Monday, November 27, 2017



The Market Wonders by Susan Briante
(Ahsahta Press, Boise, Idaho, 2016)

Author, essayist, activist, translator and poet, Susan Briante is an associate professor of Creative Writing and English at the University of Arizona. From 1991 to 1997 she lived in Mexico City working as a journalist for the magazines Artes de México and Mandorla. She has received grants and awards from the Atlantic Monthly, the MacDowell Colony, the Academy of American Poets, and the US-Mexico Fund for Culture. As well as being the author of two chapbooks and three books of poetry to date, she writes essays on documentary poetics and on the relationship between place and cultural memory.

The Market Wonders is a book about economics and the way in which it impinges on every aspect of society. It permeates the way we live. It is also a book about control and obsession. Many of the poems in this collection are titled according to the closing numbers of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. This is the extent to which these all-important numbers take center stage. The book charts the economic crisis and the crisis as lived experience, wage stagnation, loss of jobs, loss of homes, etc.

From 2009 to 2011 Briante recorded the closing numbers of the Dow and put the number into Project Gutenberg, Bartlett’s quotations and various search engines, letting the numbers lead her to lines from several sources such as Paradise Lost, The Odyssey, the Book of Revelation or fairy tales in which counting or accounting played a role and used them as starting points for her poems.

To a large extent the book is structured by numbers. Longer prose pieces open and close the collection while poems titled by date and the closing number of the Dow are contained within three distinct sections of the book. The first set is a compilation of numbers and biblical references and centers around the pain of miscarriage. The second set builds on the imagery of trees, references to Gertrude Stein, drought and the coming of a new baby. The final set centers around the birth of a baby daughter, drones, the atrocities of war and the constant flooding of breaking news.

These seemingly random thoughts and images allow the reader to connect with the poem on several different levels at the same time. In some sections a text runs along the bottom of the page which is redolent of the breaking news that streams across our television screens all day long. These texts connect to a greater or lesser extent with the poem on the page but also make up a running story if followed through from page to page to their conclusion. Some readers may consider this to be a needless distraction that does not add anything to the text while others may find the experience an interesting and absorbing one that mirrors the age in which we live.

In certain poems such as The Market is a Parasite that Looks Like a Nest, the Market is personified. 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.”

In the opening poem, Towards a Poetics of the Dow, Briante writes:

Poems should evidence some degree of control, but poets should be a little volatile. The poem is a high-risk investment, a long-term commitment. Like a big dirty city, it should make you feel

a little uncomfortable.

This book does just that. It is also wide-ranging in its subject matter with references to political events both at home and abroad, military deployment, racial tension, violence, the effects of economic recession and a brief history of childhood insurance.

In an interview with Whitney Kerutis, Briante makes the point that “[the] American economy determines value through accounting and recording. We monitor the rise and fall of certain stocks or the values of certain sectors of the economy. We base our understanding of our economic (and in many ways “national”) health on certain numbers and indices. That’s a choice. It’s not natural. The nation of Bhutan, for example, tracks Gross National Happiness instead of Gross Domestic Product. I wanted the book to highlight that obsession with accounting and documenting, and recording, as well as to use my life experience as another point of data for tracking the effects of those values.”

This collection is peopled with trees. Scattered throughout the text, they come in many forms and descriptions. There are desert trees, Texas trees, Old World trees, the Bodhi tree, the jacaranda, buttonwood, sycamore, elm and, most especially, the black walnut tree which is mentioned more than any of the others. They are our silent, ever-present witnesses who have their own cycle of growth and decay.  Unlike the market, the cycle is predictable, it follows a known and well-travelled course. The trees are a constant presence before us. Briante often refers to their leaves as being golden in the fall. Gold, too, is often viewed as a safe haven in times of economic recession.

These poems inhabit a desolate place. The seasons they are set in are either autumn or winter, the times they move through are momentous. They were written at a time of national economic crisis, a time that was followed by events such as the Arab Spring, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Black Lives Matter. Running in parallel with this are autobiographical accounts that revolve around house purchase, displacement, miscarriage, sadness and loss. Human frailty and vulnerability are never far from the surface. On the positive side, these themes are counterbalanced by the happiness of the birth of a daughter, marriage and a house move.

Briante is fond of invoking a sense of the Trinity in her poems. The threefold litany of firms: Bank of America, Merck, Pfizer, followed a few lines later by 3M, Alcoa, AT & T in one poem and Merck, Microsoft, Pfizer in another, attest to the way in which we have come to imbue corporate America with misplaced religious awe. The threefold schemata is carried through into other narratives as well: DIY, DIY, DIY and I default, I default, I default and also into nature itself: jacaranda, jacaranda, jacaranda and in a another poem: mimosa, magnolia, osage orange……..wood duck, gadwall, northern pintail…….hooded merganser, cooper’s hawk, northern harrier.  Briante’s obsession with numbers is one of the themes that is at the heart of this collection.

Credit should be given to the Quemadura Design Studio for the book cover that manages to convey several of the themes in the book. The airborne plastic bag at the mercy of the wind speaks of the volatility of the retail sector. The red lettering on the bag, which says “THANK YOU” suggests that the retailers are expressing their thanks for the goods that have been purchased but the bag, in this event, is empty. Turn the book around and you will discover the figure of a man walking on air. Somewhere among the thin wisps of cloud in an otherwise blue sky there is a road, a stoplight and a passing car. The cover gives us a feeling of displacement, of being at the mercy of the elements against a backdrop of constantly changing clouds.  The title of the book and its author is positioned at an angle rather in the manner of a name being stamped on a product.

Credit should also be given to Janet Holmes, the Director at Ahsahta Press, for the book design which presented its own challenges with the positioning of continuous text streaming along the bottom of some of the pages to enable readers to engage with the poem on the page and also with the text as it streamed throughout the book.

This is an adventurous book that charts new territory. In Briante’s own words:

I wish more poets would write about money.


Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His books include Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014),  Sleeve Notes (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2016) and Finding the River Horse (Littoral Press, England, 2017).

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