My Poetry Corner October 2020 features the poem “Going Out of Business” from the poetry collection Inside the Money Machine (2011) by Minnie Bruce Pratt, a lesbian-feminist award-winning poet, educator, and activist. The following excerpts of poems are all sourced from this collection. Born in 1946 in Selma, Alabama, Pratt grew up in Centreville. She earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Alabama in 1968, where she met her ex-husband. In 1979, she took her Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of North Carolina.
After her ten-year-old marriage, Pratt divorced her husband in 1975 to live as a lesbian, upending her life as a privileged white heterosexual woman. Living in Fayetteville, North Carolina, at the time, she lost custody of her two sons under the state’s “Crime Against Nature” law. Her loss and grief shaped her morality and led her to a life of activism for women’s rights and specifically lesbian rights. When she shared her emotional journey through shame and anger in her poetry collection, Crime Against Nature, published in 1990, her sons were too old for their father or the law to prevent them from being a part of her life.
After thirty years of adjunct teaching, punctuated by several stints of standing in unemployment lines, Pratt joined the faculty of New York’s Syracuse University in 2005 where she played a key role in launching their LGBT Studies Program. She retired in February 2015.
The poems in Inside the Money Machine were written during the fallout from the 2007-2009 Great Recession when 8.7 million Americans lost their jobs. Today, jobs lost during the Covid-19 pandemic more than doubles that number. Pratt’s poems focus on life for the 99 Percent of American working-class men and women during tough economic times.
We’re not machines, you know, Pratt says in the opening poem of the collection, “All That Work No One Knows.” There’s only so much we can take, / always more than we can, until we can’t… // The fumbled load we carry, the jumble, our lives unknown, / we who make and are shaped, we who hold and are held.
Workers of all kinds inhabit Pratt’s poems: people who prepare and serve our meals, farmers, supermarket check-out clerk, home health workers, office and call center workers, postal workers, hairstylist and manicurist, female ticket collector in the Turnpike booth, flight attendant, longshoreman, and more. They toil in low-paying jobs for long hours—unfulfilled, invisible, exhausted, trying to get by from day to day.
In “A Pile of Dirt at the Museum,” the poet observes:
The people stand in the photograph, in a basement or in an underground / parking lot, their arms upraised, palms flat up to hold up the weight / pushing down on them. They are pillars, the foundation, the unseen / holding up all that is visible…
The woman in “Making Another Phone Call” says her job is awful, awful, the hours, / some days nothing at all, then it’s come in / at 11 a.m. or 9 p.m., then nothing again. / The money is bad, and it’s so boring. Boring. / All she does is annoy people, calls them up / and annoys them… She wants something more meaningful in her life, but it’s beyond her reach.
In “Waking to Work,” Pratt reflects on the emptiness of our working lives. How do we go on? Longing for something bigger than us. / But not this now, not this buying and selling. If we could each / make what we can, take what we need, and that be enough—
Life is uncertain, especially during an economic crisis. Firms, large and small, go out of business. Millions are laid off and forced to join the long lines at the unemployment office. Lives are devastated. In “Getting a Pink Slip,” Pratt shares her experience of receiving hers in three ways from the school’s president: by e-mail, by phone, and then by a written letter. He’s mis-spelled my name, she recalls. In the last stanza, she notes that we lose much more than a job:
Two women lean into each other, staggered by catastrophe, / the plant fence out of focus behind them. They hold up / a crumpled paper, like the photo of some beloved lost to murder / or to war, the evidence of what lived a few minutes before: / My job, my other self.
The poet again addresses having been unemployed in “Standing in the Elevator”:
Jobless, I thought I’d never hear / our niagara of sound going up the stairs again, never step, / immersed, into tens of thousands rushing to work… // It’s never really about the money, except for the guys at the top. / They know how to make money off of us. We know / how to make things with each other. That’s what we want to do.
In the featured four-stanza poem, “Going Out of Business,” Pratt questions our way of life under our current economic system, the meaninglessness of our making only to have it tossed aside.
Time is running out for the Ames Discount Store, and we know it, that’s why we’re here, roaming back and forth, up and down the aisles, looking for something we can afford in this tomb of things made by someone else, somewhere else. I know… What will happen to all this stuff? More than we can buy, but it’s so sad to leave it behind, buried here. The days and nights someone like me sat, cut, glued, stapled, folded, hurried to finish one more piece.
In the final short poem of her collection, “If We Jump,” Pratt expresses her belief that we have what it takes to add meaning and value to our lives not found within our current economic system. It’s up to us to make it happen.
Let new words leap out of our mouths. Let our hands be astonished at what we have made, and glad. Let us follow ourselves into a present not ruled by the past. If we jump up now, our far will be near.
To read the complete featured poem, “Going Out of Business,” and learn more about the work of the poet Minnie Bruce Pratt, go to my Poetry Corner October 2020.