Jason Morris

Made in USA



DRUG LIT You can go to these places. Reading Righteous Dopefiend (University of California, 392 pages, $24.95), I kept trying to pinpoint, via clues in the text, where on "Edgewater Blvd." — Bayshore — the homeless heroin addicts whose lives the book chronicles were encamped. You want to know if you’ve walked by them. Because what pulls you through this often dense ethnography are finely drawn portraits of the brutal lives of individuals.

Philippe Bourgois, a professor of anthropology and medicine who taught for a while at UCSF (he’s now at the University of Pennsylvania) and Jeff Schonberg, a photographer, spent nearly 12 years with a core group of 10 homeless drug addicts in and around the Bayshore area. In Righteous Dopefiend they’ve created a devastating, blow-by-blow indictment of the countervailing forces that conspire to keep these people — Hank, Petey, Tina, Carter, Felix — on the margins.

Of course, the authors recognize that the members of the group they’re following bear some responsibility for the day-to-day atrocity their lives have become. But they track these lines back carefully, conducting extensive interviews with family members, former employers, and ex-spouses who live more (or at least much less precariously) in the "mainstream." Part of what’s revealed in these back stories reminded me of William T. Vollmann’s argument, in his book Poor People (Ecco, 2007), about "accident prone-ness": that the cultures of poverty, addiction and marginalization have a snowball effect within individual lives. Meeting medical — or court — appointments becomes impossible without transportation; sores and open-container tickets turn into abscesses and bench warrants.

The book is divided into nine parts, each detailing an aspect of the everyday lives of the homeless addicts. In "Falling in Love," over the course of interviews, monologues, and Schonberg’s overwhelming black and white photographs, we watch the trajectory of Tina and Carter’s on-again, off-again romance. The chapter is bracketed by "Intimate Apartheid" and "A Community of Addicted Bodies," which illustrate the particulars of the group’s estrangements (from within and without) and its focal, primary romance — with heroin, crack, and alcohol.

In "Making Money," the few legal, and many more illegal, means of getting enough cash to fix are catalogued and considered. Bourgois considers the obsolescence of blue-collar manufacturing jobs, nationally and particularly in rapidly gentrifying cities like San Francisco. What interests the authors here, as elsewhere, are the ambiguously symbiotic, even parasitic relationships employers have with the homeless. One boss who relies on a member of the group pays him exactly enough for a bag of heroin, ensuring that he’ll be at work again first thing the next day.

Throughout the first-person narratives, Bourgois threads his argument: that the institutions, ostensibly set up to serve this body of addicts (from the police-state to community clinics) are, like the employers, both dependent on them (for government funding, menial labor, etc.) and ultimately at cross-purposes with them. The services senselessly undercut one another, forming a no-place for the homeless to barely survive in, characterized by the either/or of living purely by chance, in extreme squalor, or in a permanent maze of bureaucracy. So the Edgewater homeless carve out a life in between, under the freeways but with methadone treatment or an SRO perpetually on the horizon. It’s a shell game where the addict always loses.

There are plenty of good reasons to get this book and read it. If you’re interested in homelessness, addiction, or in the public health issues surrounding IV drug use, this is an excellent source of information. The authors treat their subject brilliantly and with great compassion. It is also a hell of a story, and it’s local. These people walk by you every day and should not remain invisible.

In the American tree


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REVIEW I’ll remain calm while reviewing Bernadette Mayer’s new collection of poems, Poetry State Forest (New Directions, 128 pages, $17.95). It’s sort of a B-sides-and-rarities collection. I first heard "Easy Puddings" through a recording of a reading-interview Mayer gave with Susan Howe on KPFA-FM in the 1970s. While not all of the poems are new, all of them might be new to you.

This dense forest is, first and foremost, public property. Although Mayer’s poetry looks and often is intimidating, it also offers warm welcome: it comes straight out of the ground ("mud’s an introduction to thinking," she writes), and its loaded with good humor ("mother give me five I know not what I do"). Add to this the fact that Mayer has always been fiercely and unapologetically political:

I only have faith in writers

One painted on a barn "FUCK BUSH!"

This gives a bad name to fucking

Like Catullus, whose work she’s translated, local news and the people and places of her life (in upstate New York) flash in and out of the poems, creating a choppy river of narrative. These flashes of local news suffuse their subjects with a mythical quality. They come with creation myths: "& when phil first met max, born in henniker, new hampshire, he was jumping on the top of our yellow couch, saying, ‘i’m high!’." Mayer’s neighbor Helen Green ("i buy brown / beige & white eggs / from the greens"), who grew up in the upstate New York town of Troy, becomes "Helen of Troy."

Poetry State Forest is packed with weird trees and you may need snowshoes. But the experimental nature of the writing is born of necessity, not art: it charts a mind too complex, too humanly thoughtful and restless to be encapsulated into neat syntax. Line by line, ideas bump into one another in explosions of beautifully torqued grammar: a series of sonnets gives way to a long section of notebook fragments, or a dialogue between Mayer and her house.

Over the course of her long and awesome career, Mayer’s reverently studied and mastered one poetic form after another (the sonnet, epigram, and sestina, among others), and then gleefully watched each implode. She’s really the direct heir to Gertrude Stein. And if William Burroughs was right that "intellectuals are deviants in the U.S.," Mayer is living proof by the sheer force of her intellect, and the capable way it undoes syntax, form, and orthodoxy at every turn.

The first poem in Poetry State Forest, "Chocolate Poetry Sonnet," ends with the couplet "poetry is as good as chocolate / chocolate’s as good as poetry." I want to know where Bernadette Mayer gets her chocolate.