Poverty’s Price and History’s Measure: Adam Tavel’s Sum Ledger

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Sum Ledger 
by Adam Tavel
(Measure Press, 2023, 84pp., $25.00)

Adam Tavel—whose sixth book, Sum Ledger, powerfully documents the commonplace wrongs of American life and history—has chosen silence. Not as a poet—in an August 2023 Pine Hills Review interview, Tavel’s commentary affirms his commitment to the art. But as a “public poet”—a working writer engaged in the flurry of online self-promotion that today’s literary culture demands—Tavel is done: “Apart from my poems themselves, this interview will be my last public statement for a very long time.” In our overcrowded, chaotic, fad-prone poetry cosmos, it’s rare for someone to reject the spotlight—especially someone who’s won two national book competitions (the Permafrost Prize for Plash and Levitation and the Richard Wilbur Award for Catafalque), the Robert Frost Foundation award, and one of the top ten regional literary arts grants offered by his home state (Maryland). Tavel’s reasons suggest the same uncompromising vision that informs Sum Ledger and earlier books: he is abandoning “the slick literary commercialism that [he] hitherto rationalized and participated in,” adding wistfully, “Like many, I went in search of fellowship but merely found another cloying marketplace.”

Tavel’s conclusion is debatable—in what art form do market factors not play a role?—but the quality of his work is not: born in 1982, Tavel is one of his generation’s most versatile and accomplished poets. Sum Ledger, deeply felt and thrillingly honest, is the latest in an astonishing run: six full-length books on respected presses between 2015 and 2023, including two in the same year (2022: Rubble Square and Green Regalia). If Tavel hasn’t yet enjoyed widespread acclaim, it’s not for lack of industry. It’s simply that, in an aesthetically balkanized era, quality work doesn’t guarantee recognition (a problem not unique to poetry). Tavel’s retreat may well offer relief, a way to shut out the market’s noise to protect his creative self.

That self is highly attuned to injustice. Sum Ledger’s second section looks toward education, Tavel’s wry wit leavened by darker notes: indifference abounds, shame hovers, and acts of kindness are performative. A father, the speaker of “Thanksgiving Chorus,” watches kindergarteners “beautiful and dumb / beam on risers to sing the goofy words / their teacher drilled ad nauseam all week,” but memory pulls him back to his own Catholic school childhood of Polaroids and pilgrim costumes, a time of “yawning nuns” who “lorded over me,” including on a day when neither parent picked him up: “When no one came I shot November sky.” (The present-day father gamely sings along with the other kindergarteners’ parents.) In “Orphan Lights,” as if granted some great privilege, Catholic schoolboys endure slow-motion glimpses of a well-off neighborhood whose Christmas lights they’re expected to admire. (The makeshift tour is hosted by two priests in “the rectory’s station wagon.”) As the poem ends, title and tone confirm the speaker’s pained detachment: viewing this second-hand splendor, he wonders if the Holy Spirit “flew from bulb to bulb, blessing each / porch’s wreath ribbon and risen / house number tacked in brass / impossible to read inside the glow.” Shame and poverty are closely connected, made worse by the charity outing that holds a bitter taste.

In “The Free and Reduced-Price Meals Program of Anne Arundel County Public Schools,” the speaker confronts his childhood self. Tall tales meant to disguise poverty and pain now seem utterly transparent: “You say the family doesn’t trust / your Velcro wallet: Wolverine comics, / Big League Chew, dough burns a hole / in your pocket.” The boy knows violence, too, his “arms purple,” but “He Who Whales” is, supposedly, the imaginary brother “who leaves / bumpkin sprinters panting / at country meets and gleams until / someone asks why he never picks you / up.” (The same Pine Hills Review interview suggests that the general outlines are factual: “The confessional impulse has taken some shots to the chin in recent decades, but…I can’t pretend my poems are…untethered from the material circumstances of my life”; further, Rubble Square’s “Forever Elegy” begins, “The night my father squeezed my throat and held / me dangling at the wall our thermostat’s / ancient paint-flecked dial dug in my ear.”) In “The Free and Reduced-Price Meals…,” Tavel’s repetitions (every sentence but the last begins, “You say”) underscore the boy’s attempts  both to fit in and to hide his poverty.

Sum Ledger is rich in vividly realized poems of darker memory; these, in turn, gesture beyond autobiography toward history’s cruel march. “Mayflower Bastard,” an affecting sonnet, is a dramatic monologue spoken by the ship’s young scurvy-afflicted dishwasher.  Having seen “the coast emerge despite the fog,” weak sunbeams touch “jaundiced // hands that split and bleed each night in greasy / pot suds.” The orphan’s arrival—the fresh start of American myth—is problematic: diseased, without family, at the bottom of the social order, he speaks for himself and generations to come: “In all these dreams I knew that we would drown.” Tavel’s historical interests center squarely on the poor. “The 1909 Maryland Field Phantoms of Lewis Wickes Hine, National Child Labor Committee Photographer,” lends a voice to the subjects of Hine’s famous images, an influential document of poverty and child labor: a nine-year-old girl and berry-picker explains, “How many cents your picking sweat can grouse / is counted by the boxes at your feet.”

Deemed,” the opening section of “Until The Beast Was Slain,” written “for residents of the Wicomico County Almshouse, 1871-1923,” uses the jargon of bygone ordinances to showcase America’s contempt for the poor. Among the numbingly listed possibilities, a “vagabond” is someone “who has no visible means of maintenance / from property or personal labor,” who “lives idle, without employment”; the term includes “every nomad, / gypsy, or other person practicing / that which is commonly called / fortune-telling.” With equal coldness, “beggar” and “vagrant” are defined, the latter “every person” who “wanders  / & lodges in outhouses, sheds, / …or in any public building or in the open air / & has no permanent place / of abode.” That legally defining each pejorative holds greater priority than addressing the causes of indigence or homelessness speaks to the era’s callousness and to similar attitudes today. (Historian Kate Masur, quoted by Jamelle Bouie in a recent New York Times column, states that, in previous centuries, laws regarding vagrants, paupers, and the like were “all ‘police’ laws, designed to ensure public peace and protect a community’s coffers”—as Tavel’s poem chillingly confirms.)

Mordant wit regularly leavens Sum Ledger’s determined vision: a “Clearance Tie,” for example, is “Red, like its stickered price / or the acne-cheeked boy who goes / stag to a church dance.”  Less explicit but equally crucial is the tender empathy that also animates these poems. In one dedicated to Tavel’s young son, a hospital room’s “closed blinds / smuggle in tiny coos / of sunbeam,” the infant’s sounds and the weak light blending together. The father dreads an interruption of the moment, speaking to the son he cradles, “Until then, little fox, / your bloodshot eyes / and mine can watch / another rerun gameshow / soundless in the corner” (“Poem Written One-Handed While Holding a Newborn in My Arms”). That same tenderness emerges in “A Drought September,” set in the Depression, whose speaker, facing foreclosure, contemplates suicide: indeed, his shotgun is at the ready “when, echoing off the barn, a breeze / brought my youngest daughter’s voice / from her knotted rope swing / singing olly olly oxen free.” The desperation to escape—from debt, shame, and failure—gives way to an alternative: the blank slate of the future, the freedom of possibility: his daughter’s voice, able to melt despair.

Sum Ledger ’s sequencing also testifies to Tavel’s shrewd intelligence. An example: the book’s fourth section which examines the fragility of home. After “The Houses of the Poor” (where, instead of Christmas lights, the speaker sees “pink / tufts of insulation [that] flutter / past siding torn or broken”), Tavel includes “Room to Room” which recounts the speaker’s alarm on arriving home to find the front door open; as father-protector, he ventures in, “an umbrella clutched like Excalibur / while our puppy trailed, bewildered / and wagging.” The prose poem “House Hunters” balances contempt for smug professionals with sardonic allegory: a tempting “sand-silt mansion,” the real estate agent says, requires an annual blood feeding of its basement’s fire demons which “Chad and Beatrice,” the buyers, agree is fair. Two blank verse sonnets follow: “The Eviction” depicts the family driven from their community, packing their “borrowed truck” (“I see six siblings climb and pass the twine / to bind their jumble like a ransomed child”), while “At the Women’s Shelter” provides a child’s-eye view of fraught, temporary lodgings (“The counselor smiled and said kids called her Nan. / I kicked her arms away…”).  The subtlety of Tavel’s arrangement deepens each poem’s individual impact while raising the thematic and emotional stakes for the section as a whole.

Tavel’s distaste for the market’s influence has its poetic counterpart in, among others, “During the Seventh Inning Stretch, a Country Time Lemonade Commercial Airs.” Here, a smiling, bearded father, “flannel-clad,” cues a bucolic rural scene whose false notes ring out unmistakably due to a skillful use of irony: “we’re transported suddenly / to a dappled mossy hollow / where none of our three siblings / frolicking in slow-mo trip / on the guarded witch-finger roots / beneath a canopy of willows.” The poem ends: “The glass is empty.” For me, the poem distills another special quality of Tavel’s work: his use of seemingly light-hearted or contemporary references to reinforce more serious concerns. In a book so attentive to the plight of America’s suburban and rural poor, from historical indifference to the implosion of families, the media’s saccharine depiction of carefree pastoral bliss must seem especially galling—yet the poem’s descriptive impact keeps it from seeming preachy, its anger sublimated into poetry and wit.

Both wit and resignation define “It Pays in Exposure,” a poem about poetry readings that’s both nightmarish and uncomfortably familiar: almost every indignity of the midlist working poet is combined in a single outpouring. Framed in the second person—that’s “you,” dear reader—the protagonist poet reads for an audience of merely four, drowned out by the zip of a fleeing student’s backpack, an octogenarian’s “shrieking” complaints, and “maintenance guys whamming / like drunk gravediggers down the hall.”

Do such performances, in fact, “pay in exposure”? Tavel’s understandable frustration (shared by myriad writers who don’t say so publicly) calls to mind another of his poems: Rubble Square’s “Selected Poems” in which Tavel discovers a mentor’s cherished career overview “[s]hoved between a Soviet atlas / and an Amish pastry cookbook / at the summer library sale / …unread, / her pages crisp as sliced apple.” In a literary marketplace whose top echelons are, for most, impenetrable, its hierarchy fixed, it’s easy to become discouraged, disillusioned, or both. We could all name artists who’ve abandoned their work, the spotlight, or both, in order to pursue a more sustaining private life. I take comfort in Tavel’s pledge to let his poetry speak for itself: it means we can look forward to more of his writing. I admire his courage in rejecting the marketplace he opposes. But while one proof of Tavel’s critique is that he himself isn’t better known, poetry’s readership is dynamic, overlooked voices emerge anew, and the worth of a deeply authentic vision can’t be measured.