Monday, April 17, 2023

Practice Notes: Letters of Credit, by Steven M. Richman

He looks deeply into the mirror of his children
but cannot see himself, though he knows he is there,
somewhere in the depths. They speak to him
with the greatest politeness, and if there is affection,
he feels it as the slightest warm breeze in summer,
a hot dying breath of presence, not of comfort.

He works their love like his job, studying precedent
and applying law to fact, to derive a holding, a balance
of truth, justice and equity, completely anomalous
in the calculus of emotion
. Still there is a sense of obligation,
like throwing coins into the tollbooth--regardless of whether
they hit, or bounce off the rim, and roll away, the debt is paid.

They are gone, glimpsed through materializing letters
on the instant messaging boards of computer screens,
or in the electronic conversions of voices to ear, heard
like the ocean in shell: false, imitative, distant and faint,
or like letters of credit, carrying his value into the void
of commerce, of life, to distant lands he will never see. 

from Law and Poetry: Promises from the Preamble, (2021) ed. Kristen David Adams, p. 35.

Depicted here is a parent who sees his or her children like a letter of credit, a vehicle through which he or she pays a debt to its recipient. Here, parental love is phrased as duty rather than emotion, and the relationship between parent and children, characterized by an awkwardness unmediated by affection.

Stanza two suggests that they are obliged, as a debtor might be obliged to pay their children. Stanza 3 suggests that the children then become the vehicles through which the parent's value is exchanged (as in commerce)  in their own lives. One might also read Stanza 3 as suggesting the children/letters of credit are sent out by the parent into the world as payment to an unknown creditor. But who is this unknown creditor? What obliges us to pay this creditor by losing ourselves, emptying "our value" into the children we then send them? And what do we get in exchange?  The character that the persona describes is alienated, not only from his children's affections, but from his or her work/labor. And in this character's world, all that a self amounts to, it seems, is his or her use value. 

In a world where individuals are viewed/self-view themselves in terms of their use-value, the inevitable result is alienation, isolation. In such a world, love can only register as a steep, unmitigated loss. 

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