Is it Tuesday? Every Tuesday a new poem appears in the box and on the blog.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Poem 27 Connie Wanek

                      by Connie Wanek

We used to play, long before we bought real houses.
A roll of the dice could send a girl to jail.
The money was pink, blue, gold as well as green,
and we could own a whole railroad
or speculate in hotels where others dreaded staying:
the cost was extortionary.

At last one person would own everything,
every teaspoon in the dining car, every spike
driven into the planks by immigrants,
every crooked mayor.
But then, with only the clothes on our backs,
we ran outside, laughing.

"Monopoly" by Connie Wanek, from On Speaking Terms. © Copper Canyon Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

Connie Wanek is a deceptive poet. Beware. Her poems seem easy. They are not. They are supple, subtle, smart, musical, and hard. They demand several readings, but the straightforward-seeming speaker in each never lets on. No, she just makes her observations and leaves off, leaving to the reader the task of paying attention.
But what a reward one gets for looking closely. 

Wanek has written a series of poems based on children's games, and this is another. The situation seems fairly clear: a speaker remembers playing the board game Monopoly as a child.  Looking closely, though, we come to see this poem is an exquisite commentary on the current economic situation: many people lose their homes while a very few get rich, owning more and more. The case she makes is powerful for its lack of bombast, its illumination of the political through the sphere of childhood, and its trust in the reader to make the connections for herself.

The poem begins with two interesting choices--the use of the first person plural “we” –indicating we are all in this together—and the “used to,” clearly setting the poem as memory.  The next words about playing the game “long before we bought real houses” begins to pull the reader into complexity.  What about these real houses? how do they connect to the childhood game? But Wanek’s touch is light; she just moves back to the game with the line “A roll of the dice could send a girl to jail.”

We know this is literally true about the game, but as the poem goes on, we see that this arbitrary bad luck doesn’t seem to be only part of the childhood game.  The implication becomes clear: these days, it can just be bad luck that sends a person into bankruptcy or foreclosure.  The speaker continues, remembering the color of the Monopoly money, the thrill of ownership, the way placing those hotels on your properties spelled doom for your competitors. 

The move between stanza is so understated: “at last one person would own everything” and then “everything” is illustrated—teaspoons from the “dining car”, railroad spikes “driven….by immigrants”, crooked mayors—all elements of the railroads that made our country’s first barons.  And yet we know these items are not part of the game but were in fact part of the first economic collapse.

The poem’s last two lines manage to make the case all the clearer while steadfastly turning away from the move most poets would make. Instead of clarifying for the reader, “hey, I’m making a point here about our current economic situation,” Wanek turns deftly back to the game, “But then, with only the clothes on our backs/we ran outside, laughing.” Notice the brilliance of that “but then.” It, like the rest of the poem, means two things at once. On the one hand, “but then” the game is over, and the children go out to play. And also, “but then,” and the comma really matters here, means, but back in those days, we “with only the clothes on our backs” were playing a game. The children, of course, are laughing.  But now, the implication is clear, this isn’t a game.

See what I mean? This looks like a fairly accessible poem about a favored childhood memory. Instead, it indicts our current economy, where bad luck dooms people to homelessness and the loss of everything they possess, except maybe those clothes on their backs. 

As I write tonight, feeling inarticulate in comparison to the poem’s grace and confidence, I am remembering Pope’s line:  “True ease in writing comes from art, not chance.”  Connie Wanek makes poetry look easy.  What a gift.

For information about Wanek's latest book:

More information available at:

1 comment:

  1. This is a nice poem with much to say in a small space. I enjoy the brevity with so much packed inside. I would argue that the political aspects of the poem are so subtle as to escape some readers, those who just want a nice memory. But the message is NOT subtle at all for the astute reader. It is a ringing indictment on our whole system, the haves have, the have-nots have not. It is no laughing matter, but the poet makes a gallows laughter scenario at the end to underscore how the body of us would just as soon ignore the grim details of the lives of "others." A chilling poem.