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Poetry & Money

By Aram Saroyan (& Oliver Conant)

Liars and Lorine Niedecker

By Aram Saroyan

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis. W. W. Norton. 2011. 213 pps.

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis. W. W. Norton. 2010. 270 pps.

Liar’s Poker: Rising through the Wreckage on Wall Street by Michael Lewis. W. W. Norton. 1989. 249 pps.

Lorine Niedecker: A Poet’s Life by Margot Peters. The University of Wisconsin Press. 2011. 326 pps.

Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works. Edited by Jenny Penberthy. University of California Press. 2002. 471 pps.

As he relates in Liar’s Poker, published in 1989, Michael Lewis was recruited by Salomon Brothers brokerage by lucky or unlucky happenstance. A twenty-something self-described professional student attending the London School of Economics, he happened to be at the Palace of St. James one night with 700 other guests for a dinner in honor of the Queen Mother, and was seated next to the wife of the senior managing director in Salomon’s London office, another American. It’s not hard to imagine him making a favorable impression.

I heard him on the radio recently talking about Boomerang, his book about the Euro and American financial meltdown. Along with The Big Short, these titles comprise a trilogy, moving from the more personal narrative of Liars Poker, in which Lewis tells the story of his own three years at Salomon, to the broader history of The Big Short, about the sub-prime mortgage disaster, and Boomerang with its still more global perspective.

Lewis is an engaging writer, good with dialogue, and manages to make the dark stories he retails engaging without skirting their nastier implications. The message throughout is that “capitalism with the brakes off,” to use Saul Bellow’s phrase, isn’t a good idea. Did we already know that? Probably, though it surely bears repeating. In both Liar’s Poker and The Big Short Lewis builds his narratives skillfully and includes nuggets of information about the inventive chicanery that predated 1987’s Black Monday and the 2008 market freefall that greeted President Obama as he took office. Money, we learn, is now its own commodity—another specialty item in our age of specialization, and subject to the kind of over-processed mechanization that, in a different context, gave us the brightly packaged, nutritionally bankrupt Twinkie.

The question posed by these works is whether entertaining journalism is, strictly speaking, apropos in a global financial implosion. In his wittily titled chapter on Greece in Boomerang, “And They Invented Math,” Lewis is a bit stern about the Greek penchant for expecting social services and perks without paying for them—see also his chapter on California—but without equivalent censure of the grand wizards, the master criminals one might say, of the marketplace. If the latter have stolen billions from their fellow citizens, is it more outrageous that these citizens would share a smaller-scale sense of entitlement—the actual trickle-down perhaps?

Lorine Niedecker: A Poet’s Life by Margot Peters reveals that one of America’s greatest lyric poets of the 20th century was scrubbing floors on a hospital maintenance crew in her late fifties and early sixties before an eleventh-hour marriage provided her a small measure of support in her final years (Niedecker died in 1970 at the age of 67). Peters illuminates her subject’s lonesome and poverty-seared life in a thorough, even-handed book that includes surprises. Louis Zukofsky, the love of Niedecker’s life and her literary mentor, was bisexual in his twenties and insisted that Niedecker have an abortion when she became pregnant by him. (She would have had twin boys.) After Zukofsky’s marriage, she lived most of her life as a spinster in a shack on Black Hawk Island, Wisconsin, for many years her deaf mother’s caretaker.

Here are two lyrics from Niedecker’s Collected Works, scrupulously edited and annotated by Jenny Penberthy:

Remember my little granite pail?
The handle of it was blue.
Think what’s got away in my life—
Was enough to carry me thru.


My friend tree
I sawed you down
but I must attend
an older friend
the sun

As attuned to the play of vowels and consonants as Zukofsky, a lifetime New Yorker, Niedecker lived most her life on Black Hawk with water very nearby and her work is full of plein air nature:

to see the lake
the still sky
out for an easy
the dragonfly

The biography comprises a gloss on the poems, revealing how much came directly out of her daily round. Low on the economic totem pole, she studies and celebrates Jefferson and John and Abigail Adams:

John Adams is our man
but delicate beauty
touched the other one—

an architect
and a woman artist
walked beside Jefferson

(Long face horse-name)

chicken raiser
wrote letters that John
and TJ could savour

Niedecker looks into the night sky:

Airplane or star?—so bright!
Star. I saw it last night.

And finds solace in her vocation, albeit only a lucky few knew about it during her lifetime:

...advised me
.....Learn a trade

I learned
...to sit at desk
.....and condense

No layoff
...from this

What Niedecker shares with the outstanding players in the skewed marketplace is an outsider status that, in different ways, seems to have spurred a heightened sensitivity and/or a capacity to concentrate, whether it involved blips on a stock monitor or intricacies of sound and sense. That a woman who spent a lifetime creating art that will continue to please and enlighten was fated to endure grim hardship, while others who wreaked havoc for millions continue to enjoy an absurd level of wealth is an ongoing conundrum thrown into ever-sharper relief.



The papier mâche cat in the window of
The Hotel Fred stretches and scratches—fixed
in one pose on its belly, while on its back
Mickey Mouse & Co. illustrate movement.

Down the long, silent street Hausmann facades,
art deco facades, harmonize in cream and gray.
Balcony windows and portholes reflect
the dawn of a day not yet arrived.

Everyone is still asleep on the Avenue Villemain
in Paris 2013 except me and the man
in the pup tent pitched on the sidewalk
turning over with a curse.

It is 5:35 a.m. The rich have won.

—By Oliver Conant

From January, 2014

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