Today in the PEN Poetry Series, PEN America features a poem by Allyson Paty. 


How many ways to dry up the money little blue flame crowning the stove.

It was an economic history, a political history, a familial a cultural a personal history that brought me to this apartment.

In this history I am sometimes a victor & sometimes not.

Anything I did or had could be given a name & a value.

I required money even before I was born & I never stopped requiring.

Companies wishing to buy or build on a certain plot of land sent a survey, a lease, etc. to my mother. She found in the documents the signs of problems likely to arise for the buyers & lenders involved.

The companies paid the law firm, the law firm paid my mom & she paid for me.

People with tumors lay down on a table for my father. He cut the tumors out.

The people with tumors paid the hospital, the hospital paid my dad & he paid for me.

It went on like this for many years.

Now & then when the neighbors went out without their daughter, I entered their apartment.

When the neighbors got back they paid me.

People wishing to dine in a certain restaurant called a number. I took them off hold, put their names in a database & the restaurant paid me.

Teenagers asked me questions about their homework. Their parents paid a tutoring service & the tutoring service paid me.

People walked up to a counter & asked me for coffee. I filled their paper cup & took their money & gave them change & the café paid me.

Often the people asking for coffee dropped some or all of the change I’d given them into a jar, which I was allowed to pour into a paper bag & take home at the end of my shift.

This is the only time I touched the money I made before it was mine.

The college I attended awarded me a prize to which some money was attached.

A literary agent had tasks to be done & I did them. Or sometimes I didn’t. I sat in the office for a number of hours & she paid me.

A person wishing to be a novelist gave me his writings & I moved the words around & he paid me.

A person wishing to complete her Master’s thesis gave me her writings & I moved the words around & she paid me.

Now & then a journal would want something I had written. Now & then that journal would give me money in exchange.

People from abroad wishing to remain in New York paid a school. They sat in a room where I stood & trained them to write responses to a standardized test. The school gave them their visas and the school paid me.

I won a prize. I stood in a room in a school inside a hospital with a group of five to eight children & we made things with language, though language was not a thing these children had in the sense of speaking or writing or reading.

The school that gave visas was not meeting the standards of the state. I read a report of all the ways the school had failed. I changed the words on various documents so the documents would meet the standard & I wrote out the ways the report was untrue or unreasonable & the school paid me.

All of this gave me money enough to pay my rent & buy my food & cook it on the little blue crown of flame & turn on the lights & get a MetroCard & go to the bar & see what I wanted to see at BAM or at Danspace or the museums etc. & to buy things now & then when I wanted them.

I didn’t have money to invest. I didn’t have the kind of a job that gave me a pension or a 401K etc. My father who was still cutting out tumors gave me money for this purpose. It made me feel guilty but lucky because he said your future financial security is everything & I knew he was right because anything I did or had could be given a name & a value.

Though it somehow felt unlikely that money would continue to operate in this way for the rest of my life, it was actually probably the most likely thing to continue in my life until its end.

Anything I did or had could be given a name and a value. It was a violent translation. Nothing it could not touch.

This everything of names & values felt greater, more consuming than the everything that was my future financial security & so it was the violent translation that interested me.

This position of interest over need was itself a position of advantage.

In my free time I worked out information such as

Someone born today is further away in time, in history, from September 11th than my parents were, at the time of their birth, from the end of World War II.

Pop songs from the year of my birth are now older than The Beatles’ “Hold Me Tight” was then. Than Patsy Cline’s version of “Crazy.”

As of today, I have taken a small pastel pill with the brand name of a brown moth for 3,706 days. I took them to change the chemicals in my body so my body would not become pregnant during any of this time. These pills were paid for jointly by my insurance company & by me & it was someone’s job, many people’s job, to make & to sell them.

In my free time, I think about these facts.

I spend, I waste time.


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