Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Exchange By Sophie Cabot Black

The Exchange
By Sophie Cabot Black
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1-55597-641-5
75 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Sophie Cabot Black calculates her poems into place, line by frozen line. The sharp chill and bracing rarified air within her stanzas catch the unwary reader by surprise. Only by stepping back, outside of Black’s sparsely worded but aphorism-laden constructions can one see the details of an elegant ice palace emerge from the blinding whiteness of her blank hospital-walled universe.

Black’s subject matter includes the numbing illness and death of a close friend as well as the frosted up finances of Wall Street traders. The poet looks at this material through a prism of starkness and Kirkegaardian- like spirituality.

In Afterlife, the collection’s opening poem, Black locates her version of heaven in the childhood from whence she came. The poet says,

This much I remember. But to solve
Where you are you must finish. Ahead a color
Best called white in a room that appears

Unlike any other. Everything used
To get there will fall away. And to look back
Is to watch the child lie down on the floor

In the exact outline and angle I once was
To see what I saw. To take on the precise edge of
How it ends is also where it begins.

Notice the two pithy aphorisms embedded above. Both bear repeating: “…But to solve/ Where you are you must finish,” and “…To take on the precise edge of/ How it ends is also where it begins.” Certainly Interesting. Undoubtedly Clever. And possibly, in the ensuing context, wise.

Confronting death is never easy. For a writer seeking immortality it can become doubly hard. Life’s fateful flaw shadows all of us from the moment of birth. The poet’s persona instructs the writer to walk the afflicted horse backwards in time,

Walk the road backward,
Thick with trees, out through to pasture

Where the bucket hangs ready to fill,
The truck cold, the doctor still asleep.
Your knees without mud, the handbook high

Upon the shelf, the needle as it waits for the question
Not yet asked. Morning untrampled…

Details show their universal depth and history in the poem entitled Biopsy. The poet describes the hospital room,

…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 the stars…

Chemotherapy, another hospital poem, portrays suffering in restrained but emotional detail. It’s consummately done. Perhaps too consummately done. It shows comfort, but also seems quite scary. Here’s the conclusion of it,

…think water, think water,
And he manages to make out one nurse
Up against the bright and it takes everything

To tell her what he needs, as if he had come upon
The one tree still standing, and understood
She promises nothing, who in her uniform

Was all that was ever asked for and who
Could hold him as he has never been held.

Early in the collection Black sets in place the curious pose poem The Son. It gives a very sparse rendition of the Abraham/ Isaac story, almost an outline until the very end. Abraham appears as a sad old man, a man who is a part of mankind’s past. Isaac is the game changer, the master of a new universe, a universe that celebrates life and understands the nature of luck.  Here’s the money lines,

…son who saw the end of day
as ecclesiastic, as blaze. Son who in time made all other sons listen to the
story of the old man who got all the way up and who without looking
back went over to the other side. Who disappeared as if searching for
other sons. As if done. Son who walked in quiet and calm, having come
back down, alone. Son for whom nothing was changed, was changed, and
in the changing changed the world.

The aphoristic last line delivers some impressive power that seems to echo throughout the book.

The poem High Finance deals with the manipulation of knowledge essential to a trade. The poet like Isaac knows what the stakes are. That’s her advantage. Black puts it this way,

…The uncertain
Is taken into accountas each of us
Prepares for more than is necessary

To be near what is almost  ours
And to watch for defect, even damage can be useful.
To have it all known, your business…

In the poem Preservation of Capital the concept of exchange strikes home with its dreadful life and death connotations. Here’s how the poem opens,

Risk as part of the equation means
You go nowhere without it. In one pocket
The noise of plenty; the other, dread. Each coin

Brought forth is explained
As necessary. You find yourself at the bank
Of a river where everyone gathers; you put

Children at your feet, divide the bread..

The poet injects enough ambiguity that the setting neatly switches from Wall Street to a biblical location in the same stanza, sometime in the same word. Consider how she uses the word, “bank.”

Isaac speaks in the last poem in the collection. He is facing a brave new world. His story reverberates. People gather, gain knowledge from Isaac’s story, then leave. The poem ends thusly,

…And here am I

Who withheld nothing. And there the white
Always in the tree. You go
Where you need to go until it does not

Matter. You do not matter. There is
The window. Open. Now go through.

Yes, life is a trade-off. Invest your time with Black’s exquisitely done, coolly delivered poems. You’ll be amazed at the dividends.

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