reviewed on May 19, 2023
Like the economic system it so searingly indicts, Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s fifth full-length collection, Negative Money, structures itself around contradiction—between the creative and catastrophic energies of American capitalism, between the promise and peril of courting such energies, between one’s past and present selves, in all their inherent inconsistency.
If the 19th-century novel emerged, in part, in response to a rapidly transforming global economy, Negative Money responds to the social, ethical, and ecological repercussions of that transformation in the 21st century; it is a collection, like Great Expectations and Pride and Prejudice, and as its title suggests, about inheritance, about one’s inevitable complicity in structures one might strenuously reject. Indeed, a beautiful ambivalence runs through Bertram’s work here, as they examine their implication in systems of oppression even as they urgently critique such systems. To extricate oneself, Bertram suggests, from something like capitalist structures of exchange—or from anthropogenic ecologies, or from the influence of patriarchal thought, e.g. Freud, on individual subject-formation—is akin in its futility to laundering money…one never gets it quite clean enough.
Or, to trope Bertram’s title more closely—all money is negative money.
Not only, they suggest, is money “negative” in the sense that its origin—in some place, at some time—must have been exploitation, but so too does money continuously “negate” the world and the life it might otherwise support. Bertram makes this point with particular brilliance in “Money Can Buy a 13th Month,” about Jeff Bezos:
Billionaire boy sells seats on his rocket
& my tub won’t warm water enough for my own
ten stone. I piss my pool.
Money, make me
shield, for the end of this world
repeats the end of this world.
More than a portrait of economic inequality, the passage subtly indicts the efforts of the American billionaire class to evacuate the planet which their own “wealth-generation” has ravaged; relying on “money” to save oneself, Bertram argues, is to leave oneself trapped vertiginously within an economic and ecological mise en abyme.
“Intersectionality” is both a hackneyed and over-hyped conceptual framework, but one of the real positives of Negative Money is its attention to how wealth inequality negatively impacts those social and ecological structures within which the majority of Americans exist. Not only, Bertram suggests, must Black Americans endure the catastrophic effects of corporate-fueled climate change, for instance, but the strain of those effects are compounded—as in a kind of perverse multiplier effect—by the endurance of more or less explicit orders of racism. In Negative Money, that argument is handled so gracefully that it unfolds in the space of a line break: “It’s the deadass last days / of summer,” Bertram writes in “When my mother sees me with a new man,” “and her eight poor & / black decades hang loose but not / relaxed, her frame shrinking back to / this earth.”
Bertram returns repeatedly, in Negative Money, to their own implication in racialized and gendered systems of oppression, as when they patronize a racist barber because of “[h]is grace on the #1 blade” or when they purchase Bukowski and Freud with money from “the first man who checked / me out in the corner bookshop at thirteen.” Bertram’s speaker hasn’t “yet bought the plantation / where we were slaves,” they write in the suggestively titled “Colonizer Money,” “but bought / a condo from a Confederate soldier // re-enactor—saged the shit out of it / and moved in.”
Unflinching in its intersectional critique, agile in its thinking, and possessed throughout of a formal range that never feels gimmicky, Negative Money straddles that existential contradiction of relying—for some mean measure of sustenance—on the very systems which continuously imperil one. “Again I straddle the blade,” Bertram writes in “Maine Coast,” “thinking // This is the time it will fill the gash.”