Lit

Book Review: Everything Is Gone—Everything Must Go: The Life and Death of an American Neighborhood

Everything Must Go: The Life and Death of an American Neighborhood
By Kevin Coval and Langston Allston
Haymarket Books

What’s the best way to preserve a time and place?

I recall the Six Feet Under finale: Claire Fisher, the youngest sibling and an aspiring photographer, snaps a family photo before heading to New York. As the shutter clicks, her brother Nate, deceased and invisible, whispers, “You can’t take a picture of this, it’s already gone.” Grievously true. Technology lets us capture reality in great detail, everything is recorded, yet nothing is totally preserved. Photos, films, and paintings are just peeks at fleeting moments. Writing—good, clear writing—can summon memory and emotions as quickly as the scents of your childhood kitchen, but it’s still not enough. Well, what about poetry?

Well…

What about poetry?

Kevin Coval’s new book Everything Must Go attempts to recapture 1990s Wicker Park in verse. The book is subtitled The Life and Death of an American Neighborhood, one of those solemn inscriptions a writer should avoid, lest they be found wanting. Everything Must Go somewhat wants, though it also offers an inkling of what it was like back then.

Coval faces a few critical hurdles with me. One, I was there. I didn’t know him in those heady days (trust me, kids, the old days were always heady). I was active in the zine scene, hanging out with the weirdoes, freaks, perverts, and cartoonists at the old Quimby’s and those seedy Lumpen House characters at their hovel on Armitage and Campbell (straight down the street from my own hovel in 1991). I attended my hipster’s share of rock and jazz bands, gallery openings, and rooftop and loft parties. Meanwhile, Coval slammed poetry, went to hip hop shows, and did whatever else he was up to then. I’d be surprised if we didn’t unknowingly pass each other on the street.

It was a scruffy epoch. Wicker Park was home turf for old ethnic whites, Latino folks, and assorted multi-/semi-talented art student transplants from all over. As I recall, it felt like everyone was working their asses off to manufacture a personal movement—a third coast version of 20s Paris, 60s San Francisco, or 70s New York, all smushed together in each resident. A lot happened then, but then a lot happens everywhere, everyday. At the time, I traveled to San Francisco, Portland, and Boston, and corresponded with zinesters around the country, discovering Wicker Park was yet another bustling locus for a population of artists, musicians, poets, zinesters, and free newspaper writers. Usually, they were the same person.

Me, I spent my time shuttling between Quimby’s, my apartment, Copy Max, and freelance ad work at Montgomery Ward, a hardware company, and that place that sold tacky “old world” Christmas decorations. Cheap rent for lots of space; good, affordable grub, and plenty of short-term employment opportunities made Wicker Park and the surrounding area desirable for me and a gaggle of other kids in thrifted clothing.

Personally, I perceived Chicago as far less welcoming than those other hipster hives. Chicago was scuzzy, with a foundational meanness, every kind of bad weather, and some nonsense about being a dues-paying burg that was just a punk version of the Puritan work ethic. The food was fantastic though. The old Wishbone on Chicago? Leo’s Lunchroom’s? The several dozen taquerias? Scrumptious.

All that said, I was curious about Coval’s take on my former ‘hood. But Everything Must Go presents a challenge. I had to decide whether to approach it as a memoir or a chapbook. Let’s get the poetry out of the way first.

An acerbic zinester of my acquaintance once shared the maxim, “A poet is a lazy writer,” positing that a good piece of poetry was only notes for a great piece of prose. Is that fair? Perhaps it depends on the subject matter. As with most poetry, I confess I have no idea what the hell is going on in parts of Everything Must Go. Other times it sings—briefly, Coval’s reminiscences of a lost world, given a modicum of substance through verse. I recognize familiar patterns, cadences, and tropes Coval borrowed from hip-hop, the Beats, and those inescapable Romantics, describing tales of love and romance and finding pathos in stories of ex-roommates and fellow proles toiling in everyday gigs. He also croons odes to 22s in brown paper bags, car repair shops, and, um, the women who launder his unmentionables, leaving him “consoled by knowing/Every garment on my body’s caressed by your hands” (that’s a direct line, by the way). Coval’s Wicker Park was a cauldron of passion, gritty urbanity, and not-so-quiet desperation.

Me? I mostly remember writing and editing ad copy about ceiling fans, going home to work on the zines, bringing beer to Steven at Quimby’s, then getting schnockered at Gold Star, Empty Bottle, or the Krautrock Brunch bartender Rand Miller hosted at Rainbo Club on Sundays. But that’s me. My life lacks epic sprawl by choice. Not Kevin. Everything is big and real. Likewise, Coval seemed determined to live largely, with an ear and eye to retelling his tales later, onstage, I suspect. We find good stuff here that is muy Chicago. I admired his guts and attempt to build bridges, for example, in “White on the Block”, when he approached the (Latin) “Kings” in his new neighborhood and shared a case of beer with them, learning the history of his new/old ‘hood—all the surrounding gangs and the attendant rivalries—and, presumably, sharing his own life with them. Coval’s generosity does not preclude inscrutability though.

Here’s a ’90s flashback: the Charles Mingus tribute album, Weird Nightmare produced by Hal Willner. Willner and a host of contributing musicians performed takes on Mingus compositions like “Pithecanthropus Erectus” and “Oh, Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb on Me.” One stand-out track, “Canon (Part 2)”, has The Band’s Robbie Robertson reading writings by Mingus about a stay in Bellevue Hospital, where he allegedly encountered young chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer. Robertson, all velvet and slither, richly intones a tale of chats and chess games between himself and Fischer. Bobby wins three times and grows bored, so Mingus wanders off to write poetry. Robertson, serpentine, utters:

Oh damn it all blues.
Screwed to the melting frozen walk of dared-to-embrace stone,
concrete hard, imagined soft
only to overdue erections of loneliness

[Imagine finger-snapping sound effects here.]

Culminating in:

Wanting me as I want her to never hate me
because we found refuge of satisfaction as two drunken stones
warmed themselves side by side
In outside our guttered ideas of opposite sides fucking.

This concludes with Mingus speaking with someone we assume to be his shrink.

“Do you understand that poem, Dr. Wallach?”

The good doctor speaks for all of us:

“Well, Charles, it certainly is a very personal expression.”

Poetry is indeed a very personal expression. Here, at times, it’s too personal, not the historical storytelling I expected.

Following that, it wasn’t the format I expected either. The promotional materials and book jacket copy promise “an illustrated collection of poems in the spirit of a graphic novel.” I looked forward to seeing a comic book treatment of Wicker Park. Something that gazed back with age’s wisdom, rather than with callow introspection like so many autobiographical and fictional comics of that era—Hate, Minimum Wage, Unsupervised Existence, Peep Show, and other cartoon tales of hip, broke, white people leap to mind. But Everything Must Go is not a graphic novel, at all.

What it is is a thick, well-produced chapbook accompanied by nicely rendered sketches by artist Langston Allston. And that’s fine. But while it may not be a graphic novel, it could have been a nice one. On Allston’s website are paintings with impressive depth and precision, leaving me thinking the graphic novel approach wasn’t out of reach. In support of this the spread on pages 78 and 79, showing a bar’s interior framed and rivered with Coval’s poems, promises what could have been.

So, let’s consider Everything Must Go a bouquet of memory poesy. Does Wicker Park come alive in Coval’s work? Mostly, obviously, from Coval’s perspective. I recognize shards and tatters of the place I knew, before it was lacquered and bedazzled. Everything Must Go sparks my memories of grubby Guyville days. Seedy and populated by bleary, hungover hipsters and perpetual skells on a Sunday morning, a choir singing in the storefront church on Division. The crowded, greasily scented noisiness of the Busy Bee. The periodic yawp and screech of the strange little mustachioed man on Damen Avenue, picking up cigarette butts and bellowing,

“YARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGH!”

at odd moments. Coval doesn’t cover all these, but I hear their echoes in the book. A sense of place holds an important, well, place in his work.

Coval’s word-smithing isn’t in doubt. He is skilled and clearly parcels each word after careful thought. Not always, but mostly. I didn’t like all his choices. Sometimes he goes for a line so on the nose it’s inside the nasal cavity, as in “A Brief History”

“america is
destined to win
a war
waged in these
Division streets
a war
in this village

this wicked park”

Wicked Park. Sigh. I remember exactly one person using that term with any seriousness back then. We buried him at the crossroads of the crotch formed by North, Damen, and Milwaukee and agreed to never speak of it again.

Other times he uses turns of phrases inspired by pop culture, which is fine in small doses, though I still groaned during “A Brief History”:

“to the suburbs, the grocery
fast food McMansions
then stop

hammer time.”

Oh so 90s, slightly amusing, but necessary?

Sometimes Coval strains his imagery for the sake of a obvious point. A reference to “Louis Sullivan rolling over in a pauper grave” gave me pause. Sullivan died broke, but he’s buried next to his parents in Graceland Cemetery, which is hardly a shared pit. Protests against the presence of MTV’s The Real World: Chicago cast in the space formerly occupied by the Urbus Orbis coffee shop—a favored Coval habitat—garner the following grandiloquent description: “they lathered the door at 1934 W. North Ave./with red paint, a lamb’s blood like Moses commanded.” Unless the protestors were trying to tell the Angel of Death to pass over the Real Worldlings inside, I don’t get it.

A more compelling aspect of the book is deciphering Coval’s poetical persona. I kept wondering if it’s his actual self, or a composite identity that hasn’t appropriated anyone’s culture so much as been assimilated by it. As a technique it does raise interesting questions. In “A Portrait of the Artist in the Hood”, he comments on transplants and the return of the city’s white children’s children:

“i was born here
but haven’t been in some time
my grandfather grew up a few blocks
from where I’m dizzy with smoke
what does it mean when we appear
the children of white flight
back
again”

A good observation, and one few residents considered then or now. I myself am a generation removed from my parents’ and grandparents’ Irish-American Englewood residency. I returned in 1990, and stayed over 25 years. From what I’ve gleaned, Coval was born in Wicker Park, moving away and returning at the end of the last century. What brought us both back, besides jobs and cheap eats? He fails to follow up, replying like a Socratic irony bot:

“where am i supposed to be
where i am supposed to be
where am i supposed to be
where i am supposed to be
where am i supposed to be
where i am supposed to be
where am i supposed to be
where i am supposed to be
where am i supposed to be
where i am supposed to be
where am i supposed to be
where i am supposed to be
where am i supposed to be
where i am supposed to be

(what else would i write about)”

I imagine Coval’s poems are written to be read aloud, backed by music and physicality, but it’s tedious here.

The Coval persona might explain another observation in“1037 N. Damen”

four bedrooms on the top floor of a three-story greystone.
Mikey’s room, an earlobe down to Damen Ave we’d sit on the stoop & drink on the weekends & watch the whole

hood whiten…

As noted, Coval, white, was born in the area, moved away, then returned, leaving the latter statement sounding strange. Has he purposefully looked past the paleness of his own hands and forearms, or is that the point? The suggestion of white hoods might be another on the nose phrasing, but perhaps not.

I see other, stronger notions here. Glimmers of regret for lost youth and the friends one meets and loses. Recalling the time he spent working at Cafe Matou, Coval shows a sympathetic memory for his fellow workers’ lives, and in this he captures an actual uncovered part of Wicker Park. “The Jobs”, however, is less successful as an extended list of professions and workplaces, not a one white collar. Didn’t Coval know any accountants, layout artists, or…copywriters?  I feel unseen.

I expect too much from every book, especially when they cover favorite subjects of mine. On every page of Everything Must Go, I got a taste of a larger work. Short of epics like Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales, poetry can get in the way of story, provoking curiosity without satisfying it. Coval or his editor might have provided commentary or background on his subjects. I know about Oba Maja, Sharkula, and Tamale Guy. Even his nameless (and in Allston’s art faceless) suburban landlord—in one of the stronger poems, “The Landlord”—is a familiar character to me. I sent a check to “Bob” every month, who also lived “in a suburb 20 minutes away.”

But who is or was Mr. Rooster? Or “David” who Coval recalls sitting naked in a bathtub somewhere, eating oranges and letting the peels “cascade into the water like petals” (nice imagery that). How relevant are Coval’s old roomies? They’re important to him and his Wicker Park, but I think an opportunity was missed. Not to be pedantic—which means I’m absolutely going to be—but for the purposes of charting the “life and death of an American neighborhood”, background on the neighborhood and its inhabitants wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Coval and I walked different paths on the same streets. Our experiences at the Bop Shop on Division Street were congruent but not equal. My Bop Shop was Ken Vandermark and a rotating cast playing improv jazz; that elderly Argentinian pianist who rasped out jazz standards Saturday afternoons to an audience of me and the other day-drinkers as we played pool; and the night I saw Liz Phair play to a packed room with no fucking clue who she was. Conversely, Coval saw freestyle rappers like Shadow Master, Eyespy, Longshot, J.U.I.C.E., and others, all of whom I promise you I had to look up on Wikipedia. Different paths? We walked in parallel dimensions.

Everything Must Go is as strong as a very personal expression and memory can be, but I can’t say it accurately portrays The Life and Death of an American Neighborhood. Well done that Coval got some, worked hard, hung out with colorful souls, and scripted local history that would otherwise be lost,but there’s not enough of the ‘hood itself. It may be near-impossible to capture a place and time that’s already gone. Everything Must Go does it, if only in glimpses, whiffs, and sips.

Everything Must Go: The Life and Death of an American Neighborhood is available at bookstores and through the Haymarket Books website.

* All poetical text alignment and lowercase lettering is most definitely sic. This review gave my Spell-Check fits. Language is alive and changing and needn’t be restricted by rules. However, poetic lowercase is an eyesore and affectation. Also, on page 77 he writes “a myriad of reasons,” which I cannot forgive.

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