Inside the Money Machine by Minnie Bruce Pratt
(Carolina Wren Press, Durham, NC, 2011)
It doesn't take the Great Recession to make Minnie Bruce Pratt's Inside the Money Machine a necessary read. But economic times do heighten the necessity of being reminded of the human lives behind unemployment and other economic statistics. Inside the Money Machine presents versified stories of, to cite the press release, "those who work for a living, out of the house or at home, from the laundromat to the classroom, from blue-collar construction sites to white-collar desk jobs...the people who survive and resist inside 'the money machine' of 21st-century capitalism." For example, from "Picketing the Bargain Store":
They say: We do not lack imagination. They watch
the boss try to harness them with word, threat, and trick.
They know he is out front getting photographed under
the red-white-and-blue Grand Opening banner, there
to remind shoppers of a national holiday, a victor's war.
They know we are inside fourteen hours a day, seven
days a week, once three days straight, no break,
one pizza a day to eat. Inside, they bend, grasp, lift
up onto the shelves the stuff for someone else's house,
bottles of bleach, welcome mats, thin pastel towels,
the green-and-gold peacock porcelain clocks,
each crowned head arched back to look at how well
it carries time in its belly. They make $2.74 an hour,
no benefits, no overtime. At night they sleep on the floor
of someone else's 99 Cent Dream Bargain Store.
They are here today to say: !Basta! Not us, not any more.
The book reminds me of Barbara Ehrenreich's two books on the working class, Nickel and Dimed and Bait & Switched. One depressing effect I gleaned from this book was how expensive for many would be the cost of a typical poetry book. $15, $16...? These are real monies to many of the people whose stories/personas are offered. Anyway, it's appropriate to raise Ehrenreich's analyses because a comparison reveals the validity of Inside the Money Machine--that is, if one wanted to present a discourse on a topic, an actual study based on good journalism often would be a more effective form than poems. But it is Pratt's poetic mastery--specifically lyricism--that makes Inside the Money Machine warrant its pages. For example, here's one poem in its entirety:
Opening the Mail
She used to work down in the copy center, and,
don't get her wrong, she liked it, she did. The big
xerox engines purred, paper rolled out like money
and shot into slots like a casino payoff. But this job,
there's something new every day, the letters come in,
hundreds, thousands, from all over the place, and she
gets to open every one. The message in a bottle, the note
when she walked out the door, the handkerchief dropped
behind him during the game at recess. She slices each
open with her knife, logs it and routes it to the other girls.
But her dream is to get a camper and follow the NASCAR
races. Six days travel and on Sunday stand inside the final
circuit of sound, inside that belly. It's not the same as on TV
where it seems like they are just going round and round. Not
the same at all, she says. Every moment counts, and the air
smells like burning oil. Any minute it could burst into flames.
The leap between the first two stanzas' narratives bespeaking the persona's secret desire of following NASCAR races (a passion I happen to witness locally every year when trailers converge from all over the country onto an open field across a car racing stadium) as well as the energetic ending "Every moment counts, and the air / smells like burning oil. Any minute it could burst into flames." is a creation possible specifically through poetry. It's a transformation also made manifested in the following resonant poem:
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.
The structure of the book also evoked a French movie I saw last century, entitled I think "The Secret Lives of Angels," which presented the doomed life of a factory worker who fell in love with a rich young man who'd come to toss her aside. She was friends with another girl who was a poor artist also working at the factory to make money. By "structure," I mean that Pratt occasionally inserted references to poem-making, reminding how the artistic practice might well be the most impoverished work path, from a purely financial standpoint. One difference between the betrayed lover in the movie who'd come to commit suicide and her friend was that her friend had her art--does this suffice in a world where rent and food requires a mad scramble? In a poem like the following, Pratt wisely avoids saying art is a guaranteed redemption and, instead, that Poetry just is--
Writing Poetry in a Rented Kitchen
Late at night silence settles down around me,
then comes the big tick of the electric clock,
then a whispered click like a syncopated
second hand, insistent phrase that stops,
starts, repeats again, finger tap I follow,
broken thread of sound, to the window.
A thumb-sized green lace-winged creature
staggers back and forth on the wire mesh,
marching with its flick and tiny flam of noise,
what I'll hear as I lie down in my strange bed,
a little bic pen in a nervous hand clicking
and writing down words I'll read in my sleep.
--even though the persona obviously feels some benefit from making poems.
While the frequent bleakness throughout many poems is logical, it's still sad that there aren't much occasions of redemption or burden-lightening, but maybe that just makes this a more accurate portrait, more authentic. In this sense, the book did not fail by the standards of its epigraph:
"The only danger is not going far enough"
Thus, the logic of the last poem:
If We Jump Up
Let new words leap out of our mouths.
Let our hands be astonished at what we have made, and glad.
Let us follow ourselves into a present not ruled by the past.
If we jump up now, our far will be near.
That's all that can be said. The possibly only alternative Happy Ending to the book that's based on capitalism is that one worked hard and became a multimillionaire. It can happen, sure, but the field is not -- has never been -- level: insider trading, anyone? legacy acceptances, anyone, for those applying to great schools? social, political, cultural, racial etc biases, anyone? But the poem does exhort, "jump up"! People should speak up, protest, act and not simply take abuse.
Ultimately, In the Money Machine is masterful for not delivering its politics through the elevated rant, logical though rants may surface. When Pratt says the following in "The Street of Broken Dreams", it comes off most effectively as a statement of fact:
We demand. Not rabble and rabid, not shadow, not terror,
the neighbors stand and say: The world is ours, ours, ours.
This insistence on dignity and respect is delivered almost matter-of-factly (even if, paradoxically, lyrically) and, in such non-hyped insistence, most powerfully. Pratt deserves kudos for the deftness with which she allows for nuances to communicate quite clearly.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects as she's its editor, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere to reviews of her books. Her newest book SILK EGG: Collected Novels is reviewed by Zvi A. Sesling in Boston Area Poetry Scene; by Michael Leong in Big Other; by Alan Baker in Litter; and by rob mclennan. Stephen Hong Sohn also reviews SILK EGG along with two other books, NOTA BENE EISWEIN and FOOTNOTES TO ALGEBRA: Uncollected Poems 1995-2009 at Asian American Lit Fans.