Inside the Money Machine by Minnie Bruce Pratt

Inside the Money Machine coverReading these fierce, true poems about life under capitalism, I wonder why anyone ever thought that politics were incompatible with lyric poetry. Even as she focuses on the physical and psychological costs of hard work for little pay, Pratt makes the writing seem effortless: the poems catch you up in thumbnail portraits or brief narratives and generally don’t let you go without a gasp or sigh.

Two women lean into each other, staggered by catastrophe,
The plant fence out of focus behind them. They hold up
a crumpled paper, like the photo of some beloved lost to murder
or to war, the evidence of what lived a few minutes before:
My job, my other self.
(“Getting a Pink Slip”)

While some of the books I’ve read this month did not adapt themselves well to the book-a-day pace, this one did: not because the poems were always easy to grasp, but because reading them all in one sitting created a powerful gestalt, like the “field full of folk” at the beginning of Piers Plowman. Blue-collar, white-collar, resource extraction, manufacturing, service industry, retirement, unemployment, gamblers, demonstrators, the half-tired and the fully exhausted: it’s all here, the world of trying-to-get-by. Political messages are sometimes overt but rarely didactic, as in the conclusion of a poem that began with a female toll-taker:

…past the docks at sunset along the water, the cranes asleep
for the night, while the climbers, door-unlockers, thumb-
and-finger doers, the people who sat and thought high up
in the glass forehead during the day, have now gone home—

Past the ticket collector in the Turnpike booth, the woman at the end
of her shift, the woman who can raise, who can lower the barricades.

And when there is didacticism, it’s expressed with disarming simplicity, no hint of unearned ideological posturing:

Jobless, I never thought I’d hear
our niagra of sound going up the stairs again, never step,
immersed, into tens of thousands rushing to work. One molecule
in the many, carried along toward the purpose of our day.
It’s never really about the money, except for the guys at the top.
They know how to make money off of us. We know
how to make things with each other. That’s what we do.
(“Standing in the Elevator”)

Whether or not political poetry in general deserves its bad reputation (do we condemn love poetry just because 99 percent of all love poems ever written are dreck?), like many other kinds of poetry it can lead its practitioners into one or two habitual modes of discourse. Inside the Money Machine is much more catholic than that, with room both for an angry denunciation of the Army guy piloting unmanned drones from thousands of miles away (“The New Commuter War”) and for an understated poem of mourning for a temp worker’s inability to put down roots:

A Temporary Job

Leaving again. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t be
grieving. The particulars of place lodged in me,
like this room I lived in for eleven days,
how I learned the way the sun laid its palm
over the side window in the morning, heavy
light, how I’ll never be held in that hand again.

As I was making my way through the book, my brother sent along an AP story about the nearest small city to us, where he works: “Altoona, PA changes name to Spurlock movie title.”

About 31,000 central Pennsylvanians will soon be living in a joke.

Beginning at 1 p.m. Wednesday, the city of Altoona will change its name to “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” after the latest film by sarcastic documentarian Morgan Spurlock.

The city is changing its name for 60 days to make some money — and to help Spurlock make a point about the proliferation of advertising in American life.

Altoona isn’t broke, but it can sure use the money, and hey, the name-change is only ceremonial and temporary. What’s a little loss of dignity? We’re all like the sales clerks in “Selling the Brand,” willing to do whatever it takes to remain solvent, even if it means acquiring a new wardrobe, down to the underwear.

I was pleased to see two poems about issues close to my heart: “Tegucigalpa,” about the Honduran coup of 2009, and “Burning Water,” about hydrofracking for natural gas and last year’s oil spill in the Gulf. In the latter, I like how she focused on microorganisms rather than something more charismatic:

We hung our legs into strange bioluminescent foam
flung up by our wake, if we’d scooped the water
up with a glass jar as we did the air for fireflies,
we’d have caught eighty species, galactic diatoms
invisible to the eye, to us just some murky water
from the Gulf, which is licked over today with oil
from the blown-out rig…

Pratt has been around for a while — this is her tenth book — but she doesn’t show any sign of losing her sense of wonder at the nonsensical way we live.

How can it be that we are all going to carry our plastic bags
out the snapping doors, and get in our cars, and leave each other,
drive away to eat in twos or threes or one alone, me in a blue room
with a map of India to study, a novel open next to three sunflowers
in blue plastic bottles on the table…
(“Eating Alone”)

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