Weekend Verse: Major Jackson’s “New Sphere of Influence”

If you’ve read any of my criticism on this site, you may recall that profuse obscurity in a poem bugs me. If I read a text multiple times and still can’t grasp, or even begin to intuitively sense, what human instance of thinking or action is going on, I lose my appetite. This is a critical attitude I slowly learned in graduate school, by figuring out that when I couldn’t comprehend some piece of post-structural literary theory, that didn’t mean I was dense–it meant the writer sucked. Inscrutability is not complexity. It’s poor, thin-spirited writing, indulging the author at the expense of a reader’s desire for some discernible meaning. In freshman comp classes at my university we call it egocentric writing, and I don’t see why we should not also disparage it in grown-up professional poetry written by people who win awards and get visiting fellowships. (*cough, Jorie Graham and fellow travelers, cough*)

But if you’ve read any of my criticism on this site, you also might remember that I ride for Wallace Stevens, James Tate, Marianne Moore, and other modern weirdos whose poems resist easy explication. (Tate’s “Fuck the Astronauts” may be an exception, but even that blast is characteristically surreal in a homegrown mid-century American way.) So what is the distinction between an obscurantist charlatan and a poet whose work is pleasantly strange and challenging?

The poet I come here to praise (not bury), Major Jackson, is instructive. Jackson’s best and most recent collection, Holding Company (2010), comprises eighty poems that each consist of ten lines, these lines mostly being ten to fifteen syllables long. The book demonstrates some forms of structural control and discursive guidance that prevent its lyrics from becoming unintelligible blobs.

At the highest architectural level, the eighty poems are organized into four groups of twenty; with its 800 lines held to a tight range of lengths, the book is evenly weighted. Now look at a single poem, “New Sphere of Influence”:

This is the year I’ll contemplate the fire-fangled sky
over the isle of Pag, authored by my lover’s eyes.
A crimson rambler uncurls its petals, and I am whistling
a dusty concerto, “Hope with Roadside Flowers.”
I want to unfurl in the sodden fields of her daydreams.
Who wants immortality if she must die?
Once I thought stars were everlasting, only dying
behind a cerulean curtain, cloudy rains at dawn.
My lover’s lips are twin geniuses. I’ve trashed the movie stubs
of my past. I’ve front row seats to her mumbling sleep.

Thematically speaking, this is pretty obviously a love poem, one that cross-breeds the modern (e.g., the closing metaphor of movie theaters) with the Elizabethan. Even if “Who wants immortality if she must die?” did not end with emphatic iambs, the organizing trope of a mistress’ eventual decline and death (and the poet’s self-conscious awareness of this) is a structural principle in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century sonnets, which in turn frequently situate poetry as a partial defeat of death, an uneasy preservation of experience.

Note also the pervasive lyricism, something often missing from Difficult, prose-fingered contemporary poems. “New Sphere of Influence” isn’t lyrical just because it is short; it is lyrical because it is musically textured. Jackson doesn’t use a strict pattern of feet, but in places the text momentarily adopts a metrical rhythm (“authored by my lover’s eyes”). The lines are about the length of a full breath. Inhale, exhale, line break. There are no true end rhymes, but Jackson includes some partial rhymes, like sky/eyes, and the poem’s innards employ assonance (“seats to her mumbling sleep”) and alliteration, as in “My lover’s lips.” There are also some resonances between the middles of lines, as with three and five: “rambler uncurls” gets picked up by “I want to unfurl.” The poem quivers with sounds.

The images, meanwhile, are dreamlike and associative–one suspects the speaker is on the border of sleep–yet they also deliver intelligible scenes of human love. I’m sure the sky over Pag, a real Croatian isle where no doubt many lovers vacation, is sometimes “fire-fangled,” even if that is a Stevens-esque neologism; “sodden fields of her daydreams” is a visually lucid metaphor; and the “twin geniuses” of the beloved’s lips are likewise easily pictured.

This is a mind running with the body abed. The poem is not a facile lesson or narrative scenario–not straightforward, it is strange, like the mind–but it does record (or create) a genuine experience that most readers will recognize. Lyric poetry is especially good at this, and Major Jackson is especially good at lyric poetry.

Edgar Allan Poe, American Freelancer

In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe wrote to another three-namer, James Russell Lowell, swearing that “I am not ambitious” (his emphasis), “because I feel nothing of ambition. I really perceive the vanity about which most men merely prate—the vanity of human or temporary life” (1). This was bullshit. Like all writers who are honest with themselves, Poe wanted readers. Things never worked out so well, unfortunately.

He was a garret-dweller even when he wasn’t living in an actual garret. Poe knew more about renting pinched, grimy spaces than any college student. In large part this is because his short, unhappy life bounced from one poorly paid writing project to another: dashed-off book reviews, his improvisational brilliance saving many from mediocrity even as they vanished from public memory, like book reviews almost always do; brief essays and columns, some of which he published, in multiple venues, as his “Marginalia”; editorial gigs at journals that just kept going under; occasional interviews with loftier figures, such as Charles Dickens in Philadelphia in 1842 (2); unappreciated, shockingly original stories published in obscure magazines, and poems, most of them bad, that received even less attention. Mixed in were letters written from a financial position that was frequently desperate. Here, sick and broke in Baltimore at the age of twenty-four, he writes to his stepfather, John Allan, with whom he had fallen out:

It has now been more than two years since you have assisted me, and more than three since you have spoken to me. I feel little hope that you will pay any regard to this letter, but still I cannot refrain from making one more attempt to interest you in my behalf. If you will only consider in what a situation I am placed you will surely pity me–without friends, without any means, consequently[,] of obtaining employment, I am perishing–absolutely perishing for want of aid. And yet I am not idle–nor addicted to any vice–nor have I committed any offence against society which would render me deserving of so hard a fate. For God’s sake pity me, and save me from destruction.

Allan did not answer and died eleven months later. Poe had been cut from the will.

In the mid-nineteenth century, as the United States began molting from a slave-holding backwater into a slave-holding market empire, the nation’s publishing sector expanded quickly. Despite earning very little, Poe’s career in this world of East Coast magazines was active, even frenzied. As both writer and editor, he was a prototype of the modern American freelancer, living gig to gig, collecting bylines, trying to build an audience, rarely making much money, drinking too much, getting holes in his socks–living on the edge of capitalist respectability, in several respects. In 2015, he’d be on Twitter (probably with a morbidly funny feed, given what his stories are often like). He’d have a good blog. He’d be sending pitches to Buzzfeed and n+1 alike. Poe might crop up, pissed and grim about something, on Gawker, or maybe in the Kinja comments.

This was the “thankless field of Letters” (4), where, despite his membership, he was never at home. The “Magazine Prison-House,” as the title of one short essay calls it, left almost no time for longer literary projects. “The whole tendency of the age is Magazine-ward,” he contends in the 1846 piece “Magazine Literature in America” (5). The reading public is short on attention and tantalized by the new avalanche of written media–a complaint which may sound familiar to 2015’s general readers–and so “Quarterly Reviews,” which are more scholarly and specialized, seem “out of keeping with the rush of the age” (his emphasis). In their place, Poe wants “daily journals” and monthlies. “We now demand,” he continues, “the light artillery of the intellect; we need the curt, the condensed, the pointed, the readily diffused–in place of the verbose, the detailed, the voluminous, the inaccessible.” I kept thinking of Twitter, and checking Twitter.

Reasonably aware of his own assumptions, Poe also underlines the potential cognitive and culture damage caused by endless “light artillery:

On the other hand, the lightness of the artillery should not degenerate into popgunnery–by which term we may designate the character of the greater portion of the newspaper press–their sole legitimate object being the discussion of ephemeral matters in an ephemeral manner. Whatever talent may be brought to bear upon our daily journals . . . still the imperative necessity of catching, currente calamo [“with a running pen”], each topic as it flits before the eye of the public, must of course materially narrow the limits of their power.

Half a century earlier, in his famed preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth gripes about the same disease of inattention, impatience, and overstimulation, which he calls “a craving for extraordinary incident[.]”

Wordsworth, though, avoided the hodge-podge world of journalists, preferring to write lyrics, some of them quite good, in his cottage. Poe was neck-deep in it. Like many of his contemporaries–like many of us–he was both spooked and thrilled by the modern flood of content, and bled dry by its enabling economic model. The freelancing, permanent-rental economy is not entirely new.

Notes
1) Cited in Jerome McGann, Alien Angel: The Poet Edgar Allan Poe (Harvard, 2014), p. 53.
2) J. Gerald Kennedy, Introduction to The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, ed. J. Gerald Kennedy (Penguin, 2006), xxi.
3) Ibid., p. 455.
4) Poe, “Some Secrets of the Magazine Prison-House” (1845), cited in Ibid., p. 579.
5) Cited in Ibid, p. 599.

Stop With the Vaping: Some Skewed and Fragmentary Notes

While I’m nowhere close to Jonathan Franzen’s irritability level, I do like to complain about the late-capitalist modernity of which I, born in 1981, am assuredly a child. Lately my gripe synapses have been firing like mad over vaping, which has gained enough cultural momentum, both practically and rhetorically, to get named the Oxford Dictionary’s 2014 word of the year. I detest it: the self-congratulatorily “cool” practice, the ugly enabling technology, the cultural and capitalistic vocabularies that have congealed around it (1).

Now, given that I wouldn’t let my first-year writing students pass off a personal opinion as self-evident fact (I think vaping is breathtakingly lame, thus it is), I’ve yoked together a provisional list–just some working notes that might lead to a genuine essay–of reasons for my antipathy. I hope I don’t seem like a youngish person playing curmudgeon, because people like that are boring phonies. While reading, light up if you feel like it. Even vapers are invited; it’s a free country, bruh. Here goes.

1) I’ll be honest about the age factor: vaping is largely a practice of the relatively young, and I’m getting older, even if I’m not yet “at the stage / Where one starts to resent the young,” as Auden puts it in “A Walk After Dark.” To an extent, it is inevitable that I–that we–begin to feel alienated by at least some of the ideologies and behaviors of newer generations. This is true even for someone in my line of work, teaching, which is necessarily founded upon a deep love for the potential and freshness of the young. Still, in my day, we sat on the steps of the English Department building and smoked our Camels (which we had walked miles to buy) down to the dang filter.

2) A lot of ear-gauged, face-pierced, sloppy-tatted, snapback-wearing extremo dweebs have embraced vaping. Just look at the photos in this excellent mini-ethnography of the UK vape scene that George Nelson wrote for Vice a few weeks ago. Do you want to hang with these guys (and they are mostly guys)? The scene is nearly as bad as people who are vocally reeeeaaaaally into weed. Nelson also reports that many manufacturers have comically “hip” names, like the American company Space Jam and E-Gains. Space Jam and E-Gains! Finish laughing so you can get to the next entry.

3) The material one vapes sounds repugnant. It’s called e-juice, for fuck’s sake. E-juice. The flavor names are reminiscent of the off-brand condoms sold in bodegas, or, in some cases, of the lacquered sugar candies my grandma kept in glass dishes for visitors. Druid, a.k.a. liquorice! Summer Pudding! Nacho cheese! Cool mint! Straight-up old-fashioned Bubblegum like you chewed in fourth grade! What grown-up child needs everything densely and artificially flavored? Besides, know what else has a pronounced, nuanced flavor? Good tobacco.

4) Vape bars and lounges: Ooooh! You mean I get to pay money to sit around and not drink alcohol? Oh, vaping gives you a little buzz? Well let me in, doorman. And here I was just gonna order a bottled water in Starbucks. These vaper dens are like bad acne on LA’s face; I assume this is true in other cities, too. Smoke a fucking hookah, at least–not that those are any cooler.

5) Sorry, mom, but despite decades of official scolding based on nasty medical facts, a cigarette looks cool, cooler than a vape rig; and I say this as someone who quit smoking American Spirits five years ago after growing disgusted by the taste of smoke. Imagine Marlene Dietrich or Jackson Pollack pausing to languidly or hungrily push the button on a plastic vape pen.

6) Hey, people who claim vaping/e-cigs are healthy, slow your roll: the medical community isn’t exactly in agreement with you yet. And if you hate secondhand smoke, well, vaping disgorges plenty of that.

7) Perhaps most prominently, vaping is part of a wider, genuinely troubling, infantile desire–one that originated in but is hardly confined to the US–to have pleasure without consequence. It’s of a piece with the consumption discourse of “light” cigarettes, Michelob Ultra, reduced-fat chips, and chocolate-flavored Weight Watchers snacks.

That’s all for now. Add to my provisional list in the comments–or argue loudly with me–if you are so moved. Look, everyone, my forehead didn’t even turn red while I wrote all this. Small victories in consciousness.

NOTES
1) I’m mainly talking about tobacco-based vaping here, although weed smokers who vape also kind of bug me–just get a pipe or roll something like your forefathers and mothers. But if your vaping is medicinal (say you’re a cancer patient dealing with nausea from chemo, or someone struggling with COPD), then by all means, vape up.

Weekday Beats: Regret Nothing and Everything

The experimental electronic duo Ford and Lopatin (1) released the head-bending Channel Pressure in 2011. Reminiscent of synth-intensive Eighties compositions, the album is gorgeous: architecturally lyrical, densely textured, limbic, swirling, poignant (even at times melancholy) but with a playful edge. “World of Regret,” the lead single from the album (to the extent that such extended, unified compositions produce “singles”), is especially catchy: swifter than most other tracks, goofily exuberant, almost celebratory. Take heart. You might even smile.

And then they upped the ante with a music video that complements the song perfectly. Composed of intentionally clumsy CGI animation–like someone put iPhone emoji in front of a rented green screen–the video invites us to a gluttonous dinner with Ford and Lopatin, during which they greedily, then compulsively, then at last wearily tuck into cartoon pizzas, lacquered burgers, shiny pigs, lurid tropical fruit, and other slick victuals. You might call the aesthetic Gameboy Luxe.

We hope this fun, free blog content improves the workweek, y’all. Don’t eat too fast. Listen as much as you need to.

1. Daniel Lopatin, by the way, is far more prolific under the pseudonym Oneohtrix Point Never. His work as OPN is likewise astonishingly beautiful and freely streamable online, don’t ya know.

Sonnets, Twitter, and Sunburn’d Brains

One of the coolest things the Renaissance gave us, besides heliocentrism and The Prince, was the sonnet sequence. All the hot boys had one in the 1500s: Edmund Spenser did (much less boring than The Faerie Queene), Sir Philip Sidney did, Shakespeare did, of course. Jump forward to the Victorian era, and you’ve got Modern Love, George Meredith’s queasy portrait of a dead marriage (it’s like a Noah Baumbach film) that is almost unknown by contemporary readers. Around the same time, Elizabeth Barrett Browning dropped Sonnets from the Portugese, which is admittedly kind of disappointing next to the intermittently awesome novel-in-verse Aurora Leigh. But still, sonnets!

Many keystrokes have been devoted to poetry’s death in modernity. We don’t, the narrative goes, have the patience to read and savor it anymore; we would rather be on social media or watching Netflix. We can’t sit down and pay attention. But even if you buy this story–and I’m not always sure I do–you can’t deny that lyric poetry, in some forms at least, is structurally similar to a dominant media platform, Twitter. In the sonnet and the tweet, compression of rhetoric, wit, and image is what matters; in a nice bit of mathematical coincidence, sonnets have 14 lines, while tweets can’t go over 140 characters. (At a weird, half-articulate limbic level, I don’t even think it is a coincidence.)

Brevity might be poetry’s evolutionary advantage in the contemporary media ecosystem. Most readers are no longer able to stomach Bleak House, but at least some still have energy to read a fourteen-line tidbit. Some might even re-read: while Twitter infects you with the urge to obsessively check for new content, sonnets urge you to go back over the territory, and you can, because sonnets are so compact.

Granted, given their gender politics and all-male authorship, sixteenth-century lyrics can sometimes sound like men’s-rights activist blogs in verse, but that is only if you read them as a blunt presentist, expecting four-hundred-year-old sonnets to accord with contemporary progressive thought instead of viewing each text’s motifs (e.g. the scornful, icy, or oblivious beloved) as rhetorical equipment shared by European poets of the period. While you can do some biographical mapping–Whom was Sidney in love with? Who is Shakespeare’s “Mr. W.H.”? Was Poet X trying to tup Poet Y’s mistress? et cetera–ultimately these aren’t texts about the lives of real people, but performances within (and individual reworkings of) a literary tradition. Still, I understand why Sonnet #31 from Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, for instance, might grate a little. When the speaker’s “long-with-love-acquainted eyes” survey the “sad steps” and “wan” face of the moon in the night sky, he concludes that the earth’s satellite knows what’s up. The sonnet’s sestet is elegant whining:

Then, even of fellowship, O moon, tell me,
Is constant love deem’d there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be lov’d, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call “virtue” there, ungratefulness?

I’ve enjoyed Astrophel and Stella‘s opener since I first read it ten years ago, sitting in my back yard in Charlottesville, Virginia, on a poetic spring day. The speaker’s partly ironic faith in a spontaneous, organic afflatus–a natural lyric style–a anticipates the Romantics and Walt Whitman; the pregnancy metaphor for artistic creation is arresting; and I love the image of a “sunburn’d brain.” Come to think of it, that’s what Twitter does to the mind. To paraphrase the Clipse, it gets hot ’round here, so when you come to the Reader, bring your sunblock.

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe:
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled stepdame study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seem’d but stranger in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write!”

Weekend Beats: Wassup

Ezra Pound famously said that poetry is news that stays news. A rejoinder would be, “Well, at least some does.” But the remark has a ring to it.

Anyway, a few years ago, urbane Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky, who subsequently blew the fuck up, released the space-news classic LIVE LOVE A$AP, and the tasteful person’s iTunes roster was never the same again. The mixtape has a deep bench of songs, unlike most mixtapes, and it holds up well.

A favorite of ours is the fourth track, “Wassup.” Its magnificently cocky, couplet-based patter swaggers across a narcotic, purple, tidal beat by the brilliant but unfortunately named producer Clams Casino, and the YouTube video should have 2.3 billion views, not just 2.3 million (as of this publication). Beyond its formal elegance and existential cool–its aesthetic attitude, in place of a moral or philosophical orientation–the song has no depth, which is something Vladimir Nabokov, who believed that art should have as little as possible to do with morals or intellectualizing, would smile at. “Wassup” slithers lazily but somehow yanks.

We ain’t talking ’bout no money, we ain’t talkin’ bout no cars. We are just a humble arts and culture blog, y’all. Enjoy the weekend, enjoy all the weekends.

Scott Takes

In one of my classes, we just finished a unit on journalistic criticism, which ended with students writing their own brief review of an assigned novel. (It was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Most didn’t hate it, and I’ve read some excellent papers.) One of the things I emphasized to them was that reviewers have a major sociocultural function, which is to stand attentively amid the incredible, endless stream of artistic productions (books, films, clothing, music, whatever), and venture to make judgments about what’s good and what isn’t–about what is worth one’s time and what is not. There is too much stuff out there. Critics help us make decisions.

When it comes to film, Grantland’s Wesley Morris is my favorite American critic, but the New York Times‘ house expert, A.O. Scott, runs a very close second. He often writes moving, meditative reviews of new movies, but I like Scott best when he gets out his hatchet and goes hunting for bad, lucrative art. His treatment of the Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore excreta Blended is a cruel classic. It opens this way:

Because life is short and I have other things to be upset about, I will not dwell on the offensive aspects of “Blended,” the new Adam Sandler comedy: its retrograde gender politics; its delight in the humiliation of children; its sentimental hypocrisy about male behavior; its quasi-zoological depiction of Africans as servile, dancing, drum-playing simpletons; its … I’m sorry. That’s just what I said I wouldn’t do.

Take caution, the review concludes, because the film “will make your children stupid.”

Hey, have you heard from those billboards? They turned the fan-fiction phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey into a film. Yesterday Scott got around to it.

*ties napkin around neck, readies knife and fork*

Scott’s work has what Lionel Trilling would call a liberal imagination: it prioritizes and praises films that have a sense of variety, fluidity, complexity, and indeterminacy, and excoriates those with a wooden, simplified, comfortable view of human life. Thus, what makes Fifty Shades such an awful (and it sounds awful) “tale of seduction, submission and commodity fetishism” is primarily its etiolated depiction of human sexuality, which it manages to reduce to kitsch and cliché despite foregrounding BDSM sex, which would seem to offer plenty of opportunities to explore the strangeness of desire.

Jamie Dornan, the actor who plays the handsome bondage-loving plutocrat in the story, “given the job of inspiring lust, fascination and also maybe a tiny, thrilling frisson of fear, succeeds mainly in eliciting pity.” He has, observes Scott in a fantastic slash, “the bland affect of a model, by which I mean a figure made of balsa wood or Lego.” Meanwhile, the female lead character, who is named Anastasia (yeah, I know), “makes no sense. Her behavior has no logic, no pattern, no coherent set of causes or boundaries.” It seems that her main function is to be surprised by wealth, then fucked unconventionally, mostly off-screen of course.

Or not so unconventionally. Scott doesn’t indulge in the cheap snobbery that pegs all popular romantic narratives as melodramatic “women’s stuff,” and indeed you get the sense from the review that he was hoping the movie would be good. After all, it is going to make hundreds of millions of dollars anyway. The film “fall[s] back into traditional gender roles even as it plays with transgressive desires,” and “love . . . functions less as an emotional ideal than as a literary safe word.”

Trilling would approve. Not only is Scott willing to make judgments–no cheap aesthetic pantheism in his game–he makes them according to the only standard narrative art can really be held to: Does the text engage the frightening, glorious intricacy of human lives, or does it reduce them to pasteboard typology, received narrative, and worn-out, ersatz forms of knowledge? Well, which is it?

Without “The Corner” There is No “The Wire”: A Textual Suggestion

Nothing ever shown on television anywhere ever is as brilliant as The Wire, so it’s not like David Simon and Edward Burns, the show’s creators, need props from some random writer. But before The Wire took off, the pair wrote a fantastic sprawl of a book called The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood (1997), which has largely dropped from popular memory despite being the basis for a celebrated HBO miniseries. I read it over the holidays, was struck by it, and wanted to write something about why I was so impressed.

The gist: buy the book. Help writers survive. Books are cheap like Coors Light, but unlike a macrobrew twelver they actually make life better.

The Corner does not purport to have the same scope in terms of themes or characters as The Wire. The reader doesn’t spend much time with cops (though some pages are reserved for isolated wrecks like Bob Brown, a Baltimore PD Ahab still walking the long tail of a pointless war); or with highly organized drug crews like Stringer and Avon Bell’s (we only meet part-time teenagers gunning for blunt and Jordans money); or with city politicians, union bosses, stick-up boys, or itinerant European gangsters.

What it does have, instead, is incredible depth and patience with a smaller set of black Americans from Baltimore’s failed-state western neighborhoods. This is a “sad and extraordinary place,” as Simon and Burns put it, and you might call their approach Season 4 coverage, after The Wire‘s crushing foray into the lives of teenagers in city public schools. But the focus is even tighter here, because there are no Major Colvins or Marlo Stanfields, there is no Keema, nor an Omar.

The narrative follows a mostly civilian, localized orbit, although most of the teenage boys are training to be soldiers and slingers. There’s the community center, run by Ella Thompson, who is still fighting against a social collapse that was assured years ago, her center hanging on with almost no money in a flaming neighborhood; there is “the lost platoon” of junkies in shooting galleries in wrecked rowhouses; there are the schools, unable to change what is happening outside their gates but blamed for it anyway; there are the dope crews and young moms and thirtysomethings dying of AIDS; there are, at the center of the ethnography, ordinary poor Americans undone by drugs as much as by the depraved “jail ’em all” stupidity of the drug war that began with Nixon and has continued through Obama. The core of this narrative core comprises Gary McCullough, Fran Boyd, and DeAndre, the first two coke and heroin addicts who used to be married, the latter their complicated, tall, witty teenage son, a kid on his way to fleeting second-lieutenant drug-market success and a city grave by twenty.

The book’s prose lyricism is often staggering. A blend of subjects’ voices and authorial narration, it gets to some heights journalism usually doesn’t. There are about a thousand lines that will have you asterisking and highlighting. I’ll lay out a handful. *hums and digs around in cardboard box*

Two heroin shooters “simply sit, letting the chemistry happen.” A cocaine addict is described as “a charged particle loosed beyond the human condition, frenzied, spinning through the streets from one vial to the next.” A mother waves “frantically” to her son on a winter day, “but the cold wind is coming down the hill, pushing the words back into her mouth.” The same woman’s rented room is “a haunted box.” “Moment by moment, the city is becoming a machine of small insults and petty failures that can wear down even the strongest soul,” a soul like Miss Ella, who runs the tattered community center. Children in West B-more are “suckled on the nihilism of the corner[.]” DeAndre McCullough spends a night “smoking Phillie blunts until his eyeballs look like cherries in buttermilk,” while his father Gary’s running buddy overdoses in front of Gary’s mother, treating her “to a vile and frantic performance.” A thirteen-year-old mother lies in her hospital bed, “in absolute fear of what her body was doing to her.” Miss Ella could be a despondent Studs Terkel of the neighborhood, “shaking her head in dismay, as if truly astonished that the intimate knowledge of so many nightmares could count for so little.”

As Simon and Burns (correctly) see it, late capitalism has rendered socioeconomic groups that were already brutalized and marooned even more economically useless, save as bodies for the “ruthless economic engine” of drug markets and the counterinsurgent drug war. Their historical editorializing is a little repetitive, as is the case even with The Wire, to be honest, but it is rarely extrusive or annoying, because its moral anger is so compelling. From one passage:

Get it straight: they’re not just out here to sling and shoot drugs. That’s where it all began, to be sure, but thirty years has transformed the corner into something far more lethal and lasting than a simple marketplace. The men and women who live the corner life are redefining themselves at incredible cost, cultivating meaning in a world that has declared them irrelevant. […]

On Fayette Street today, the corner world is what’s left to serve up truth and power, money and meaning. It gives life and takes life. It measures all men as it mocks them. It feeds and devours multitudes in the same instant. Amid nothing, the corner is everything. […]

This is an existential crisis rooted not only in race–which the corner has slowly transcended–but in the unresolved disaster of the American rust-belt, in the slow, seismic shift that is shutting down the assembly lines, devaluing physical labor, and undercutting the union pay scale. Down on the corner, some of the walking wounded used to make steel, but Sparrow Point isn’t hiring the way it once did.

By the time Simon and Burns get around to likening the drug war to Vietnam, even an attentive reader might be tempted to skip ahead, only to be yoked again by the prose: “Listen to a big-city narcotics detective boasting about his arrest statistics, savoring them as tangible evidence of progress, and you might think of some starched Saigon briefing officer in an air-conditioned Quonset hut tallying up the daily body count.”

At these moments we sometimes get gold that was refashioned for The Wire, but hey, some great artists know how to self-plagiarize. For example, Bunny Colvin’s deservedly famous paper-bag address shows up as a pointed interjection from the authors, as does his piece about the irrelevance of high school to kids from this part of the world (1). Ditto for DeAngelo Barksdale’s extemporaneous lecture on how, in a rational world, narcotics could be sold peacefully as burgers.

The authors call their approach “stand-around-and-watch journalism.” It is structurally granular and recursive, rather than linear or vertical, using the four seasons to provide a basic shape and chapter names: the subjects’ lives don’t admit of much development or progress in any way that would be familiar to the majority of American readers, who (admit it) still love the Whig myth about historical Progress toward the best of all possible worlds. The corner is iteration upon iteration. A season passes, but the next looks much the same, and anyway the previous will be back.

Considering that two middle-class, middle-aged white guys wrote it, The Corner is a remarkably nuanced, intimate, humane piece of ethnography, one that should have sold a billion copies. Most definitely not a stooping Victorian treatise on The Poor, it is genuinely tender without condescension or sentiment. Simon and Burns aren’t wearing pith helmets, they are writing about men and women they got to know quite well, complex people in a terrible corner of the world.

The text’s epigraph is from Kafka: “You can hold back from the suffering of the world. You have free permission to do so and it is in accordance with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.” [italics added]

Bummer alert: the book is sad. It begins and ends in misery, loss, existential strangulation, pointless brutality. You will also probably be angry upon finishing all 543 pages. You should be. The Corner was researched in 1992-93 and published in 1997. The Wire‘s final season concluded seven years ago, and in that same year the United States would congratulate itself on electing a black President. But, poorer than ever, in 2015 we are still going hard at the drug war. While you read this, someone got locked up after getting caught with a little heroin in a neighborhood where decent jobs vanished four decades ago. That happened. It is happening. We all live here.

NOTES
1. Major Colvin is the fuckin’ best. He’s the character whose voice is closest to that of Simon and Burns.