Ryan on Drugs at the Los Angeles Review

Over at the Los Angeles Review, I’ve written a short essay about a new book on drugs, art, and culture. Despite the subject, I’m sober as a judge. Here’s an excerpt:

But the book would be limited if it just catalogued the influence of chemicals on the lives and works of artists, fascinating as that might be. Scott goes further, locating drugs within networks of capital and power. Narcotics are big business. Reliant on economic and ecological networks built during centuries of imperial conquest—that’s how rum, cocaine, sugar, coffee, Scotch, tea, tobacco, weed, Oxycontin, and all the other hedonic goodies became global commodities—“migrations of the narco-imaginary are marked by a history of violence.” Police power backs up corporate interests, determining which drugs are legally available and which are forbidden, and punishing socially marginal users of the latter most severely. Witness America’s prisons, full of black and Latino users in 2017, when a middle-class white literary critic might walk down the street smoking a joint in any state where you can buy a medical-marijuana card. The great irony of drugs: promising transcendence, they are wired into the same late-capitalist circuits that provide us with Chicken McNuggets and private jails.

-Ryan

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Happy Birthday, Mr. Stevens

As the Mad Hatter says, we all have 364 un-birthdays. But for Wallace Stevens, the greatest American poet who ever lived–epic like Whitman, possessed of Dickinson’s lyric intricacies, fleshier than Bishop, more national than Eliot, beautiful unlike Pound–October 2 isn’t one of those. This year he would have been 136. It’s too bad cryogenics haven’t advanced as much as sci-fi movies suggest.

I am lucky that during the 1990s and 2000s my home state, Virginia, had a superb public education system from K to college. In 1999, when I was seventeen, I spent a summer in the state Arts and Humanities Governor’s School at the University of Richmond, where I took strange, exhilarating classes on things like Critical Imagination and hung out with dancers, poets, painters, photographers, actors, and other weirdos.

In one of those classes we read poets like Yeats, Rimbaud (whom I was really getting into at the time, having discovered Enid Starkie’s biography of him), and Stevens. I remember reading the poem below, “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” and feeling immediately, before I understood a word, that it was otherwordly, like Pedro Martinez’s change-up, a text uninterested in anything like philosophical or ideological Content and yet scenically intelligible and eager to show me something pleasingly, oddly beautiful. It wobbled and reverberated with magic Yeats and mad Rimbaud:

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers
In red weather.

In 2005 a dear friend gave me a hardcover copy of Stevens’s Collected Poems (the 1954 Knopf edition, still the standard). I’ve read the shit out of it ever since, that husky, taped-up, note-tattooed volume. My favorite poem is still, I think, at least in most moods, “Peter Quince at the Clavier,” which just vaporizes the century’s poetic competition. By turns soulful, satirical, straight-faced, erotic, and cinematic, long but brisk, with a continuous lyric intelligence underlying everything, “Peter Quince” was first published a century ago, in 1915, but it remains strikingly contemporary. You can imagine the guy in jeans, taking a selfie of the pool where Susanna . . . well, you’ll see. Full text here; final amazing stanza below. Happy weekend, y’all.

Beauty is momentary in the mind —
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies; the body’s beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden’s choral.
Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death’s ironic scraping.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.
And let us remember: Stevens was an insurance executive at the company now known as The Hartford. An insurance exec!

Late-Summer Recommendations: Feel “The Chill”

When it comes to genre conventions, detective fiction has quite recognizable and consistent ones, the experiments of some authors notwithstanding. Since Edgar Allan Poe invented the species in the mid-1800s, a reader has generally known what she is going to get from most detective noir. These expectations cohere in the figure of the narrator, the private eye, who is usually male [1], usually a bachelor (albeit one intriguing to oft-untrustworthy dames), usually a cynic (perhaps even a melancholy one), usually based in a city, usually on ambivalent terms with the police (of whom he was perhaps once an officer), and usually more interested in solving particular crimes than in generalizing about What It All Means in some grand existential sense, or serving a general narrative that does that.

The detective’s universe is amoral yet explicable, provided one is reasonably unsentimental—provided one is ready to be disappointed by the weird, selfish motives, rationalizations, and acts of human beings. (In many ways the genre is an ongoing response to capitalism, Darwin, and Freud. Then again, so is everything.) For the most memorable private eyes, in fact, disappointment is a flavor from the past: they have already seen too much to be let down by anything people do with or to one another. The detective’s unstated moral task is to not become like other people even while watching them closely.

The unfortunate side result of this conventionality is that there’s a lot of crappy, formulaic detective fiction out there. Hacks can churn the stuff out quite easily, like pornography or L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry. Genuinely good writers are those who play with and re-imagine the genre’s strictures while keeping things entertaining, which is another central demand of the form.

If I had to pick a G.O.A.T. detective writer, I would bet the house on Ross Macdonald. Born Kenneth Millar in 1917, “Macdonald” reached literary maturity in the 1950s, when he started publishing books centered on the detective Lew Archer. (OK, the first Archer novel is technically from 1949, but Macdonald’s first great book, The Drowning Pool, dropped in 1950.) These sold well and received some praise from thoughtful critics, especially Eudora Welty, but his rep as a master primarily developed after his death in 1983. Man got laurels in the grave.

Lew Archer is certainly tough-minded and pessimistic, and ready to put his body into defensive action, but he isn’t hard in the idiomatic sense. He isn’t violent or foul-mouthed; he doesn’t have much of a temper, doesn’t appear to dislike women, and doesn’t have any deep sins in his past.

Instead, Macdonald makes him something of a wandering, reluctant poet. Or, like, if Montaigne were a private dick. The narratives that enmesh Archer are driven largely by his sensitivity to the world and his ability to off-handedly describe it in striking terms. Often he thinks and talks (to himself) like a sad aesthete; Archer is a writer who doesn’t write. The moral superstructure of Macdonald’s novels consists not in appeals to higher ethical, political, or social powers, to some crux of Good and Evil, but in the humanist clarity and tonal beauty of Archer’s responses to a world after God.

Ross MacDonald - The Chill

We can see this by looking at 1963’s The Chill, one of the best mid-century examples of the detective form. A handful of Archer’s remarks provides a sense of the book’s prose quality and the vigor of its characterizations and settings, which in turn lend it legitimate ethical weight. Enjoy some lapidary fragments.

Still her black eyes were alert, like unexpected animal or bird life in the ruins of a building.

Some men spend their lives looking for ways to punish themselves for having been born, and Begley had some of the stigmata of the trouble-prone.

Spiders had been busy in the angles of the rafters, which were webbed and blurred as if fog had seeped in at the corners.

Black grief kept flooding up in him, changing to anger when it reached the air.

He wore a plaid waistcoat, and he had the slightly muzzy voice and liquid eyes and dense complexion of a man who drank all day and into the night.

It became drab and impersonal like any room anywhere in which murder had been committed. In a curious way the men in uniform seemed to be doing the murder a second and final time, annulling Helen’s rather garish aura, converting her into laboratory meat and courtroom exhibits.

Time seemed to have slowed down, dividing itself into innumerable fractions, like Zeno’s space or marijuana hours.

I could hear her breathing as if she was struggling up to the rim of the present.

In wine was truth, perhaps, but in whisky, the way Hoffman sluiced it down, was an army of imaginary rats climbing your legs.

The light that filtered through their turning leaves onto the great lawns was the color of sublimated money.

The receiver crashed down, but he went on talking. His voice rose and fell like a wind, taking up scattered fragments of the past and blowing them together in a whirl.

I got a quick impression of him: a man of half-qualities who lived in a half-world:he was half-handsome, half-lost, half-spoiled, half-smart, half-dangerous. His pointed Italian shoes were scuffed at the toes.

Her broad sexless body made her resemble a dilapidated Buddha.

The road left the shore and tunneled among trees which enclosed it like sweet green coagulated night.

His eyes came up to mine, candid and earnest as only an actor’s can be.

The long slow weight of prison forces men into unusual shapes. McGee had become a sort of twisted saint.

The kind of fiction we call “literary” has two distinguishing features. First, its language strives to challenge but delight: to be beautiful. Second—without which the first feature is nearly pointless—such fiction consistently explores what a meaningful human existence might look like, whether or not some deity or judge is watching, whether or not meaning can actually be achieved and not just struggled toward. For Archer, for Macdonald, for many serious modern novelists, God’s house is empty; it probably always was. There is only the consolation of truthful language and scrupulous work. Archer uses one to frame the other. That labor is done in the face of much “fear and loathing,” a phrase (echoing Kierkegaard) that appears in this book years before Hunter S. Thompson popularized it.

Dig Macdonald. And look at that paperback cover!

Notes
1. Though not always male. Martin Amis’s Night Train (1997) is a good example of a noir novel with a female lead.

“I had to inhale all the books”: Coates the Canonist

Since Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me dropped a couple of weeks ago, the book has been reviewed by a brigade of critics, including the tidal choruses of Twitter. Most of the serious evaluations have been positive; some are even euphoric. They’re still pouring in, and I’m down with consensus: the man’s prose is exhilarating, his ethical intelligence acute, his historical knowledge vast. The book’s meditation on American racism has immediately become required reading, and I needn’t add to what many other critics have said about that general line of his critique. Here I’d like to focus on a smaller but nevertheless significant aspect of the work: I want to examine the bookworm’s Between the World and Me and speculate briefly on what that says about Coates’s writing mind.

In a recent series of tweets, John Warner (@biblioracle) remarked that in contrast to James Baldwin, to whom he is often compared, Coates has a voice more reminiscent of the classroom than the pulpit. I agree. Granted, Baldwin was just as much of an intellectual, and there is a sermonic element in Coates’s address to his son, but Coates sounds more like Toni Morrison when she’s in critic mode. (A mode where, ironically, she wrote BTWM’s only cover blurb, which names Coates Baldwin’s heir.) He explicitly, repeatedly identifies himself as a reader with catholic tastes, as a self inseparable from an education in books (among other things, of course). BTWM inhabits a corpus of critical theory, much of it “Western,” even though its author, like Malcolm X, the bibliophilic hero of his youth, rejects Eurocentric models of cultural capital that laid claim to this tradition of thought. Plato and Said and Nietzsche and Henry Louis Gates and dozens of other writers inform the book without being openly referenced; others who actually are named, like DuBois and Hurston and Baraka, mark Coates’s entrance into intellectual adulthood. His work underscores the centrality of writing and reading—the centrality of printed texts—to the intellectual equipment of any serious person.

Since childhood, when his mother challenged him to write in response to frustrations, Coates had what he calls “the gift of study” (a gift suppressed in most people.) This readerly gift is the twin of his need to write; and these acts form a critical humanist consciousness. He sees “the craft of writing as the art of thinking.” Writing well requires “a confrontation with my own innocence, my own rationalizations,” for “loose and useless words [a]re not separate from loose and useless thoughts.” Speaking of “the art of journalism,” he deems it “a powerful technology for seekers,” a claim that can be generalized to all ambitious writing. His version of the Socratic examined life is fundamentally textual.

Further, Coates is a canonist. Not in the normative way that, say, Harold Bloom or Matthew Arnold are, because they see canon-formation and maintenance as primarily an Anglo project; but rather in terms of a basic belief that some texts really are better than almost all others and thus worth passing along to younger generations first. To be sure, he envisions a democratic canon which is constantly interrogated and supplemented, but he’s still a Great Books man. Canonicity is a principle, not a specific roster of content.

The canon isn’t the possession of any particular institution, not even Coates’s beloved Howard. When he began working out his canon, he drew upon the frameworks and resources of the university but remained a free agent “made for the library, not the classroom.” His emerging archive of Great Books flowed into what he calls Mecca, the embodied network of black knowledge, imagination, and experience that encompasses and exceeds the school. Mecca is a lifeworld, is all the breathing human treasure of the African diaspora, a diaspora that called him to read everything he could and cull meaning from the pile. At Howard’s Moorland library, he began to understand that “My reclamation would be accomplished, like Malcolm’s, through books, through my own study and exploration.”

His theory and practice of the library rest on the idea of an ecumenical canon where “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,” a quip he borrows from the journalist Ralph Wiley (who was responding to Saul Bellow’s dickhead quip that Zulu culture produced no literary consciousness). The canon is fluid and sometimes internally contradictory—he calls it “the discordant tradition”—because the examined life is like that, too. Being “politically conscious” entails “a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.” Shades of Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination here. Indeed, canonicity enables inquiry in the first place, inquiry which in turn permits modifications of the canon. I suspect Coates and T.S. Eliot would disagree about a lot of things, but here they are brothers. Between the World and Me embeds historical and political critique in a continuum of reading just as Eliot’s essay “Tradition and Individual Talent” conceptualizes literature as a dialectic between a textual canon and the authorial self.

Coates is also a materialist. Our physical bodies do not merely house preexisting souls, they somehow engender these souls. Mind is brain, brain is mind. There is no God nor any consolatory, absolute form of meaning. History has no telos–“the god of history is an atheist,” Coates assures his son. We, and in particular people who live under assault, as African Americans do, have only an endless struggle to be honest about the past, live with dignity in the present, and perhaps imagine the slow possibility of better futures.

“I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream,” he writes, “is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.” We have “constant interrogation” of and “confrontation with the brutality” that constitutes American history. His fundamental aim, then, is embodied critique: a representation of what it is like to be an American reader and writer with black skin.

Reading, writing, and thinking: these are physical acts for Coates, and in their concreteness they oppose what he calls the Dream, the normative national story in which America is an innocent, uniquely beneficent place predicated on a healthy bank balance of whiteness, which is less a skin tone than an existential ideal. “The Dream thrives on generalizations,” he warns, “on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.” One of the most trenchant aspects of Between the World and Me is how it enlists the idea of Great Books in a counterattack on the very white-dominant narrative that has long claimed canonicity for itself–that, in fact, has treated print culture in general as an Anglo-European property. This countering move continues a campaign begun by earlier black intellectuals like Henry Louis Gates and Stanley Crouch.

You should buy a copy of BTWM, because it’s a rare honor when you can help a legit thinker get paid. Dude deserves millions. But I hope to look back in fifty years and find the text to be just one part of the Coates wing of the great unfolding American library. Poetry, claims Wallace Stevens, is the scholar’s art. So is the kind of fire Coates has been writing for a half-decade now. The man stores his gunpowder on the bookshelf.

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.