Susan Wheeler’s The Debtor in the Convex Mirror

Susan Wheeler’s The Debtor in the Convex Mirror

As many will know, I’ve been conscientiously looking at the poetry put out by literary journals today, trying to find their better offerings, and briefly commenting on them where appropriate. It’s a time-consuming task, and long hours can pass without my finding anything worth commending to readers. Currently I’m working through the Wikipedia listings, which have a rather academic bias, with several of the best-known journals unfortunately providing little or no material free online.

To these limitations must be added my own perspectives and sympathies. No one can appreciate everything published today, or even understand the aims of their various schools and movements. For that reason it seemed wise to supplement my own researches with academic works: reviews and critical articles emanating from those who have spent their adult lives studying and teaching contemporary literature. To that end I purchased Jennifer Ashton’s The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry Since 1945, {1} but found its illustrative snippets not very compelling poetry: i.e. it was more theory than craft. I have therefore bought Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell’s American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics, {2} and will be assessing the book in due course, when I’ve worked through the individual sections. At a first glance, however, the Introduction seems to be compactly and sensibly written, and each of the thirteen poets showcased is represented by a sizeable chunk of their work, a critical essay and references for further reading. In short, at 400 pages, it seems an authoritative, thorough and reasonably accessible work.

I’m starting with Susan Wheeler {3} because the one poem showcased (The Debtor in the Convex Mirror: after Quintin Massys, c. 1514) happens to be something I know a little about, i.e. Flemish art, European numismatics and late medieval political economy. Susan Wheeler is also well established, through her poetry, critical reviews and academic appointments. She earned her BA at Bennington College, and did graduate work in Art History at the University of Chicago. {4}

The Debtor in the Convex Mirror is a major poem, nearly 300 lines laid out in long lines, often broken in typography and reference. Here’s a typical snippet (lines 46-50)

So here you are.             Master.

said Friedländer, were “common possession, freebooty, fair game.”

A painting by Jan van Eyck eighty years before Massys’ glimpsed
And described in Milan but now lost, was its model: banker and his wife;

Friedländer is Max J. Friedländer, {5} an important though perhaps now rather dated authority on Flemish painting, and there are references to coin denominations, metal sources, contemporary prices, the Arnolfini Portrait, ange, Massys’ St. Antony, Jean Shrimpton, modern day music, Saint Eligius, other Flemish towns, Luther, Guicciardini, Chlepner, Hanseatic corn market, Bernays, Portuguese spices, Brooklyn, the Levant and Venetian goods. A poem peppered with scholarly allusions, therefore, and seeming to show a good grasp of its subject matter.

First the poem’s affiliations and aims: Lisa Sewell’s Introduction {2} speaks of her “polysemy and linguistic aggregation, juxtaposing contrasting dictions, from hip-hop vernacular to Middle English’ and adds ‘Announcing her indebtedness to John Ashbery with her title, Wheeler’s long poem ‘The Debtor in the Convex Mirror’ suggests that the accumulation of various debts (and uneasy guilt) are as much part of the twentieth-first century poet’s art as they were for moneylenders and their clients in Renaissance Antwerp.”  That puts the matter exactly. Guilt is indeed explored in the first section of the poem, where the tiny figure reflected in the convex mirror is taken to be the debtor – readers may want to look at the painting at this point. {6}

But the attribution seems odd. The painting has received various interpretations. {7} Many art historians recognize a satirical and moralizing symbolism, the couple representing greed and its attendant sins. Others, notably economists, see the opposite: goldsmiths and money lenders were losing the medieval taint of usury and becoming respectable. The wife divides her time between watching her husband carefully weigh the coins, and reading an illustrated book of hours. The convex mirror in the foreground discloses a man with a red hat, whom the art historian Jean-Claude Frère interprets as a thief, {8} which seems unlikely: he is inside the room and quietly reading a book. The figure is not much interested in the proceedings, moreover, and may be part of a quiet domestic scene, simply overseeing receipts being totted up at the end of the day’s business. Some have thought the image was that of the painter himself: such signatures occur and the features have a passing resemblance to Massys’, {8} as Wheeler herself acknowledges later in the poem. There is no reason to think he is a debtor, however: money changers did lend but the transactions were elaborately witnessed. {9}

In fact, when we look further at the details, many things seem odd. Let’s first add some background information missing from the poem: Antwerp was an important trading city when the Flemish artist Quintin Massys painted the picture of the Money Changer of his Wife around 1514. Much of its business at the time centered on the import of pepper from the Portuguese plantations in the spice islands, but the sugar trade was also becoming important: these were Spanish plantations in the New World, and the sugar was transshipped to German and Italian refiners. The city was also an international bourse and financial centre, arranging loans to European rulers. {10} In short, a busy financial center that foreshadowed many of today’s banking facilities, notably the currency exchanges necessary when so many different denominations circulated. Now we can look at some odd errors in the poem’s text. Milled coins appear a century after the Money Changer was painted. {11} The silver in coins of the period would have come largely from Kutná Hora, Freiberg, and Rammelsberg and not Bohemia: the great Joachimsthal discovery was not made until 1516. {12} The gold coin called ange-noble should be angel-noble: ange (angel) is the French coin on which the series was modeled. Excelente was indeed the Spanish gold coin of the period, but the gold pieces being weighed are more probably the Venetian ducat and Florentine florin (the Italian banking connection) and/or the Portuguese cruzado, justo or portugues (the spice islands connection).  {11} ‘What bought a sack a century before almost buys a sack now.’ Well, no: prices actually fell over this period. {13}

I could say more, but I hope this is sufficient to suggest we treat the ‘information’ conveyed in the poem with some caution. The erudition seems a little contrived, and we might also look ahead at this point to the strategy of the poem. The painting represents greed -> the figure in the convex mirror represents the debtor -> the debtor feels guilt because he has to borrow -> contemporary poets should also feel guilt because they borrow so shamelessly -> we understand the world around through words and images, which are also borrowed, taken out of context and therefore not necessarily underwritten by truth or reality -> our world view is therefore a collage or montage of media ‘events’ -> the poem faithfully reflects this situation. There is nothing unusual in these assumptions of radical theory, but they are assumptions just the same, unsupported by evidence or argument. Like everything else in political argument, there is something persuasive in them, or they would not find adherents. But the chain of argument can and should be tested. Why, for example, should today’s poets be ashamed of their borrowings? Poets have always borrowed. The point more at issue is what the borrowings do for the poem. Words denote social registers, spheres of discourse, audience appeal, and so forth. Mixing the mundane, academic and popular spheres produces certain effects, which poetry often employs. {18}

But I’m rushing matters. We should first check the poem’s setting, ensuring we judge it by its intended aims. Lyn Keller in her helpful introduction {14} places Susan Wheeler among the Language poets: ‘Like many of those associated with Language writing, her work foregrounds the ways in which language, especially the languages of mass culture, constructs our world.’ And, speaking of the poem under review: ‘she enters a particular moment of economic and ecclesiastic history: in the first capitalist center . . . Her concern is specifically with the redemption of “the grasping soul”, the soul in an era of capitalist acquisitiveness and of the problematic focus on the self.’ Foregrounding is the practice of making something stand out from the surrounding words or images, and an introduction to Language poetry is provided by the Modernist section. {15} Steve McCaffery sees its defining characteristics as a ‘consensual denial of the difference between poetry and theory’, and a ‘deliberate erosion of the fixed partitions between prose and poetic genres’. {16}

That mix of prose and poetic genres is exemplified by the style and typography of the piece. Another snippet (lines 277-283):

Car door bangs. Dark Brooklyn, dark
clattering night.

                        Though the lineage’s strong for the sons of moneylenders,

daughters    don’t carry.   The get the short end.  The debtor’s excuses
                                                                                                are many

for the false fealty of her deals.     

Given its discontinuous style, a collage of scenes, statements, borrowings and images, it’s difficult to summarize the poem properly. Readers can access its first thirty lines in Richard Howard’s article, {17} but a full analysis would probably require more time and patience than this writer or his readers are good for. I’ll just give some idea of the range of material in this simplified staccato summary:

Scene depicted. What coins would buy. Debtor in the convex mirror. Wife puts him to shame. What happens to coins. Friëdlander’s social comment. Van Eyck’s earlier painting. Beauty of ange (angel) on one side of coin and deformity of vice on the other. What Massys is hinting at. Antithesis to real art. Thérèse and Jean Shrimpton introduced. Mary and Martha. Today’s spiritual emptiness. Painting scene again. Figure in convex mirror is the painter. Other Flemish cities. Charles appears, who’s familiar with Flemish commerce. Meets and has designs on Anna Bijns. Luther, Guicciardini and Chlepner mentioned in passing. Antwerp scenes. New York scenes. Back to the figure in the convex mirror, reading, or pretending to. A disconnected stream of consciousness involving Charles, Massys, collectors, printer’s slugs (pun) and latterly New York. Debtor’s troubles. New York again. Banking receipts.

The debtor’s lost to our reflecting of him may refer to a dichotomy between the physical image as it is and our conception of it: words betray us. Sad country sack, negotiant, kneels in the dust to pray may come from Friedländer. B.S. Cheplner may have supplied the information on what contemporary coins would buy. I’m not sure who Charles and Thérèse are/were, but the other figures can be looked up on the Internet.

Do these details matter? Only to the extent that local colour has to be created convincingly, in poems and in novels. But this is a Language poem, of course, where authors commonly accept that language is flawed and unable to convey truth. {18} Similarly the out of date details: the poem is simply borrowing statements, probably here from Friedländer and Chelpner. A long section imagines the feelings of the debtor, who is probably not a debtor at all, as a later section of the poem acknowledges. So what? Language is deceptive, forever playing games with us. {19} Note also that the borrowings stay as borrowings, examples of what Lyn Keller calls the ‘cobbling’ together. Of course poets have always borrowed, but whereas they were once expected to improve on their sources (‘good poets steal’ – i.e. make their own) now the simple borrowing suffices. Indeed some of Susan Wheeler’s earlier work consisted of actual collages, scraps of paper glued together.

To return to McCaffery’s characteristics: {16} the poem conflates Language poetry and Language poetry theory. It illustrates a concept: the medieval debtor’s guilt parallels that of today’s much-borrowing poet. The poem is therefore close to conceptual art works, where ideas are more important than aesthetics, and the ideas are not always stimulating: ‘In 2002, Ivan Massow, the Chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts branded conceptual art “pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat … led by cultural tsars such as the Tate’s Sir Nicholas Serota.” Massow was consequently forced to resign.’ {20} Personally, I don’t find any of this poem reprehensible: the poem just seems rather disjointed, thin in content, robotic and pedestrian. The long lines hold their content fluently enough, but they are not poetry as we commonly understand the word. {21} They don’t explore anything particularly novel, or indeed explore at all. One statement follows another in the fashion of computer code (which interests Wheeler, incidentally). I’d prefer to read the original sources, or a thoughtful study of medieval trade and usury, whose concepts are still relevant to banking today.

What else could be written on such uninviting subject matter? Lots, I’d have thought. The life of paintings and painters. Detailed iconography of the painting. Business life of late medieval Antwerp. The Portuguese trade with west Africa: gold and slaves. The spice island sagas. New world sugar plantations. Silver mining in central Europe. Gresham’s law that operated on gold and silver denominations.  And so on. But that’s to miss the point: such poems would not be especially contemporary, what the Introduction calls ‘a generation worth recognizing is currently coming into its own, revisiting and developing established and emerging modes of poetic inquiry’. Only, of course, as Lisa Sewell knows, Language poetry has been with us for nearly fifty years, and was preceded by Ezra Pound’s Cantos, which this poem much resembles, though it lacks Pound’s gifts for phrasing, reference and mimicry. You’ve been warned.

End Notes

1. The Cambridge Companion to American Poetry Since 1945, by Jennifer Ashton’s. CUP, 2013.
2. American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics by Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell. Wesleyan University Press, 2007.
3. Rankine and Sewell, 290-319.
4. Susan Wheeler. The Poetry Foundation.
5. Flemish versus Netherlandish: a discourse of nationalism by Max Friedländer. The Free Library.
6. The Money Lender and His Wife (Also called Money Changer) .
7. The Moneychanger and his wife: from scholastics to accounting by Manuel Santos Redondo.
8. A History of Art in 900 Individual Masterpieces of Western Art: A History of Art in 900 Individual Studies from the Gothic to the Present Day, Part 1 Ingo F. Walther (Ed.) Taschen 2002.
9. The Nature of Money by Geoffrey Ingham. Polity Press, 2004. 112-121.
10. Antwerp. Wikipedia.
11. The Coin Atlas by Joe Cribb, Barrie Cook and Ian Carradice.  Spink and Son, 1990.
12. Medieval Silver and Gold by Richard Cowen. My Geology Page, 1999.
13. The Great Divergence in European Wages and Prices – from the Middle Ages to the First World War by Robert C. Allen:
14. Rankine and Sewell, 2007, 304-319.
15. Language poetry.
16. Ashton, 2013. Chapter 10: Language writing.
17. From the Boston Review:
18. Jacques Derrida.
19. Michail Bakhtin.
20. Conceptual art. Wikipedia.
21. Discussed extensively on the site.

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