30th Anniversary Special Essay: On Anne Winters’ “The Displaced of Capital”

Sixteen years ago, I asked Anne Winters if she would send me a poem for Tikkun; (I had been on the editorial staff, working on the poetry-end of things, since 1987, but had only recently taken on the role of poetry editor). Although she had published just one book of poetry – The Key to the City (1986) – it had widely established her reputation as a poet whose far-reaching originality was imbricated with startling detail, a formal plain-style virtuosity grounded in an ethical imagination that stays open to phenomenal mystery.

Like the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop (whose work has long been an influence), Anne Winters’ first book thrilled readers with her ability to create a verbally intense, credibly observed living world – in her case, the vibrant social world of New York City. Her poems are like intricate verbal tapestries that depict with sweeping movement of consciousness a human panorama; they have terrific forward drive, but they also have passages where the movement eddies backward through rhyme and meaningful micro-correspondences of image, sound & sense – they satisfy the palette that delights in small exquisite poetic turns as well as larger movements of narrative and meditation. The reader’s eye and ear are constantly engaged in fine, dramatically charged details and dynamic structures, the art of a storyteller with sympathy for sufferers of poverty, homelessness, and the disparities of race & class, and one with a keen uncompromising concern for how these social inequities, in the street-level day-to-day encounters between ordinary people, can push us out of our complacencies, our automatic mental processing and rationalizing of injustice. It’s as if she had invented a new elastic form for poetry that was paradoxically concise, that could somehow compress the knotted and expansive ethical drama of a Dickens triple-decker or a novel by Zola into a poem only several pages long.

When I opened the mail back in 2000 and read the poem she had sent me, “The Displaced of Capital,” I knew I was holding in my hands a signature poem. But of course there was no way to know that, following publication in Tikkun, “The Displaced of Capital” would announce the title of her second book, one of the most important and impressive books of poetry in the last 12 years. (The poem is reprinted in Tikkun’s 30th anniversary summer issue; it can also be found here).

Ezra Pound famously defined the epic as “a poem containing history.” Anne Winters’ poem, “The Displaced of Capital,” contains a history of capital’s displacement of laborers, from native self-sustaining economies to foreign economies of exploitation; but this poem is a tableau in miniature, an epic struggle captured in four short strophes about anonymous people caught in the gears of modernity; it’s a radically reduced epic poem, you could say, without an epic hero. The dramatic occasion is about as modest as you could imagine – the poet is walking down Broadway on a “misty late-winter morning” in the “ever alluring” city; she could be the kind of flâneur one might expect to pen feuilletons in turn-of-the-century Paris or Berlin (think Baudelaire, Benjamin, or Robert Walser). Here, though, in 21st century New York, the poet experiences a kind of vertiginous irony as the bourgeois scene of the city’s great marketplace gives way to “the subsistence farmers of chicken, yams and guava” located “thousands of miles to the south” and bought up by transnational corporations that convert the land to coffee and tobacco exports.

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                                                     [ . . . ] and now it seems the farmer
has left behind his ploughed-under village for an illegal
partitioned attic in the outer boroughs. Perhaps
he’s the hand that emerged with your change
from behind the glossies at the corner kiosk;
the displaced of capital have come to the capital.

Poems of depiction, no matter how tragic or heartrending the conditions and situations they depict, fail unless they put into action a set of insights that sharpen through the actions of language itself – that’s what poetic form is, no matter what shape it takes. Anne Winters is a master of such poetic form. When we read the poem’s opening line, “‘A shift in the structure of experience . . .'”, we can expect to experience some shift in the structure of the poem, in the capability of language to convey an experience that is simultaneously quite local and rather global. And we do. Just as the present awareness of the modern city’s allure shifts to the farming world of South America; just as the economy of that world shifts from subsistence farming that replenishes the earth as crops are harvested to a kind of farming that exhausts the soil however much it fills the coffers of big agri-business; just as the village in which farmers who ploughed the fields has shifted into poverty, “ploughed-over” by the force of capitalism; so too do those displaced by capital shift to the urban financial centers of capital – the capital, you could say, of capital – where they find new but not better work. The “change” that’s handed to the poet as she buys her Times belongs to such an immigrant man, grotesquely reduced, in the poem, to the bodily mechanics of this small transaction, even as the word “change” signals unfortunate circumstances and business as usual. It’s a set of brutal ironies.

By the strophe’s end, capital has become not just means, not just power, but also place: capital joins capital on a single poetic line. Those displaced by capital have arrived at the place of capital (capital’s capital, New York City), even as the word “capital” is compounded, like the cash that represents it. Language and form do this work in the poem. (The large-form sensation of circularity in the poem generated by the repetition of first and last lines in each strophe, writes Winters, came from thinking about “Ashbery’s praise of sestina, which like a bicycle ‘gets one’s legs moving in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.'” And, I’d add, the bicycle is a perfect image for a form that moves forward by virtue of many revolutions – of sprocket, pedal, wheel, chain: a machine that makes a line by making circles).

What is the structure of experience? Maybe it’s the relation between hard facts of the world and the subjective sensible individual intuition – what we call consciousness – that creates the context in which facts are understood as such. How can a poem help us understand “a shift in the structure of experience” in a way that meaningfully complements or is significantly different from what philosophy, theology, psychology, the physical & social sciences, and the available political discourse offer through other methods and forms? Maybe because poetry is the form nonpareil of intensified subjectivity, it can provide us with an experience that is itself structured – not information, or analysis, or a theory, but the structure of a feeling, what it’s like to exercise one’s conscience, one’s awareness, to do what is uncomfortable, and draw the lines that connect the dots that create a shape of understanding what reality is made of – for poems are themselves structures of experience; they are verbal objects experienced directly by a reader or auditor.

The displaced of capital have come to the capital,
but sunlight steams the lingerie-shop windows, the coffee bar
has its door wedged open, and all I ask of the world
this morning is to pass down my avenue, find
a fresh-printed Times and an outside table;
and because I’m here in New York the paper tells me of here:
of the Nicaraguans, the shortage of journeyman-jobs, the ethnic
streetcorner job-markets where men wait all day but more likely the women
find work, in the new hotels or in the needle trades,
a shift in the structure of experience.

Robert Pinsky has written of Elizabeth Bishop that her poetry contains “prose virtues” – that is, a certain discursiveness, and a trust in the sentence as a primary element. This too could be said of Winters. But of course it is not prose she writes, but poetry; and one sees and hears how the sentence as a unit of thought & feeling (and it is one sentence that makes up this second strophe) gains incisive power through the modulating suspense as each line, by turns, pauses at line-end, stops, or spills over to the next. This free verse movement conveys the feeling of a mind in process, thinking its way forward even as it reaches back to repeat key phrases; it’s felt as an action, but also comprises a verbal space, the space of the imagination in the process of creating a space for the imagination, a space in which the world is reencountered and given new countenance. She conjures the world, as it is: after all, she is not reading some visionary work in this drama of recognition, but rather the drab New York Times, which, because she is in New York City, tells her about where she is. What sounds like a tautology works as a form of return that corresponds to the circularity of mind that travels to South America and traces immigrant movement to New York: the shift in the structure of experience corresponds to a shift in the structure of perception, just as one hears a shift from some of the capital’s luxuries or luxuries of capital (lingerie, coffee, and even the news, that is also a luxury to be consumed in relative comfort) to the capital’s sites of exploitation, that is the exploitation of capital (journeyman-jobs, hotels, sweat shops). Confronted by her own growing understanding, the poet questions her presumptions about how things have always been, and even corrects herself, acknowledging, “no, it says here the displaced

stream now to tarpaper favelas, planetary barracks
with steep rents for paperless migrants, so that they
remit less to those obsolescent, starving
relatives on the altiplano, pushed up to even thinner air and soil;
unnoticed, the narrative has altered.

The streaming of migrants is a metaphor that readers – especially lately, with the constant reporting of the refugee crisis – will recognize as language from the newspaper. But Winters’ plain style, even if it draws a cliché from today’s journalism, is not accompanied by the newspaper’s straight-forward address. The sentence here twists and turns, gathering up strange original phrases and images: planetary barracks, paperless migrants, the surreal vision of starving relatives on the high plateaus being “pushed up” even higher to elevations that can’t sustain agriculture. Plain language combined with strange constructions and twisty sentences constitute Winters’ originality of style. But the trust we place in this poet is, I think, grounded in the tension she conveys at the center of the capital, of a single consciousness perceiving realistically, without exaggeration, the trap of comfort in which she’s caught:

as I think I’m thinking, can I escape morning happiness,
or not savor our fabled “texture” of foreign
and native poverties?
[ . . . ]

                         [ . . . ] so how can I today
warm myself at the sad heartening narrative of immigration?
Unnoticed, the narrative has altered,
the displaced of capital have come to the capital.

Part of that comfort is the capital’s promotional narrative of boot-strap self-actuating immigrant integration. But that narrative, too, has altered. How many of those displaced by capital, who are sent desperately scrambling to find safety and shelter and opportunity in the rich countries of the world, who arrive at one of the capitals of capital – how many are able, through hard work and good luck, to revise the narrative written for them by capital itself?

Unnoticed, the narrative has altered,
the displaced of capital have come to the capital.

As the line that starts the final strophe drops down to join the poem’s final line, one feels, through the macro-action of poetic form (a shadow or echo of the more elaborate repetitions of the sestina), the alteration of the narrative and capital’s ineluctable formal logic. With global displacement of people reaching a new high of 65 million, Anne Winters’ poem – because we’re here, in the capital – tells us of here: if we are capable, by virtue of this humane poem, of perceiving a little bit more clearly the shift in the structure of experience, the poem leaves us to ask ourselves, what’s next?

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