no use to linger over beauty or simple effect:
this is just a poem with a job to do . . . .
--A. R. Ammons, Garbage
It is the summer of 1964, and the cops are picking through the bushes next to Musket and Hendrickson’s Pharmacy. The cops look just like cops in movies do when they busy themselves about the edges of a murder mystery. In retrospect, I could associate them with ushers—stolid, meticulous, and sleekly attired—but it is the summer of 1964, when we are eleven-year-olds walking home from Hebrew school, and to us, as if they were staging their occupation for our sake, they look just like cops. Not cops out of classic Hal Roach comedies, constantly colliding as if they stood packed together on a subway with a stuck clutch, or Monty Python cops yet to come, all bumble and huff, forever interrupting the proceedings with their “What’s all this, then?” bluster. Not the negligible cops that a Humphrey Bogart would have to direct and defy by turns, or cops ambiguously directed and composed in a Flann O’Brien farce. But conventional cops, iconic cops, cops ideally cast and fished out of elementary school Career Day presentations or fleshed out of children’s picture books with titles like So You Want to Be a Policeman? They are cops like the cops whom even our fathers, if they were flagged down while driving, would refer to their faces as “officers,” for they are clearly cops who are fluent in the postures, protocols, and ten codes of the force. Even bending to inspect the bushes, showing their blue-black backsides pressing broadly against their uniform trousers to flatten the pleats, they maintain the solid aspect of Protect and Serve—dutiful, incorruptible, and utterly unfunny.
As best we can tell, they are trying to reconstruct an accident, infer a perpetrator, construe a crime out of clues that we are too innocent to recognize as clues, much less to cobble together into a working hypothesis. Diligent as soldiers, diligent as crows, they parse and piece together the vestiges of an event we can only guess at. One cop discovers a cellophane wrapper impaled on a thorn, which he detaches as gingerly as one might free the leg of a pet from a twist of barbed wired. A second plucks windblown pages of the Tribune, which he silently divides up between himself and his partner as if they were a couple preparing to brunch on a Sunday morning.A third snaps up what appears to be an empty aspirin bottle; he turns it over and over in his hands the way a shopper would to evaluate a piece of fruit before committing it to her grocery cart. A fourth pinches something invisible to us at this distance from the dirt; then he seals it in a Ziploc bag like the ones our mothers used for the mundane functions of the kitchen. Collaborative cops. Symbiotic cops. Massive, massively present men, all hung with accoutrements of law enforcement, the stereotypical sticks and holsters and cuffs depending from their belts, the utilities depending as they stoop to such delicate effort as this. It is as if they are performing a pantomime of police work, only more inscrutable and severe, and thereby redeeming the blandness that normally characterizes our walk home. Resolute, effective men have cordoned off an area we never imagined as meriting a cordon, much less elevation to the distinction that the thrilling phrase “crime scene” implies. And now, for once, our path is important enough for professionals to pay attention to.
Certainly we would never look at Baggies the same way again.
What struck me most, although I could not have articulated it then, not at eleven years old and with my understanding limited to only about a third of the Hebrew alphabet and my hunger for dinner, was their gift for determining the germane. To the layman—definitely to the lay kid—there was no distinction between what earned interest and what was passed over. For that consortium of cops, one scrap of paper was enough to warrant a huddle and murmured consultation; on the other hand, another right next to it evidently held no intrigue at all. “Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,” as Robert Frost gently jokes in “Mending Wall.” “It comes to little more.” This was especially true for us, who had no clue as to the rules. But the browsing of cops is ever purposeful, and my reference to Frost undersells their efforts. Next to their demanding brand of forensics, the scrutiny poetry produces is rather slack. True enough, when William Carlos Williams promoted the “’radiant gist’ against all that scants our lives,” his commitment to alertness marked him as a potential candidate for the force; however, when he went on to suggest that this gist “resists the final crystallization,” he betrayed the irrelevance of his sensibilities to criminal investigation.
For while the associations of the poet are rather slapdash—embellishing Keats’s injunction, he loads his rift with either-or--those of the cop are intended to taper toward definite aims. Unlike men of metaphor or, for that matter, evolving molecules, the cop does not have the luxury of making mistakes. A poet’s breakthroughs are subjective, and, often as not, his blunders may be even lovelier; but a cop understands that a single error on his part could be enough to corrupt the trial. Thus each policeman’s eyes passed over us kids to move absolutely through the lot. They were refined instruments, detecting mechanisms designed to operate in an arena of rash behaviors and blunt objects, so as to elicit reliably what was legitimate from what was just litter.
As an eleven-year-old and a humanities major in the making, I could only marvel. Having been weaned on games like “Four Fourths of a Ghost” and “Word Not a Word” during protracted car trips, I was hardly equipped to interpret their method, much less to participate in any meaningful way. In “Four Fourths of a Ghost,” we would take turns calling out letters of the alphabet, trying not to spell a word, with the proviso that we needed to be able to name a word we were presumably verging toward in the event that another contestant called us to account. The goal, then, was to maneuver other players into linguistic cul-de-sacs, where the next inevitable letter would complete a word. After committing four failures, by which I mean four inadvertent spellings of words, the player was a whole ghost—he was out of the game. “Word Not a Word” was even more relentlessly devoted to incoherence. Basically, we took turns concocting nonsensical combinations of sounds, delivering non-word by non-word according to a strict three-beat rhythm, mixing fricatives and blending blends at speed in the hope of avoiding any impending sense: “Clandor!” Two, three, four. “Gretch!” Two, three, four. “Madeery!” Two, three, four. “Chorf!” Two, three, four. “Pestle!” “Oops.” A proficient player, matchless in my family, in fact, when it came to skirting significance, I immediately realized that whatever their eventual value in helping to promote my creative writing, my car-game credentials would never strengthen any application to the police academy, where pointlessness and peregrination were pitfalls to be avoided. Only in graduate school or the family sedan were they strategies to master. Because tending unwaveringly toward sense was never my tendency, I stayed on the sidelines.
This is not by any means to disparage the restrictive way that the cops went about things. The fact is that reductiveness gets a bad rap from the artsy crowd, if only because no case ever gets closed in any other way. In truth, the poet’s propensity for getting overwhelmed by atmospherics and emotions is not only unseemly; it disturbs the crime scene. The poet plops unceremoniously down upon the very premises where the police need to dust for prints. He waxes stanzaically under scudding clouds, leaving his responsible partner to type up the “fives.” No, a lieutenant would be about as likely to put a poet on the case as he would be to ask Matisse to do the chalk outline around a murder victim. For the aleatory is unavailing and expatiation beside the point when culprits are at large.
The cop whom I assume to be in charge—the largest of the squad, the top cop—hacks up something that sounds as if he’s dredged it up from a depth deeper than any depth I have to dredge from. He catches us looking on, and we feel suddenly self-conscious about watching, as though inspection were a cop’s prerogative alone. A police presence contracts everyone in the vicinity into suspects, victims, or other dumb functions of their profession. My recognizing this early in life is partly why as an adult I have continued to be baffled by the behavior of certain characters on cop shows like Law and Order who don’t drop everything when the detectives come to interrogate them. I mean in particular the rich businessmen who react to the intrusion snidely or dismissively. “What is it with you?” I ask aloud. “These are men with guns and badges, for God’s sake! What’s your money to men like them, or your sarcasm? Whatever else you can afford, how can you afford to get testy with them for intruding or turn your back? Your privileged demographics don’t matter. Your snobbery won’t save you. Forget your precious schedule for two minutes. Put down the damn phone and act deferentially, why don’t you? These people are all that separate you from words like arraignment, deposition, and sentencing, against which such nebulous terms as stock quotes are trifling and clients slight. Damn it, why don’t you cower?” When an NFL running back who’s been stopped for speeding in his Beemer scoffs at the officer because he drives a Ford, or when the Hollywood diva who’s been pulled over for a D.U.I. upbraids the patrolman--“Don’t you recognize me? Don’t you know who I am?”--I simply don’t get it. You needn’t see the Rodney King video or study Kafka to figure out what gall before the law will get you.
Surely we knew enough at eleven to keep our mouths shut as we watched the cops’ gathering force, much as the mute survivors of Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” did as “a still and dripping shape was carried up the beach.” Cops were as supremely indifferent to our mincing interests as was the cosmos itself. The only reasonable response was recoil.
In graduate school, I would fall afoul of semiotics, which at that time was for me an unprecedented subject. Its shady central tenets rendered all meaning suspicious: texts were to be treated like crime scenes, and their verbal denizens—wily signifiers disguised as ordinary citizens of extra-textual reality—only intimated meanings within those questionable confines and conspiratorially among themselves. Although it was from their “testimony” that any intelligence at all was constructed, they were not to be entirely trusted, what with signs being such self-serving snitches, shifty and itinerant and typically concealing their own dubious agendas. To further compound the problem, I was instructed that there isn’t a precinct in the culture so inhospitable that meaning cannot hole up and inhere there—not a single inherently senseless square inch. Under every scrap of human culture, to the delight of dedicated, tenure-hungry semioticians, extremophile memes persist. And so campuses all across the country were getting infested by theoretically imbued critics cracking down upon everything from epic poems to cigarette ads and from canonical novels to comic books as if, like a special police platoon who were no longer constrained to go by the book, they’d been given free reign to do whatever was necessary to demystify the streets once and for all.
And in Crane’s words, “they felt that they could then be interpreters.”
I attended one lecture in which I was introduced to a process that the aspiring guest critic called intertextual rewriting. Apparently (once the concept was extricated from her coinages, it actually was fairly apparent after all) intertextual rewriting is what a moviegoer goes through in order to make sense out of the proceedings when he happens late upon the scene. For the novice, the fellow who has briefly nodded off, or the father who was nominated to leave the theater to get popcorn for his crew, the black gloves on top of the piano may be incidental; if he notices them at all, he does not ascribe any particular importance to them apart from their small contribution to verisimilitude. For the audience members who have been paying attention all along, however, those gloves may be thick with significance. Didn’t Malcolm accidentally leave them there when he paid a clandestine call upon Millicent? Or, don’t they match the ones that the killer wore? Whereas a clued-in viewer realizes their pertinence, the belated one must “rewrite” them into the film’s “textu(r)al coherence.” A layman—a lay kid, maybe, in view of my linguistic naivete at the time--might have referred to this method as “catching up,” but no assistant professor ever earned promotion that way. Regardless, whether it was an authentically profounder discernment, mere impatience with the obvious, or enlightened careerism that I witnessed that evening, I was intrigued by the notion that potentially everything is a text to be read and edited, and all meaning is meant to be policed. And I remembered those deft and inferential cops combing the pharmacy lot with far more than a university appointment or journal publication at stake, and maybe I intuited both the direction and the true status of my own future.
What I mean is that it does not take too much extrapolation—considerably less than forensic detectives depend on--to discover something literary about police business and something legislative about theory after all. I have come to think of those cops as connoisseurs of seeing, connoisseurs having as much in common with high-profile aestheticians as they did with Sherlock Holmes. A cop’s job could be characterized by infinitives familiar to the critic: to intercept, to evaluate, to recreate, to consolidate, to conclude. Furthermore, lifting up the fallen and the scattered, electing and rejecting, cops could be said to strive toward something reminiscent of John Berger’s description in The Sense of Sight of the “painted moment” that certain gifted artists are after. Hence, as Berger writes, the Delft that Vermeer immortalizes “has a plenitude and actuality that we experience only rarely in life.” “It has to do with the density per square millimeter of Vermeer’s looking,” thanks to which the scene is reified for us, set apart, sanctified, and saved.
And if Paul Tillich was right when he equated faith with “infinite concern,” perhaps there was something spiritual about what the rapt, uninterruptable police were doing, too. James Joyce famously claimed priestly offices for the modern writer, but police officers could just as easily compete for them, and frankly, they have the superior arcana and accoutrements with which to do so. Not that I would advise society to choose between poets, priests, and police: the current state of affairs leads me to believe that contributions from all areas of expertise would be welcome. In other words, there is plenty of rubble to go around.
That is why I am not surprised now to read that the pulverized remains of the massive ancient Buddhas of Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley, which Taliban forces demolished before being ousted from power in 2001, are being picked over by architects, engineers, scholars, archaeologists, and politicians all at once. Posterity now relies on these motley volunteers to rebuild the monuments, but their motivations are so diverse that restoration itself is a controversial goal. As National Public Radio reports, even apart from the enormous cost of rebuilding (experts estimate that one Buddha alone would take $30 million), “Some insist that the catastrophe that befell them is now part of history and these ghosts should remain as they are. Others argue for using an artful technique now favored by many preservationists: Original fragments are pieced together in a way that makes clear what’s gone.” The provincial governor, Habiba Surabi, has said that he hopes that at least one Buddha would be restored because it might bring tourists back to Bamiyan, but he has to fend off challenges from people who, perhaps having endured several long car rides themselves, are fluent in incompleteness and in apportioning fractions of ghost. As I write, the debate continues—just another kind of outdoor game, a skeptic might say. Meanwhile, the entire valley has been cordoned off and declared “a world heritage site,” which means that whatever fate wins out, the sacredness of the place has already been assured.
As a Jew, I am reminded of how nowadays the Orthodox will establish an eruv, or a virtual household, within whose symbolic confines they may conduct contemporary activities that are historically proscribed during the Sabbath. A recent issue of Harper’s describes such an enclave in New York, which accommodates some 16,000 Orthodox residents: indicated only by yellow fishing line that is anchored throughout the city by streetlights and telephone poles, it is currently being expanded so that it will “enclose” about 4,000 acres in the heart of Manhattan. I suppose that from one perspective, the eruv establishes traditional walls; from another, it makes clear what’s gone.
I am also reminded that my religion emphasizes the necessity of tikkun olum, the repair of the world, and I think back to an ordinary weekday in 1964 when, on my way home from Hebrew school, I saw a group of intensely secular police kneeling like supplicants to retrieve the pieces of an event I could only guess at. Out of the fragments they began to solder the plot back together. I did not have to fully comprehend its meaning to appreciate that they were doing something essential to keeping things intact, to making things right again. I was used to being in this condition: in Hebrew school, we regularly memorized prayers without learning their translations. If we asked the rabbi why, we were told to read on and not to bother about that, that it wasn’t our business. That has always been the part of faith that children are forced to accept first: you don’t have to understand laws in order to be subject to them.
“Go on now, you guys,” commanded the officer in charge. “There is nothing here for you to worry about.” Sometimes it is hard for civilians, particularly civilian kids, to tell a reproach from a reprieve. But at our age, it was enough that we knew who the authorities were, and the way home.