“For me, the act of writing comes out of query,” poet Sophie Cabot Black explains in a recent interview with The New Yorker. “Each image turns to the next with its question and gets answered. Or with its answer it gets questioned. Poetry is my way to understand what is difficult. How one thing can be explained through another—is to get closer, to unhide what feels hidden.”
In her new collection, The Exchange, Black entwines the transactions of Wall Street with more earthly moments of “exchange”—life trading with death, the checks and balances of friendship, sex in return for time, even the exchange of a child for the sacrificial lamb.” Here are the final lines of her poem “Closer,” which references Abraham and Isaac:
“…I keep taking you
Off the table and starting over. I once loved
What I brought to the market;
Now I just want to go home
With something I did not come here with.”
“In 2007, before the financial downturn,…I began to overhear the media speaking of terms like ‘derivative markets,’ ‘credit default swaps,’ and ‘hedge strategies,’” Black tells The New Yorker. “Such intentional language and heady-sounding ideas, which then got me chasing down the larger meanings behind the nomenclature of Capital, Margin, Risk, Return.”
“This world of finance fascinated me,” she says. “I began with the image of leverage, of how man could manipulate such large obstacles, desire even, with small calculations. Concepts like private equity, risk management, high-frequency trading—all opened into poems trying to explore what lies behind the curtain of the powerful few. And the language of that world, and of those who rule, or think they rule (or how we let them rule), reminds much of how we use Church.”The poems in The Exchange are taught, erotic, and spiritual, and they question the assumption that more is better in both our personal lives and in a capitalist culture that puts so much stock in the Protestant work ethic. Here is Black in her interview with The New Yorker:
“Stretching from those first European steps we have presumed much about our limits, our unlimitedness. Resources, equity, geography. Hubris and amnesia moving hand in hand over each frontier. We see ourselves as creators even if only with an option or idea; we act deserving before we have ever earned. I think this creed of ‘credit” as one of the most frightening admonitions to came out of 2008.
…This notion of something more, something better: where does it come from? Is this uniquely American? Human? If, as we have more we want more, when do we run out? Will we ever? When you think of yourself as student of the natural world, you run up against the question of what exactly is the un-natural—how do you take yourself out of the strategy enough to see?
…There seems some parallel between the concept that increase, whether it be access to reading, writing, technology, or investment pools, entitles one to ultimate success. But any shortcut (by the powerful), or endeavor of actual work (by the powerless), is resented by either side, and becomes a deterrent to full responsibility. The divine right of those in the closed old-boy networks is supposed to be giving way to all possibility, but what has been left by the wayside is the idea that the early American ethic came from work being done first for ‘God’s approval,’ beyond the individual, for some larger purpose.
As with sex, perhaps, we are, in certain ways, reluctant to talk about the machinations of finance, for fear of dispelling some mystery—believing that mystery is actually part of the transaction, much like the idea of how we want capitalism on the way up, and socialism on the way down. We are O.K. with the shrouded during bliss, but when we have to work on it we don’t do well with the accounting and recounting.”But don’t let all of this talk of “equity” and “risk management” give you the impression that Black’s poems are merely cerebral exercises. These poems have an emotional intensity as well.
In some of the book’s most poignant pieces, like in this poem “Biopsy,” Black writes about the illness and death of her dear friend, poet Jason Shinder:
“He is still afraid
And so I lie down first, which is to say nothing
Except I am not him, concentrating on the manufactured
Tiles above us, which came from somewhere far
And were brought by truck or rail to this city
Where in time they were laid one by the other
To make a ceiling, sky below which we lie
Picking out stars, as the needle enters the vein,
And we search for any possible constellation, something
Familiar to name.”
As Tess Taylor said on NPR, “these poems remind us of the ways we each pass through the stations of a life.” On the surface, The Exchange has a measured grace and elegance, which makes it moments of devastation even more surprising and powerful.
Thanks to Sophie Cabot Black and Graywolf Press for sharing these six poems with Gwarlingo.
How to be there, still at the center
Of where you first heard—washing dishes,
Late afternoon, the window.
No noise but the clear travel of water
Over your hands. This is how you come
To know heaven, when it is no longer
Possible. The sudden tilt of landscape
Into the one direction, the telephone
Put down. Now, to say it, word by word
Before someone else does, so when you are brought
Back by a child at the table, the dog
At the door, it is to explain this world:
The meadow you meant to walk all year,
That part of the woods you’ve never been.
What we bought we bought without knowing
The underlying. A system from before, practiced
By the many, was enough. Finally the future
Put to paper and signature. After which comes
The rest of not yet. In emptiness anything
Can be born. Using just one piece
Of furniture all else is made
To appear. Sink your hands into the over
And over, hang a hat, pull up a chair,
Sit down. The bargain is to admit
Entering a space more capable
Than you. Somewhere down deep the sole rock
Still bears us and each form filled out
Is how it changes into what we own.
I know what you search, going further
Than promised, your refusal to look up
As if something might never be found;
Leaning into familiar buttons, whole days
Lost to the spare room just off the hall
Certain none will hear the chair, the deep tilt
And rapture of a self amid so much.
The ready hands as if in prayer, your hair falling
Forward at each next site you cannot believe
Your luck: she says she wants you with everything
You have as you enter her flat kingdom of bed
And lamp enough you think yourself saved
For the wife who later comes to you, steadfast
Each time, only does not know where to begin.
Somewhere in New Jersey is the Center
Three miles off the interstate is whatever
Heaven might be to those who dream
Of a better return. Location is utmost,
Is everything, and here faster than imagined
Exchanges are made. This, declared everlasting
By brick laid in a pasture gone fallow,
One plan vast enough to house the many
Servers required to keep track of each
Transaction. This, the place money built
So money can build. Payment begins
Which is how you go in until you forget
The name of the agency that brought you here,
Any point of reference lost enough
That value appears everywhere. Who
Would hear as you run each formula
Into the night, examine what is wrought
In the cables, the ceaseless flicker. What
Can be made with just one push: this work of wanting
More than the actual. To watch yourself
Move in and out of all that truth
And beauty—to be in debt is to remain awake.
It Never Goes Away
I will try to know your death exactly
As you do. The moon has shown up tonight,
Coin in the palm of one we wait for, sunset
Long gone. So hard this practice to wake
Into no more light, not even in the place
You left it. Then each morning comes
And you are followed by the rise
Of landscape everywhere. We never know
How much it takes, this business
Of departure; you stare into ocean
Outdone by all you want. Enough
Of what continues. Here it comes again,
The turning of dark and dirt, unable to stop;
Love, even with everything to be sad about.
I can only do what is here. But you
Have an entire congregation of choice,
If you are who they say. The child
Believes you cannot be, just
Doing nothing. I watched, I asked
But also without going very far.
I took care of myself. I took care
Of myself, thinking much too often
I took care of someone else.
Everything feels like payment. In fact
We come into this paying. And you, who are
Nowhere to be found, who make
No noise, who cannot be smelled or tasted,
Wander through with all of us wanting you
At the same time. Oh to be wanted
Like that, for you to pull up a chair
And let your knees touch mine.
For one moment not to answer
The other call, not to look
Past my shoulder when something else moves.
About Sophie Cabot BlackRaised on a small New England farm, poet Sophie Cabot Black received a BA from Marlboro College and an MFA from Columbia University.
Black’s collections of poetry include The Misunderstanding of Nature (1994), which won the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award, and The Descent (2004), which won the Connecticut Book Award. Of her third collection, The Exchange, Publisher’s Weekly said: “Black weaves sheer elegance and devastating knowing” (starred review).
Black’s lyrical poems are both revelatory and elusive, exploring a landscape sharpened with grief and devotion. As a reviewer for the Los Angeles Times Book Review noted, “Sophie Cabot Black . . . is absolutely direct and absolutely removed—a strange confluence of tones that is both intellectually provocative and deeply moving.”
Black’s poetry has appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including The Atlantic, Bomb, Granta, The Nation, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Tin House, Poetry, and The New Republic. Her work has also appeared in various anthologies, among them Best American Poetry, Doggerel, Never Before: Poems About First Experiences, and anthologies from the Everyman’s Library Series.
Her honors include the Grolier Poetry Prize and the Poetry Society of America’s John Masefield Memorial Award, as well as fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College.
Black has taught at the New School, Rutgers, and Columbia University. She lives in New York City and Wilton, Connecticut.
For more information about Sophie Cabot Black and her work, please visit her website.
You can listen to Virgnia Prescott’s interview with Sophie Cabot Black here on the NHPR website.
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“Diagnosis,” “Somewhere in New Jersey is the Center,” “Real Estate,” “Online Again,” “It Never Goes Away,” and “Pay Attention,” from The Exchange. Copyright © 2013 by Sophie Cabot Black. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.