This austere collection of verse from the New England poet, her third, is a poised exploration of the confluence of money, illness, sexuality, power, and sacrifice. Composed almost exclusively of brief lyrics executed in limpid free verse, The Exchange has a polish that belies the intensity and intellectual ambition of its poetic concerns. If it’s occasionally monochromatic in its voicings, the book nonetheless represents an impressive feat of imaginative energy.
The Exchange—the title reflects both the idea of exchange as a place and as a transaction of emotions or demands—speaks to the reader in the voice of one who is troubled by the unseen, stoic yet weary, keenly attuned to paradox, and riven by sudden piercings of desire. “Atheism” melds the erotic and the metaphysical, equating the “journey of moving toward” both god and orgasm; “Summit,” “Closer,” and “Analysis” meditate on the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, eschewing Kierkegaardian contortions in favor of a deliberately flat prosody. Black cunningly takes Wallace Stevens’s famous observation that “money is a kind of poetry” a step further, turning the language of high finance against itself in poems such as “Seeking Alpha” and “Preservation of Capital,” where “risk as part of the equation means / You go nowhere without it.” Images of illness, death, and hospitalization are placed adjacent to Frostian tableaux of barns, of churches, of “pasture / cleared of stone and alder.” Biblical words—“increase,” “dominion,” “host”—take on a gravid ambiguity, poised between the realms of the literal and figurative. Black’s mind, it seems, is a bleak and terrifying place, calm and well-ordered, but relentless in its Aeschylean fatalism.
The Exchange seems thus a product of a particularly Yankee, Anglo-Saxon kind of sensibility, one very nearly imprisoned by its reserve and cool disdain for histrionics, yet marked by an inwardness and focus, a Puritan self-paring, that you don’t see much of in our hyperemotive age. At times you might wish for a bit more noise and violence to pierce the tightly controlled surface. Black’s signature form, a sonnet-like structure of four unrhymed triplets ending in a likewise unrhymed couplet, is elegant and streamlined, but it doesn’t vary much in tone. On the whole, though, the vision given expression here is satisfyingly complete, a lesson in “how we who wait for a sign should use / the already here.”