The Heaven-Sent Leaf by Katy Lederer
Tender means gentle, affectionate, and loving. And tender also refers to money or goods in payment of a debt or obligation. The world and words of finance and love overlap, and it is in this realm that Katy Lederer’s second book of poems, The Heaven-Sent Leaf, takes place. This series of 45 brief lyrics takes its name from Goethe’s Faust where “the heaven-sent leaf” is printed paper money. If money comes from heaven, then it can save us all. However, as Goethe showed us in his tale, and in recent years as we have seen economic bubbles burst and in recent months the stock market plummet, it most certainly also leads to ruin. Lederer summarizes money thusly: “O Pale Pill, O Obsequious Friend to the needy and nixed, to the novitiates who play this mise en scène…/ O Smotherer. / O Ploughshare. / O Saviour and Deranger / Of the Senses.” The book is an extended meditation on this friend, smotherer, savior, and deranger of the senses.
The title poem opens the book and begins with the lines, “The speculation of contemporary life. / The teeming green of utterance,” which thrusts us immediately into considering duality. Speculation, noun: Contemplation, reflection, or consideration of some subject. Also, the engagement in risk for the chance of a quick and large profit, often through the buying and selling of commodities and stocks. The teeming green of utterance: think spring, rebirth, origin, possibility, money, the beginning of speech. The book continues to operate in this mode, later asking, “What’s the narrative gist?” and answering, “I am thinking in pairs.” The poems constantly talk about capital but also talk about life as we follow the speaker, a brainworker, through the “pristine white hallways” of her workplace, presumably a hedge fund, and through New York City, the city of money. (In the acknowledgements, Lederer defines “brainworker” as a highly educated white collar worker. The term comes from The Affluent Society, written by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith.)
Throughout the series the brainworker offers pointed observations and sharp critiques, ponders what it means to be free, and struggles to find a meaningful life in late capitalism where everything has become commodified. The earth is a dollar, the moon is a silver coin, and green leaves are plucked from trees and placed in wallets. The book is often a lament, sometimes humorous, and rarely, if ever, a celebration. As the series progresses the speaker sees coins as coffins and equates freedom with being penniless, realizing, “In this world, I am the surest thing,” seeming to find an authentic sense of self, or maybe redemption, through art as she waits “like an animal, / For poetry.”
Written in direct, plain language, the poems are all brief, only occasionally stretching onto a second page. The tone sometimes comes across as removed or flat which is appropriate for this cool world of commerce and pristine hallways. The brevity of the poems does not signal whimsy but rather intensity, recalling the tightness and complexity of Paul Celan. Often composed of fragments and brief phrases with end punctuation or natural pauses falling at the end of lines, there are only a few instances where sentences carry over to the next line. The direct language creates immediate, stark images: “In the hallways, we are killing time, / Its blood now thick and lurid on the freshly painted walls.” Many of the poems, with their bizarre images, have a dreamlike or nightmarish quality. However, even these moments in their strangeness are familiar, reflecting the dark underbelly of our daily lives: “At night the thoughts fall one by one / Like diamonds to the floor. / We sweep them up, the little jewels, / The little bastard trinkets.”
The poems also exhibit self-awareness, whether commenting on the narrative gist in one of the handful of poems titled “Brainworker,” or summing up the nature of the project as in “An Animal”:
How. How. How.
A feeling. Pen it in.
To form it, to make it a subject, a nugget.
To pen the monstrosity in.
To make a metaphor from daily life of what none of us knows.
To make a shape of it, imagine it.
To make of it
To want very badly to pen the thing in,
Make it stay,
Like an animal, howling.
Echoing Robert Graves’s famous statement of there being no money in poetry, Lederer writes early in the collection, “These poets speak of capital as if they had the least idea. / I ask you: what do poets know of capital?” In one view of the world, money is power. In another, language is power, and it is here that Lederer envies the poets “their will.” However, by the end of the collection, after a “long wait for the brain to unravel its bankroll,” the brainworker becomes the poet (which she’s been all along) and writes:
I have been on this journey for months.
From the back of the head to the river, it hurts.
I am singing.
Oh yes, I am singing.
My mind is at ease.
I will die like this, penniless.
The heart and the brain have traded places and the poet’s mind is at ease. The Heaven-Sent Leaf is a timely publication, reflecting the folly of our financial pursuits and suggesting there must be another way. The cold green leaf of cash is not heaven-sent and it won't deliver us from suffering. To live and die by the greenback is not the answer. There must be another spiritually profitable way to live unseduced by financial gains.
The Heaven-Sent Leaf by Katy Lederer