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Vol. LXIII, No. 20
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
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Two Poets at Labyrinth Book Event Explore “The Erotics of Exchange”

Ellen Gilbert

In her most recent book, The Heaven Sent Leaf, Katy Lederer, one of the speakers at a Labyrinth book event last week asks, “What do poets know of capital?” Plenty, it turns out.

The name John Kenneth Galbraith is not ordinarily associated with poetry, but the program, cosponsored by Princeton’s Graduate Student Poetry Colloquium, was not your usual reading event. Sure, there was was existential angst to spare, but it was rife with what Greg Londe, a Princeton University English Department doctoral candidate who introduced the poets, described as “the pathos and surprise of money,” and “the erotics of exchange.”

Although her background is as an academic, Ms. Lederer has actually worked in finance, going to work every day with the young men (“the gold rush”) who “live” in mid-Manhattan office tower cubicles. Mr. Londe had observed that “The physical properties of coinage and paper” was a fair subject for this type of poetry, and Ms. Lederer reported that the title The Heaven Sent Leaf was taken from Goethe’s description of paper money in Faust.

Reading her poem “Me, A Brain Worker,” Ms. Lederer described the “global managerial network” in which she had worked, never meeting the 200 people employed in the Indian office of her employer, a hedge fund company, where her own coworkers “killed time” in “pristine white hallways.”

In “Intimacy, written right after 9/11, Ms. Lederer identifies Michael Miliken among “greedy hearts” and sees “flowers wilting in a Slurpy cup” as evidence of an unhappy culture.

An uneasy world was also the subject of a new poem read by the second speaker, Joshua Clover, who is an Associate Professor English and Critical Theory at UC Davis. Tentatively titled, he said, either “World System” or “Hot Money,” the poem observes people’s “blindered view of the future,” where no one really wants to talk about what’s coming, except that the word “China” keeps cropping up.

In fast-paced deliveries, Mr. Clover conjured “the artifice of Dow Jones,” and told capital not to “ever lie on the couch. . . googling” itself. A poem on long-term capital management mentioned what seemed to be every current world leader and the names of every foreign currency, concluding “There is nothing as beautiful as the yuan.”

Amid his monetary musings, Mr. Clover managed to sneak in a word or two about the movies, noting that “When I go to the movies to cure my boredom/I do not want to see boredom represented,” adding “Take that, French filmmakers!”

Mr. Clover is the author of two books of poems, The Totality for Kids (2006), and Madonna anno domini (1997), which received the 1996 Walt Whitman Award. Describing his most recent volume, Judith Butler wrote, “In this brilliant volume, the fragmented world of a late and lost modernity has it own moving and lucid affect, its forms of aliveness. We encounter here an enormous clarity of language in the service of a poetics that brilliantly queries our historical moment in and as form.”

Ms. Lederer’s books include Winter Sex (2002), and the memoir Poker Face: A Girlhood Among the Gamblers (2003), which appeared on Publishers Weekly’s list of the best nonfiction books of the year, and was named one of Esquire Magazine’s eight best books of the year. Her poems and prose have appeared in the American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Harvard Review, GQ, and elsewhere. She has been anthologized in Body Electric, From Poe to the Present: Great American Prose Poems, and State of the Union, among other compilations.

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