The Saints of Capitalism. Benjamin Schmitt. (New Meridian, 2021), 109 pp. $18.00 paperback. https://www.newmeridianarts.com/saints-of-capitalism
Review by Sandra J. Lindow
Benjamin Schmitt’s The Saints of Capitalism is a sophisticated poetic analysis of contemporary life and American politics that is clearly speculative but more mainstream academic than genre in its approach and tone Schmitt, however, may connect his work to the fan community with the assertion that he “write[s] for all the saints of capitalism/worshipping at the decrepit altars of long cons,” implying, perhaps, the endurance of political discussions at SF fan conventions as well as the kind of cons that are scams to cheat people out of their life savings. Similar in its black humor and satire to the work of 18th Century poet and satirist Jonathan Swift, The Saints of Capitalism is divided into four parts: “Articles of Faith,” “The Saints of Capitalism,” “My Autohagiography,” and “The Tyrants Cycle,” a single poem in sixteen parts.
The first section, “Articles of Faith,” explores social beliefs, so deeply held that they are accepted without question. Schmitt begins with an “Exegesis,” a list poem explaining his purpose in writing “the warm asphalt of words”:
I write for the drapes that keep the sun
from entering the rooms of expensive gifts (3)
Throughout the collection, the “drapes” will be pulled back to reveal some of the cherished “expensive” beliefs (“gifts”) individuals keep in the murky, semi-conscious darkness, particularly those shared beliefs in the superior nature of our American nation, capitalist structure, and various patriarchal religions. Personification is employed throughout, blurring the boundaries between author, reader, and text, making the abstract concrete and granting personhood to inanimate objects.
I write for those who have broken my heart
that’s me passed out drunk between the letters
I write for the lone country light unaware
of the darkness breathing down its neck (3)
“Conarchy” focuses on capitalist red herrings that encourage blame shifting and magical thinking:
I know it looks like we gave your job to a robot, Paul.
But immigrants stole it!
They’re climbing out of beer cans!
They’re invading North Dakota! (4)
“Creed” examines supposedly god-blessed lies regarding personal “freedom” and the persistent process of otherization:
so that our team could beat your team
unless of course your team is our team
or you switch teams or I switch teams
like incense I wave the remote
past the channels that disagree with me (6)
“Teachings” includes the surreal admonition to “Have sex with as many different kinds of weather as possible” (10) while “Pornocracy” describes the president “having an affair with everyone in Miami” (12).
The second section envisions various “Saints of Capitalism.” “Penance” lists business schemes as “acts /of penance, lives given for/ our comfort” (19). “Spider” invokes the African story-telling spider Anansi, but the tale to be told is one of ongoing war:
Crossing a river in Africa the spider
shooting her blacksmith’s thread
of melted-down swords and armor
the world’s molten madness bridging
dangling over the water (24)
“Conscious” moves into the realm of SF horror when it describes the re-embodiment of a discarded A.I. that fashions “an eye from a wire and a glass shard” and “a body from junkyard scraps”:
light glinting off my hubcap chest
I look different
than the sex slaves you programmed me to be
now your conscious trash has blown back
and I’ve returned to kill you (28)
“Astronaut” describes the musings of a corporate-sponsored astronaut, the first to leave the solar system.
but out here there’s no way to stay human
just a fast asteroid with memories
hurtling through space
making off with a rich man’s gear (33)
Schmitt entitles the third section, “My Autohagiography” These poems examine events that inform his adult awareness. The title is intentionally pejorative. A hagiography is a saint’s life but the autobiography of a self-styled saint is usually met with contempt, for example literary attempts to whitewash lives of philandering preachers. Throughout this section, real world horrors are balanced by fantasies of human connection. “Invitation” begins with wine and the O. J. Simpson murders. It ends with wine and “your smile that has always made me believe/ in unicorns flying through blueberry tornados” (37). “Wisconsin” personifies the seasons: “Winter had a drinking problem, / not waking up to melt the snows till noon” (38). “Homeland” begins with “A coonskin cap, soft / as the lies in a history textbook” (39). “JFK” muses on the complexities of loving a politically divided homeland:
Coastlanders don’t trust
the sailing cows of the inland,
inlanders cast their nets
but don’t like the corn they capture (41)
“Healing” describes thoughts as “a necklace of poison apples” (42). “Word” considers a poet’s linguistic responsibility to “fit as many /pictures as possible in a word” and concludes that
I’ve been known to stuff a flag
inside a verb on occasion, and don’t forget
a word is a great place
to hide a gun if you’re a poet (44)
Throughout this section, the persona is deeply connected to family as well as synesthetic, permeable world:
My feet are submerged in black
and orange moans that extend
outwards, connecting my feet
to the docks across the lake
and the hulls of the boats racing. (49)
your vagina entering me
with the soft ground of a hill
penetrating the windows
of a new development, (52)
The gold of my wedding ring
can’t confine the rudeness
I spill on you like hot coffee (57)
“Upward,” written to his son, concludes
Your sister is kissing you through
her bedroom wall, she presses her songs
against your forehead. We’re here forever
to mess up your plans (a true family). (69)
and in “January” a Christmas tree reveals “the tears / of a Dust Bowl farmer in 1936 /saving his family /by leaving his land” (71).
The final section, “The Tyrant’s Cycle,” is a long dystopian poem in sixteen parts. Reminiscent in structure to Harry Martinson’s book length poem Aniara, 1956, it is a thinly disguised outline of the twenty-first century, with veiled references to 9/1/1, government response to Hurricane Katrina, social and political unrest, the Trump presidency, and how we almost lost our democracy (and still could). Throughout there are parts blacked out, “redacted” by government censorship due to an ongoing investigation. The poem begins with a Kingdom in denial: “We were happy in our hypocrisy, /buildingtops rose / to mouthingtops praising / the gifted ones who sat/ so high inside” (77).
However, the Kingdom struggles with decadence, an ailing king, war, and terrorism: The fence /only exists to separate low hate /from my hate. Most importantly, / the oil must never cease” while “Oleaginous hopes / run down pelican necks, funding / terrorist cells from Berlin to Mumbai” (81). Government weakens. Section VI concludes: “what y’all gettin’ on about? / Don’t you know the president /eats the ghosts of dolphins?” (88).
In the final section, a rising Tyrant is described as one who “had built entire cities / from the hammer sounds of lies” (91). “[H]e strode down upon / the golden escalator; rode his horse/ through the beleaguered city, / triumphant from the battles he’d never fought” (92). When the Tyrant becomes Emperor, democracy is “murdered:” The courts are controlled by social media and punishment becomes horrific. Eventually, those suffering the complete moral breakdown of society are offered a kind of sainthood. The ending is similar to Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” 1973. “Wearing their cassocks, / greeting a once-conquered land / as a once-conquered people, /all became free at morning’s first light” 109).
Co-founder of the Pacifica Writers’ Workshop, Benjamin Schmitt, has written a work of heartbreak, anger, and genius. For many reasons, Saints is not an easy read, but it may become an award winner. If readers have lived through the moral confusion of the last two decades, they will see themselves in these pages.
Sandra Lindow has served as Vice President and Acting President of SFPA. Her poetry has been seen in various markets including Asimov’s, Star*Line, Dreams and Nightmares, Dwarf Stars, and the Rhysling Anthologies. Her spec related editing includes Dwarf Stars, Eye to the Telescope, and most recently the Rhysling winners anthology, Alchemy of Stars II. She lives on a hilltop in Menomonie, Wisconsin where she waits out the pandemic and attempts various strategies to keep varmints from eating her vegetables and perennials.
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