Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac, c. 1598. Oil on canvas 46 in × 68 in. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons courtesy the Piasecka-Johnson Collection, Princeton, New Jersey)

(Attributed to) Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac, c. 1598. Oil on canvas 46 in × 68 in. (Photo via Wikimedia courtesy the Piasecka-Johnson Collection, Princeton)


Sophie Cabot Black (Photo by Alexander Black)

Sophie Cabot Black (Photo by Alexander Black)

“For me, the act of writing comes out of query,” poet Sophie Cabot Black explains in a recent interview with The New Yorker. “Each image turns to the next with its question and gets answered. Or with its answer it gets questioned. Poetry is my way to understand what is difficult. How one thing can be explained through another—is to get closer, to unhide what feels hidden.”

In her new collection, The Exchange, Black entwines the transactions of Wall Street with more earthly moments of “exchange”—life trading with death, the checks and balances of friendship, sex in return for time, even the exchange of a child for the sacrificial lamb.” Here are the final lines of her poem “Closer,” which references Abraham and Isaac:

“…I keep taking you
Off the table and starting over. I once loved
What I brought to the market;

Now I just want to go home
With something I did not come here with.”

“In 2007, before the financial downturn,…I began to overhear the media speaking of terms like ‘derivative markets,’ ‘credit default swaps,’ and ‘hedge strategies,'” Black tells The New Yorker. “Such intentional language and heady-sounding ideas, which then got me chasing down the larger meanings behind the nomenclature of Capital, Margin, Risk, Return.”

“This world of finance fascinated me,” she says. “I began with the image of leverage, of how man could manipulate such large obstacles, desire even, with small calculations. Concepts like private equity, risk management, high-frequency trading—all opened into poems trying to explore what lies behind the curtain of the powerful few. And the language of that world, and of those who rule, or think they rule (or how we let them rule), reminds much of how we use Church.”

The poems in The Exchange are taught, erotic, and spiritual, and they question the assumption that more is better in both our personal lives and in a capitalist culture that puts so much stock in the Protestant work ethic. Here is Black in her interview with The New Yorker:

“Stretching from those first European steps we have presumed much about our limits, our unlimitedness. Resources, equity, geography. Hubris and amnesia moving hand in hand over each frontier. We see ourselves as creators even if only with an option or idea; we act deserving before we have ever earned. I think this creed of ‘credit” as one of the most frightening admonitions to came out of 2008.