Discovering the Relevance of Words
The Warrendale neighborhood sits on the far west side of the city of Detroit. I describe my childhood home and the neighborhood in which it rests in my first collection of poems, Brother of Leaving. Historically it was a Polish Catholic neighborhood with St. Peter and Paul Parish anchoring the community on the north side of Warren Avenue and St. Thomas Aquinas Parish anchoring the community to the south. Both of these churches where the cops, firemen, and water department workers who once populated the neighborhood sent their sons and daughters to school have closed now. These city workers whose lawns were immaculate, who would work metal claws / beneath weed roots to upend useless / plants or plants for which they saw no use, who would drink beer with VO Canadian Whiskey back at Chick’s on Warren or at the Tipperary Pub on the Southfield Freeway Service Drive, who would coach their sons’ baseball teams and dream of a day when their progeny would go pro and lift them from their working class existences (to my knowledge there has never been a professional athlete to hail from Warrendale) have all moved out to remote suburbs like Canton and Fenton. The Tipperary Pub has closed its doors. The countertops in the bathroom at Chick’s are routinely coated in a layer of Vasoline so the cretins who sneak in the can to do blow might be deterred.
To say the neighborhood is empty would be both classist and racist. To describe the state of my childhood home would be pathetic, or “pornographic” to borrow the pejorative term reserved for aesthetic productions that attempt to document old, abandoned buildings and shambolic graffiti art, though both abound here.
The reality of any place disappears beneath the words we heap upon it. The poem, “How to Enter a Bank-Owned Home,” begins with the lie, I wasn’t born in the house of pathos, then proceeds to give the address of my childhood home. The cover of the book features a shot of the abandoned Tipperary Pub. Trees of heaven obscure the front of the erstwhile bar. “MASHR” has tagged the building with pale blue aerosol paint.
volunteer tree, sucker, // this, a tree of heaven; / cavities in rotten wood, // ailanthus altissima, Rhus / succedanea, stinking // sumac, ghetto / weed, naming // one requisite for destruction.
The ailanthus altissima will rise wherever they are not weeded. Prolific as nuclear families, they will throw up suckers even after their parent trees are killed. Their project is one of sprawl and reclamation.
A car called Nova announces its absence in viscosity on macadam. Pheasants in the poverty grass / and poverty’s antecedents gritting teeth. // A threnody of unsprayed cats… // I pick huckleberries like a sparrow.
Blue tarp over shingle rot, // mossed and scabrous, saplings / growing in the gutter, / the street lights dark throughout the night.
We are often told in writing workshops that in order to evoke place, we must learn the names of things and employ them, that if we properly set down the names of towns, landscapes, and plants, we’ll capture the place we’re writing about that much more fully for our reader. This is specious Cartesian grammar at its finest. Our words will never achieve that sort of presence, no matter how pointed they are. The poet and novelist Ben Lerner writes of “the tragic interchangeability of nouns.” Place is the cadence declarative syntax makes, and it will accept any name we might apply and gladly die beneath it.
In the spume of an uncapped hydrant, / a setting. / In each setting, a sprawling / disjointed list.
For the last decade or so, The State Department has been relocating Iraqi refugees to this West Warren Avenue corridor. West Detroit / is no believable setting, / but a warren slopes away / from Warren Avenue. War sends them here the way another war once necessitated a Polish ethnic enclave in Warrendale, the way that structural and amorphous war against black America sends whites sprawling into distant suburbs like a herd of stinking sumacs. The Iraqis are subjected to the panoply of slurs that comprise our native tongue, and I have been writing letters in the worn-out lexicon of bigots. Trees of heaven look down upon my childhood home and say,
You are / the murderous fear in all of us / that inflicts harm in order to be free / of harm.