writes a line lamenting the theft of his “Incredible Hulk piggy bank” has something funny and insightful to say, I think.  Winter’s book, The Displaced of Capital, is also concerned with maps, though it is not panoramic America, but a close-up of New York City: Brooklyn, and Manhattan.  In “An Immigrant Woman,” a poem in ten sections, Winters recounts a personal history of Williamsburg tenements, and the neighborhood’s attempt to mobilize against the construction of a wider bridge ramp into Manhattan that endangers the tenement residents, and ultimately results in tragedy.  The book is a profound, elegiac history that traces the brutal effects of urban poverty, both  financial and cultural, mixed with the resiliency of those who live inside that poverty.  Check out the fourteen sonnets in “A Sonnet Map of Manhattan,” and the title poem, with its echoing line: “The displaced of capital have come to the capital.” 

2. Patrick Lane, Web Editor

I’ll start with a thoroughly unvetted pick — a pick whose quality is as uncertain as a batch of mortgage-backed securities. That is to say, a book a haven’t read. But it sounds both interesting and timely, and the selections I’ve read have been intriguing. The book is 1923’s Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Edwin Lefevre. It’s a portrait of the early days of modern Wall Street, which (as we sometimes forget) had seen plenty of panics and disasters before the Great Depression. Here’s a tone-setting excerpt:

Another lesson I learned early is that there is nothing new in Wall Street. There can’t be because speculation is as old as the hills. Whatever happens in the stock market today has happened before and will happen again. I’ve never forgotten that. I suppose I really manage to remember when and how it happened. The fact that I remember that way is my way of capitalizing experience.

The book is available in reprint, or you can read it online here. My second pick is for those who need a little levity with their economic crisis. If you want a little stock-ticker-tinged confection, you must watch the Coen Brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy (curretnly dirt cheap on Amazon). A comedy that begins and ends with a corporate president jumping from the 44th floor (not counting the mezzanine) has to warm the cockles of even the most miserly heart in this troubled time. The film also features a wonderful performance by the late, great Paul Newman.

Here’s a particularly brilliant sequence that to my mind is one of the greatest marriages of music and images in cinema:


3. Marc McKee, Graduate Advisor

As we make our rocky way through some of the extreme turbulence of late capitalism, maybe it’s a good time to reflect on work that reminds us of value that is less affected by the whimsy of the market, but that so often gets subordinated to the lucre-foraging seemingly endemic to our kind.  The first thing that this topic suggests to me is the late William Matthews‘ book of poems, Time & Money.  It’s been awhile since I paged through Matthews, but a return to this book is a jolt to the system.  In poems like “Mingus at the Showplace,” and “New Folsom Prison,” the way in which human beings are caught up in systems it is beyond their power to control is laid out in incredibly tuned language that achieves what I can only think to call a supple gravity.  “Art remember / a few things by forgetting many” Matthews says, in his poem “The Wolf at Gubbio.”  With these poems, Matthews’ poems forget not the dangerous machineries of our socio-economic systems, but the many ways in which these systems effectively work to silence or squelch the humans caught up in them.  Instead, his poems remember the humane responses of Art and community, as at the end of “President Reagan’s Visit to New York, October 1984,” a poem which finds the speaker giving a dollar to a black man with a squeegee as Reagan’s motorcade passes through midtown: 

Our creamiest streets were cordoned off so 

Pomp could clot them, and the walkie-talkies
sputtered each to each.  What had the black man
or I to do with this peacockery? 

The light turned green.  Under a soot-slurred sky
we gave each other a parting glance. 
What nation you can build on that, was ours.

Say what you will, under the circumstances, it seems brave to say that a nation is built between people more than money, even if contemporary feeling pulls the other way entirely.