Ledger

By Katz, Joy | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Ledger


Katz, Joy, Women's Studies Quarterly


SUSAN WHEELER'S LEDGER, IOWA CITY: UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS, 2005

JOY KATZ

At the close of her latest collection, Ledger, Susan Wheeler acknowledges having been inspired by, and having stolen from, scores of sources, including seventeenth-century religious poetry, Terry Eagleton, New York Times writer Frank Bruni, and the Book of Common Prayer.

Robbery is the point, since Ledger is about the inevitability and agony of debt.

Excess of influence is the point, too. It would take months to become familiar enough with all these works, plus the further sources cited in the poems, to deeply ponder their influence here. Don't do that. Part of the fun is the way Karl Marx, John Berryman, Stanley Kubrick, and the rest weigh in, lend context, and spin like so many talking heads on CNN. The allusions and quotes come so thick and fast, as they did in her previous books, that in the long, fragmented poems there's hardly a beat between Wheeler's voice and the chorus. The poems make a satisfying racket, like several pounds of change going around in a clothes dryer.

Among the crowd, I was surprised to not bump into Henry David Thoreau. Walden is an account of, and accounts for, a life, as does Ledger. Wheeler's book isn't an economic treatise exactly, but Money and God hit the road together in it. Wheeler inhabits the world Thoreau warned us about. Countrymen, we are seduced by stuff. Longing is narcotic. Consciousness is the new strip mall.

Yet it's oddly moving to stumble on someone's list of modest daily expenditures. Thoreau totted up the fourteen bucks he laid out for seed, a hoe, and a horse and cart. Wheeler, too, offers an intimate selfportrait with cash:

Three dollars fifty cents a celebrity magazine, buck fifty a cafe latte on sale.

A twenty and change for a belt with D rings, a fin for the xeroxing and mail.

Seven twenty the lipstick, thirteen coins the handouts, Susan B. a scone, stale.

Susan Wheeler likes accessories, buys her lipstick at the drugstore, gives dimes to bums, reads Us. Eats wrapped-in-plastic deli pastry. I'm amazed that any living poet wrote a book about economics, but I'm especially glad it was she. Not that the poems are glib: the intelligence at work in Ledger makes current genuflections to pop culture seem like so many Wendy's burgers.

If Thoreau believed surfeit leads to unhappiness, Ledger is a hundred groaning aisles. Wheeler didn't go to the woods. She lived several years of her usual life while reading Baudrillard's Essay on General Economy, Jonathan Williams's Money: A History, plus A Merchant of Venice, Pound's Cantos, etc. As she absorbed those books and thought about desire-while desiring a seat on a train, a Snapple, HBO-how could not the world around her, including memories of growing up and of her father, turn into a ledger? Life, Ledger posits, is just a series of financial and emotional transactions. It's all merch. What could be more American than such narrative and economic accounting, such unabashedly market-driven poetry?

The book spins outward from Wheeler's childhood, chronicling her personal history in terms of wanting things. On a road trip with her parents, she gets a crush on a "real! can of worms!" at Ye Olde Trading Post. Instead she must settle for stale candy sticks. (Her folks are giving in to their own desires, getting stoned in the car.) In "The Green Stamp Book" she is a girl "in the thick of yearning," pushing a doll around in a shopping cart while TV women long for weird, pricey stuff. This creation story begins with Can I Have. It's downhill from there, and it's a wild ride. Deep in debt, the poet embarks on a road trip with God, who disappears after her car is impounded, if he ever existed. …

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