Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
To send your new book to decomP for possible review, see our guidelines. To find out what’s currently under consideration, visit our review queue.
Police are their own subculture, that community in blue, and ex-Alleghany County cop Cvetic (who served “as a uniformed officer, a Homocide detective, and an undercover Narcotics officer,” according to his bio page, and that’s Pittsburgh, the Steel City) shows us why. Maybe there’s some kick to the authority, some bond of fraternity, whatever, but police—and we, the rest of us, the citizens, are skilled at and have a deep history of ignoring this, blocking it from our minds—go out every day and work at the edges of our world, the shadows and the sticky places—“the gutter,” as Cvetic calls it in one poem. And, as he puts it, offering advice to newly minted officers (one imagines them standing starched and more than a little puffed with pride, having passed from cadet training, done their laps, and taken their tests and now finally in), “no matter the polish of badge / you eyes will find pain / you will see broken people / hear the unspeakable.” There is glory for police on rare occasions, many of those in Hollywood movies. For the most part—the weighty, groaning, overwhelmingly most part—the job is without glory, without respect, without acknowledgement. One part of it is simple boredom, one part of it is that more devious form of boredom called paperwork, one part of it is being that thin line between civilization and chaos, one part of it is having people want you dead and occasionally try to kill you, and one part of it—maybe, in a way, if we wanted to wax mystical, the most salvific part, wherein something human is sacrificed for the common good—is witnessing. Cops are out there, seeing what we want never or only very rarely ever have to see.
So how does one cope with this job? A perpetual counting down to retirement works for some. I’ve heard of cops not averse to a drink now and again. In these books, suicide is treated as an option, by some too shocked and left too lonesome by their experiences. But maybe most popular is a particular sort of humor, the gallows sort, which becomes an expression of the police subculture: a kind of comedy unique to cops, helping to comprehend and endure what they’ve seen and have to go on seeing. There’s plenty of that humor here.
These are narrative poems, telling stories, and some of the stories here are similar to stories I’ve heard from police in other places, similar build-up and similar punch lines. The dogs get shot in the end, for instance. Or after walking in on a shotgun suicide, your partner thinks it’s sort of clever to cover his plate of scrambled eggs with ketchup. Not every reader will think these twists are funny, exactly, but like the heavy-handed, exuberantly weird symbolic actions of the Hebrew prophets, these actions are undeniably true—and they stick with you, as Cvetic says at the start, “just like eating a bar of soap.”
What police do, day in and day out, is dwell in the proximity not only of death—their own and others, the death of the bag-slinger or gangbanger, the death of the kid on the corner or the commuter in the wrong car—but a whole slew of moral tragedy. In these books, there’s the guy who gets off, sexually, on hiding in a toilet used by little girls, or there’s the kids, angry and bored, who get off, in terms of cheap thrill and giggles, pissing down a housing project elevator shaft, onto rookie cops. We encounter, in these pages, human beings addicted to killing chemicals and ruining behaviors; human beings selling their bodies, piecemeal or on the installment plan; human beings alone and afraid in their last minutes; human beings begging, pathetic or contemptible, pristinely innocent or soured with sickness. There’s a rapist in these books, for instance, who “has a smell of crust” and, when caught, panics, pleading with the police, “Please don’t tell my fiancée, / I’m getting married next week.” Human beings “sick of the lumps,” from getting beaten, but who go back for more, who give their lives over to getting beaten and beaten until they are just beaten to death—this is the sort of thing police witness, the sort of thing to which these poems testify. The horror that in our world—us, citizens—gets relegated to being “all too often only second page news.”
For me, then, one of the values of Cvetic’s work is that it testifies to this experience, gives voice (he’s not alone in this, I’ll give a shout-out to Chicago Police Department’s Martin Preib and his brilliant book, The Wagon, which, if you’re reading this far into this review, you need to get your hands on) to the what police see. He does it with humor, with rage, with tenderness, with pain, with more than a touch of absurdity, and with, below it all, a profound morality. There are poems here that look back on childhood—framing transgressions much the way Saint Augustine’s frames his, a kid who collects candy money from his neighbors on the pretense of gathering funds for the poor, or a kid who, with his friends, feels the rush of “hurling alley apples / and watching the picture windows crash.” Childhood, in these rememberings, was about transgression and its pleasures but also the swift smack back (from some parent or nun) to the notion of right and wrong as something ingrained and the laws civil society—the rules and respect which allow us to live together—as something necessary.
Yet the narrator of these poems is a cop well aware that part of the blue line’s burden is reading the letter of the law with a slight fluidity—confused kids get breaks cut, clever cons find their trickery out-tricked—sympathetic to victims of all varieties, contemptuous of anyone arrogant or abusing power, and able to marvel at the full carnival spread of what the days spew out on his plate. A thief shows up for a court date with a set of stolen teeth uncomfortably glued in his mouth, for instance, or a hero police horse, up for public recognition, gets turned to glue itself, rendered away before he can be paraded out for applause. People die in bad ways, or people, against all odds, survive what sure should have been horrible ways to die and stumble on, with silly nicknames, lucky in unluck. Here’s a line from a court date Cvetic’s narrator sits through: “No, he wasn’t shootin’ at Random, / Random wasn’t even there.” People might compare Cvetic’s poetic with Bukowski, and maybe that’s useful in some ways, but ultimately—whether he’s quoting Rumi or Lorca—Cvetic grinds out his own unique vernacular, asking that most basic, street-level question, “what in hell does any of this mean?” and balancing at the lip of the abyss between keeping or losing one’s humanity, recognizing or refusing to acknowledge the humanity of the other. “I had him centered and about two pounds of trigger pull,” one poem goes. Think about that: to almost kill a person, to be in that position, to make that call and holster your weapon and do the required paperwork and work the rest of your shift, day after day. That’s where the poems come from: and if the people in the background drag toilet paper from their heels and if the river sloughs on and on, past the dirty lights of the city, all of this is not, in Cvetic’s eyes, without an always startling, always unexpected grace.
Official Lascaux Editions Web Site