Poems for an Economic Collapse

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Katy Lederer’s poems are both romantic and political in nature. With their attention to formal and lyrical concerns, these poems tackle the problems of desire when it coincides with money and passion.

A Review of The Heaven-Sent Leaf by Katy Lederer

Karl Marx said “Logic is the money of the mind” and Katy Lederer’s The Heaven-Sent Leaf is a sequence of poems that examines the ways money is a kind of slavery inextricably bound to love.

Several themes emerge: the alienation of intelligent people, especially in the financial industry, as they make money, but long for meaningful language; class and the subjugation of women; and the impossibility of romance without finance. Her form is coterminous with these subjects: 13-line “phantom sonnets” that use several rhetorical devices, some of which I think work better than others. The sonnet is ideally suited to political and romantic questions, and particularly because the questions Lederer asks are unresolved or unsolvable, the ghost-like silence of the fourteenth line adds depth and beauty.

Lederer has a great facility with language, and often moments of beauty shine through her poems that ask these questions in interesting ways. As the economy contracts and worsens, these questions are especially relevant to our lives.

The notes inform that her title is an allusion to Goethe’s Faust, in which Mephistopheles has invented gold by printing paper money, which creates an economic bubble based on delusion and credulity. Lederer opens with “speculation of contemporary life,” which she calls “the teeming green of utterance.” Here, the chasm of emotional tension is activated in the reader, with complex relationships to money. Poets, especially, seem to have contradictory and resentful feelings about money: we frequently deserve it and need it to survive; but our art form gives us freedom, in part, because it has little to do with money.

The voice in The Heaven-Sent Leaf is a female poet’s voice, a most delightful one that is swayed by the motion of language; at its best, the wilderness of her language sometimes commands the direction of the poems—rather than direct them in a self-conscious way—and they are illuminated marvels. As the speaker of the poems is perplexed and fraught by the upward and downward momentum of money, she seeks in a personal way methods to free herself.

The poems use wordplay in important ways, as they “worry” the meanings of “green”: as money, as envy, as jealousy, as “to go,” and as its Old English root suggests, “to grow”—(“Like a kettle, a lever, a lathe, / I have used you” (“The Unseduced.”) “Intimacy” is a key poem—it conflates the political and sexual dimensions of money as a kind of desire, it uses long lines which mesh well with her form, and connects the personal and public histories Lederer is studying in dynamic ways:

“The surfeit of broadband, as well as this beautiful bed now bereft of our lowly ambition. / I’m lying here, there’s no one else, and the flowers that you’ve given me are wilting in the Slurpee cup. / There is ambient noise. / Noise of jet planes, / Desire”.

At the speaker’s most vulnerable moments, the poems engage with negative capability in raw and painful ways that whisper in the reader’s ear, as in “Kept”:

I dream of being ravished and astonished.

In the big branch,
On the burnished bench—

In the way that arachnids or caricatured figures
Must fuck one another.

Astonish me.

In the pitch trapezoidal room,
Before dark falls,
The catastrophe, waiting.

Kept by it, caged up,
The soul then is girlish.

The moon that is yellow
Reneges us.

“Kept” is a wonderful poem, although in other places short lines are frequently not able to maintain or create energy because their pacing is too fast, and they are also not harmonious with sonnets because not enough rhetorical momentum is created.

Likewise, there are a few other rhetorical devices that I do not believe are the best choices. One is the imperative repeated in the beginning of the book, “Let us” (“Let us think of the soft verdure of the spirit of this age as now inside of use and swollen by spring rain”; “Let us call them unoriginal. / Let us call them all these awful things”; “Let us slake this mind to nothingness,” “Let us call this the genius of time”) “Let us” is intended to make the connection between reader and writer more intimate, but it does so by commanding rather than challenging or celebrating.

A second device, a comparative that links two phrases separated with a comma as a fresh way of getting at metaphor, tends to be overused:

“My little instrument, my denouement”
“A congeries of feeling, a derogatory scene”
“There is something unknitting, some weak bit of skin”

These show a muscular manipulation of language, but the comma splice functions essentially as an equals sign, a hinge bearing much of the weight of the metaphor because the reading interest depends primarily on similarity of word sounds (instrument / denouement; congeries / derogatory; unknitting / skin) rather than requiring the reader to make imaginative leaps.

A final rhetorical device used frequently in The Heaven-Sent Leaf is the use of rhetorical questions. These are intended to create mystery and to maintain a continuous fictional dream, but they are risky. The rhetorical question is used by the writer to control the reader’s feelings without revealing her own. Because there is no answer—or perhaps only an answer the writer herself will not share—the reader is bullied into complying:

“I ask you: what do poets know of capital?”
“What’s the world that it has come to this?”
“And I wonder, does anyone swim in this river, I wonder, does anyone pray?”

Sometimes in poetry logic can overtake mystery and become predictable. Because my own aesthetics tend to be left-of-center, I don’t always feel Lederer’s authority during these rhetorical moments. Despite these moments when I think a certain amount of syntactical tedium occurs, made even more apparent because of the kneading of the “phantom sonnet” form, there are more often than not lovely, thoughtful, tender, and intelligent moments in these poems.

Obscurity in the best poems has a value that is superior to false clarification. The financial industry in the past year has apparently been de-regulated to a point that peoples’ unforgivable greed has ruined many lives. The Heaven-Sent Leaf is important to read since it considers this debacle in an authoritative, personal, and intimate way. Lederer’s poems are both romantic and political in nature, and because they are overwhelmingly driven by an intelligent, human, and female voice, they powerfully address this most central of issues. With their attention to formal and lyrical concerns, these poems tackle the problems of desire when it coincides with money and passion in contemporary New York City, a topic that confirms my everyday reality.

A book is ultimately an intimate encounter with a writer’s mind, and reading The Heaven-Sent Leaf is an affirmation of the tragedy that people with minds such as Katy Lederer’s do not always find both money and love in their lives, and should.

Sean Singer’s first book Discography won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.S. Merwin, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. He has also published two chapbooks, Passport and Keep Right On Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water, both with Beard of Bees Press and is the recipient of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has recently appeared in Memorious, Pleiades, Souwester, Iowa Review, New England Review, and Salmagundi. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers-Newark. He lives in Harlem, New York City. More from this author →