Dara Barrois/Dixon has been publishing books of poetry since the late 1970s and her work has drawn comparisons to poets from Wisława Szymborska to Frank O’Hara. Previously known as Dara Wier, she’s originally from New Orleans and is also the widow of the poet James Tate.
Capitalism It makes me feel about as low as asap makes me feel as if someone is warning me a snake’s in my path only it’s a pretty snake I’m in need of to make my life whole there are so many kinds of us coming in various versions of ourselves and one another there is, for instance, a type whose bold sense of entitlement is bolstered by an unquestioned innate sense of righteousness heady combinations something calling for constant comparison something sometimes useful other times blindingly obliterating to beauty grace love empathy sympathy insight courage insight courage humor love grace humor wit foresight generosity love humor truth empathy grace sympathy empathy sincerity grace truth beauty with courage adventuresomeness surprise love humor empathy kindness withholding judgment love humor empathy recklessness generosity love humor despair understanding love humor empathy recklessness love humor despair loving kindness love humor empathy humor joy sympathy love kindness courage
from Tolstoy Killed Anna Karenina, copyright 2022 by Dara Barrois/Dixon. Used with permission of the author and Wave Books.
I know you want to get right to the end, because that’s where most of the wildness, the pleasure, and the sheer cojones of the poem is. But before we get there, let’s spend some time on how she gets there, because there’s a lot to love along the way.
Let’s start with the title, “Capitalism.” My first thought was: uh oh. A title like that often leads to a Marxist screed which may contain accurate socio-political analysis, but tends to make for lousy poetry. But let’s also assume that Dara Barrois/Dixon knows that. If an experienced poet is going to tackle a subject like capitalism, then she’s got to know what she’s up against. So when the poem opens with “It makes me feel as low / as asapmakes me feel,” it’s the wit of “asap” that first attracts my attention. Ok, yes, it doesn’t sound like this poem is going to be a paean to Adam Smith, but alongside the tone of complaint I’m also sensing a bit of fun? And some sonic play between capitalism and asap?
The “pretty snake” that follows feels like another metaphor for consumerism’s attractions and dangers, though this one feels a little blurry at the edges – who is this person “warning me” about the snake? Is the snake dangerous, or a temptation, reminiscent of biblical midsadventures? Is capitalism the snake in the metaphor, or is capitalism the entity that tells us we need pretty snakes to make our lives whole? I’m reasonably clear on the general sentiment, but my sense is that it’s not just me who hasn’t fully worked out the details of the comparison.
I want to say something about this feeling of the speaker “finding her way” in the poem. I’ve often written in these essays about how I enjoy traveling through a poem without fully knowing what’s happening, that a bit of confusion or uncertainty can add pleasure for my reading experience. But in this poem it seems to me that part of the reading experience is accompanying the poetic speaker as she figures out what she wants to say. The uncertainty is hers as much as it is ours. There are poetic traditions that foreground this approach – the New York School, in particular, which included Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and Alice Notley, often emphasized this more organic, informal, style. It’s a different way of thinking about what a poem is — rather than a complete, perfectly-made language object, this sort of poem feels more like a visit inside an active mind. A mind that happens to be great company.
Of course, to a great extent this is an illusion – it’s no less difficult to compose a poem that feels off-the-cuff and exploratory than it is to compose a poem that is “perfect.” Ask a comedian about how hard it is pull off a “discovered” joke in front of an audience. But when it works, we feel a special connection to the human voice that’s generating the poem.
I detect this exploratory feeling most around the fourth couplet: “there are so many kinds of us / coming in various versions of ourselves // and one another.” I get “so many kinds of us,” and I suppose I’m ok with “various versions of ourselves,” but where are we all “coming in”? And after the stanza break, that dangling “and one another” – is that attached to “so many versions of ourselves,” so that we’re also coming in various versions of one another? Or is this “and one another” a transition to a new thought? Is this still about capitalism? Which version of myself is coming to this poem? I still have a sense that the speaker of the poem is feeling her way, searching, finished with her first witticisms about asap and the snake, trying to connect them to larger ideas about what it is like to live under the power of, but also in some sort of resistance to, our prevailing economic system.
The poem seems to find one way by focusing on those who thrive in capitalism: “there is, for instance, a type whose // bold sense of entitlement /is bolstered by an unquestioned //innate sense of righteousness.” Notice that this is the only part of the poem that has punctuation – the two commas around “for instance.” It’s a strange choice, because while it’s certainly grammatically correct, it’s not really necessary – we wouldn’t be confused by “there is for instance a type whose…” It does slow us down a bit, though. And the tumbling sensation I got from the previous section is now cleared up. As for the analysis: I’ve heard harsher critiques of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, et al. – in fact this description seems almost empathetic: that “bolstered,” sitting right under “bold” in the previous line, adds a bit of sonic comfort to the characterization — like a pillow! And the “heady combinations” aside almost – almost – seems to forgive these men for their indulgences. I mean, who could resist the heady combinations of a “bold sense of entitlement” accompanied by an “innate sense of righteousness”? Could you? Maybe. But that phrase, “heady combinations,” does something else: it ends the discussion on this topic. The poem doesn’t want to descend any further into a rant about Donald Trump or Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or Harlan Crow or whoever, although I suspect it could. So “heady combinations” will suffice – who knows, maybe if we all grew up the son of a semi-criminal industrial magnate, we’d… oh, let’s just stick with the poem.
So now we mercifully shift back to the original subject: “something calling for constant comparison / something sometimes useful other times.” Fair enough. That “sometimes useful” reminds me that I’m writing this essay on a laptop computer that I own in part as a result of capitalism. It’s a measured opinion, not particularly doctrinaire, even a bit bland, isn’t it? “something sometimes useful”? Where’s the Marxist screed when we need one?! For me, in this moment, it feels like the poem has almost given up, the “something sometimes” just can’t go full revolutionary, is on the verge of throwing up its hands. If we can’t even say anything truly nasty about spoiled billionaires, how can this poem take on capitalism the way a 21st century poem should?! Of course I admire the poem’s ability to side-step some familiar anti-materialist clichés, but I can’t help wanting more.
But then there’s a breath, a stanza break between the two parts of the sentence – and the fulfillment of a grammatical promise: sometimes this, other times that. And in the second half of the clause, the tether gives way. “blindingly obliterating” opens the floodgates. You can hear how suddenly the temperature changes with those two words – compared to “heady combinations” or “sometimes useful,” “blindingly obliterating” has an energy, a brilliance, an over-the-top-ness that is exactly what I’ve been waiting for.
Quick musical interlude: this moment in the poem reminds me of the gorgeous Chopin Nocturne in F, which I can almost play. It’s starts off as a moody, aching piece with a simple descending melody. There’s a B section that’s a bit more active and fraught, and then a return to the A. Nice. But instead of just closing down after the return to the opening motif, the piece just goes completely haywire, descending from a great height, floating on a downward draft from its original minor into major as if someone going for a contemplative evening stroll accidentally stepped on a roller skate and was transformed into a butterfly. It’s around the 4:10 on both of these recordings, if you want to listen.
Here’s one where you can get a good look at the performer’s hands:
And here’s one where you can see how the piece compels expression from the pianist, who I think also may be chewing gum?:
The connection for me between the poem and the nocturne is that sense of uncertainty in the early parts, the parts that are tentative, but which are slowly building up a kind of subterranean pressure, so that when it finally breaks out, you feel like you should have known that thing was about to blow the whole time.
Ok, so what happens? Nearly the whole second half of the poem is a list of abstractions. Clearly these are all concepts that capitalism is “blindingly obliterating to,” but it doesn’t feel like a complete list, or a well-organized one. And yet the chaos feels like part of the intent. Just as earlier we could sense the speaker searching around for a way to explain her frustration, why capitalism makes her feel “as low as asap makes me feel,” now we can feel her searching for the most valuable aspects of our lives that need to be added to the poem, as if to preserve them from complete destruction. It’s as if the poem’s careful, measured, and punctuated treatment of the “heady combinations” above have almost obliterated these deeper concerns from our vocabulary, and we have to rev the engines of our minds to find them again. Her desperation is what the repetition, and the incompleteness, conveys. This is what the poem has been looking for – it’s not that capitalism doesn’t have its uses and its logic, or even that there are other, more scientific ways to critique its structures. It’s that capitalism has no way to measure, nourish, or evaluate any of the aspects of life that are the most crucial to our existence. And that these values don’t come at us in a straight line, but in surges, in clumps, in cascades. Poetry understands this in a way that economics never will.
A few other things about the list you may want to know about:
- Most of the alphabet is covered except for mnop, v, and xyz.
- “humor” and “love” are the most frequently used words here (9 times each), with “empathy” next at 7 uses. “Love” also gets used as part of “loving kindness” so if you want to count that as another entry, “love” wins.
- There are some darker aspects to the list: “recklessness” and “despair” appear as often as “insight.” Feel free to meditate on the significance of this.
- “humor” is repeated three times in the second couplet, as if it is a springboard to other kinds of thinking, or as if humor is what the speaker returns to when she is doubtful or stuck. It also keeps us from taking this all too seriously. Doesn’t it?
- I want to add “community” and “transcendence” to the list. And “friendship.” My guess is you probably have a few suggestions yourself. I have a strong sense that the poem wants us to participate in adding to its list of values and concerns, and that the ending on the page is less about finishing the task, and more about handing it over to us to continue.
Poems are not capitalist enterprises. God knows they aren’t very successful in any of the ways that capitalism would know how to measure. And yet they persist, and we continue to value them. By the end of “Capitalism,” I feel uplifted, upset, amused, touched, motivated, understood, even bolstered by how Barrois/Dixon has given voice to my frustration, my helplessness, and my fury.