Balancing on The Wire: David Simon and America's Forgotten War

Shaun Huston

The micro and macro storytelling mastery of HBO's The Wire shows the devastating effects creating social policy in the shape of war.

Before terrorism and in the waning years of the Cold War, drugs were framed as the biggest threat to America. Combating drugs served as a pre-text for strong police actions at home and military commitments abroad. In the post-9/11 United States, the War on Drugs seems like a quaint footnote, pushed off of the scene by bigger threats to the social order. However, every other year or so, David Simon, creator, producer, and lead writer of HBO's The Wire, reminds us that there is, in fact, still a War on Drugs being fought out on the streets of urban neighborhoods. Simon is keenly aware that this war is no longer the official priority it once was (indeed, a key plot point in season one revolves around manipulation of the Patriot Act for purposes other than hunting down terrorists). Despite being pushed to the fringes of official campaigns to preserve the Republic, the War on Drugs still has very real consequences for everyday life in the United States, especially if you happen to live in the inner-city. The Wire does not merely outline these consequences; it articulates an interrelated set of arguments regarding their significance to urban life.

At the heart of the series is the argument that the War on Drugs has ruined police work. Within David Simon's view of the world, police work used to involve knowing one's district, neighborhood, and street. It was about cultivating relationships and gathering intelligence. The series articulates this thesis in a variety of ways. The main cast of characters on "The Law" side work on a special detail assigned to build cases against Baltimore's biggest criminals (or simply ones that get under the skin of the Bosses downtown). However, the War on Drugs has created a law enforcement environment where quick busts and seizures are valued more than slow and deliberate investigative work with long-term payoffs. Slow and steady work generates few headlines and does little to aid Baltimore politicians in their desire for public displays of progress in controlling drugs. When the detail isn't threatened with outright closure, its work is constantly at risk of being derailed by the impatience of higher-ups.

Two characters that exemplify the good and bad of police work on The Wire are Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Carver (Seth Gilliam). Both start the series on the detail, but by Season One's end, find themselves removed from the detail for ethical and political reasons. Herc is an unreconstructed drug warrior. He has little patience for investigation, and prefers face-to-face engagements with "the enemy." Carver is a sergeant, Herc's immediate supervisor, and the head of the Western district's Drug Enforcement Unit. He has instincts toward what Simon sees as true police work, but can't quite overcome the Drug Warrior culture in which he lives.

In Season Three, Herc and Carver's Major, Howard "Bunny" Colvin (Robert Wisdom), experiment with a strategy of selective enforcement whereby the police will look away from drug dealing if it occurs in designated areas, "free zones," and violence is kept under wraps. An early barrier to this strategy is finding who among the street level dealers have enough power and responsibility to actually move the trade into the free zones. Colvin turns to Carver for intelligence on who controls which corners in the district. Carver doesn't know, simply clearing drug corners doesn't actually require you to know who it is you're clearing, but he clearly grasps that this information will make it easier to get people moved into the selected areas. Colvin sees potential in Carver, but the latter is inevitably snapped back by the norms of drug warrior-dom wherein busting people is all that matters. What kind of police officer Carver becomes by the conclusion of the series will be a good indicator of how much hope Simon has for the revival, or at least continuation, of meaningful law enforcement. If Carver keeps falling back in with the Hercs of the world, that would seem to signify a pessimistic outlook that myopic, easily quantified, and simple-minded "enforcement" will continue to rule the day. On the other hand, if he commits to information gathering and fully grasps that enforcement is not an end in itself, but a tool for making people's lives better in whatever small and brief way, then perhaps there is hope.

Interference from individuals higher up the food chain inevitably influences the work of the investigative detail that anchors the series. What this suggests is that the War on Drugs has not only ruined police work, it has also infected city politics. War always raises the question of victory, and how you know when it has been achieved. More often than not, political leaders seek solace in numbers &151 - territory claimed, enemies captured and killed. In the case of the War on Drugs, the numbers that the members of Baltimore's political establishment look to for a sense of victory include arrests, murders committed, and drugs seized. The majors in the police force are called to account at routine "Comstat" meetings, which are essentially set-ups for commissioners and deputy commissioners to turn the heat that they get from above on those below them. Up and down the chain of command, these sessions are exercises in managing and massaging numbers to construct a facade of progress. However, rather than marking real steps toward success, the political demand for numbers and the dumbing down of police work are locked in a hopeless feedback loop where greater demands for the one further degrades the other.

One consequence of the demand for simple quantifiable victories has been to make the War all too real for urban neighborhoods. Poor but relatively quiet communities are now war zones between police and dealers, rival gangs, and other criminals on the fringe of the drug trade. Caught in the middle are those who are simply trying to lead their lives. Getting these neighborhoods out of the crossfire is Bunny Colvin's main motivation for experimenting with the free zones. The areas designated for selective non-enforcement of drug laws, "Hamsterdam" to the kids on the street, were sections of Colvin's district where housing and licit commerce had largely been abandoned. In explaining this strategy to his skeptical Drug Enforcement Unit and senior officers, he likens it to the use of brown paper bags to conceal alcohol. This device allows police to look the other way and keeps their daily routines from being dominated by arresting people for violating open container laws. For Colvin, the point of drug enforcement is to keep the trade from interfering with people's everyday lives. If isolating and containing dealing can achieve that goal, then his mission will have been accomplished. While it lasts, the experiment works as a way of reclaiming neighborhoods. However, it isn't given enough time to rehabilitate police work, and other problems emerge as well (more on this below). In Season Four, The Wire will turn its attention to the public schools. This will no doubt deepen the series' portrait of neighborhoods under stress.

Of course, the police are not the only actors in the drug war. The Wire also looks closely at those on the criminal side. This portrait is, however, a nuanced one, and those on "The Street" side of the show are as complex and varied as those on "The Law" side. In general, the series argues that participating in organized criminality is a rational response to changing economic conditions. This is the main theme of season two, where the show takes a slight detour from its focus on the inner-city and the drug trade to look at the consequences of deindustrialization and the decline of Baltimore as a port city.

In the second season, the plot hinges on disappearing blue collar jobs, and specifically on the docks of the Port of Baltimore. This leads the stevedore union's leadership, led by Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer), into a web of smuggling and corruption as they desperately try to hold onto the vestiges of an older economy based on goods and raw materials rather than services and information. Options for the middle aged men who've done nothing but work on the docks are non-existent. Options for their children might be better, but only if they are willing and able to look elsewhere for jobs. For too many, the way is not clear, and while this can be the result of personal failings, it is also the result of economic and political changes that value waterfront condos more than container ships. Faced with limited prospects, it is no wonder that working class people choose to engage in illicit enterprises with people who still seem to need their services. The series does not, however, present this as a simple choice or one without consequences. It is one, in fact, that ruins the lives of the Sobotka family who are at the center of the Season Two narrative. Working class people are caught between the rock of a changing formal economy and the hard place of an alluring underground economy.

The theme of economic hopelessness and social marginality is also present in The Wire's mainline drug narrative. Overwhelmingly, the soldiers on both sides of the drug war are African-American. The lack of opportunity for those who are poor and black is evidenced everywhere in the derelict landscapes of inner-Baltimore. The neighborhoods that have become the battle zones in the War on Drugs have largely been forsaken by society at large. As the season three character arc of Cutty/Dennis (Chad Coleman) aptly points out, there are few legitimate jobs to be had in the inner-city. Newly released from prison, Cutty quickly learns that legitimate employment means getting shipped out to the suburbs to mow the lawns of the rich and the white. When lack of jobs is linked to the dangers of living in an environment where kill or be killed seems to be the order of the day, participation in the drug trade becomes comprehensible, even if it isn't a choice you would applaud. With his drive to transform Barksdale drug money into investment capital and his attempts to apply and train his people in economic theory, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) is a character who embodies Simon's argument about the rationality of dealing, even as his demise punctuates the overwhelming and destructive reality of the War.

While the economic themes of the series raise questions about class, The Wire also argues that race continues to matter in the United States. As already alluded to, Baltimore is a majority black city. The city's political apparatus is dominated by African-Americans. This fact serves to de-naturalize race as a cause of social problems, while simultaneously reasserting the social significance of the category. The Wire is populated by African-Americans at all levels of the War on Drugs, from street dealers, to beat cops, to the mayor. There is no single black experience or life path. The diversity of roles played by African-Americans in the drama rejects attempts to characterize black people as inherently inclined to crime or necessarily destined for poverty as a result of their inferiority (it should also be noted that Season Two's story of deindustrialization emphasizes the desperation of the city's white working class population). On the other hand, the series also suggests that race very much matters in a social and political sense. African-Americans in positions of responsibility are acutely aware that they are being judged by the dominant white society outside of Baltimore's borders. It hardly seems coincidental that the War on Drugs is allowed to continue on in Baltimore even as it goes to the bottom of the national agenda. Would the destruction visited on the city be tolerated if it were taking place in the white suburbs of Baltimore County? It is hard to watch The Wire and answer "yes" to this question. Season Four looks to open this issue up even further through Thomas Carcetti (Aidan Gillen), a white city council member with his eye on the mayor's office. Season Three planted the seed of this idea, and the series has already signaled its awareness of the complexities of having a white candidate running for city-wide office with a majority black electorate.

Given the thicket of economic, political and social problems in which the War on Drugs is intertwined, it should come as no surprise that the series does not point to any easy solutions. Especially given Season Three's Hamsterdam storyline, it is tempting to read The Wire as advocating legalization. However, that would be too simple of a reading. For starters, the show was brutally honest about the downsides of legalization. While emptying inner-city neighborhoods of street dealers may have improved the quality of life for the people in those neighborhoods, the free zones were not pleasant places. They were, in fact, scenes of depravity and dehumanization with junkies dying in abandoned buildings and people whoring themselves out for drug money. In an interesting twist, school kids lost their jobs as "hoppers," that is, as lookouts and runners for dealers, adding another layer of unemployment to the city. The main point here seems to be that the problems facing American society and cities run deeper than just drugs. Drugs are a symptom of more serious political and economic problems. Legalizing drugs would no more cure those problems than participating in the drug trade is a foundation for a prosperous and secure life. Both are band-aids on social wounds opened up by race and class inequality and a culture that turns to war as a dominant metaphor for confronting its problems.

While much of The Wire's intelligence comes from the recognition that law enforcement is bound up in larger questions of race, class, and politics, the show never loses its focus on the daily work of police, and there the message is clear: being po-lice sucks. This isn't particularly unique to the War on Drugs, and is an argument that predates The Wire in Homicide: Life on the Streets, the NBC series based on Simon's book of the same name. As embodied by its nominal lead, Jimmy McNulty (Dominick West), The Wire represents police, real police, not the "Bosses" downtown, as flawed people. To one degree or another, the working detectives on the show are prone to alcoholism, infidelity, casual sex, careerism, and ethical lapses when it comes to evidence and the uses of violence. Profanity and expressions of vulgarity are common, as are homophobia and misogyny. However, these flaws arise as much from the job as from people's intrinsic personalities. Being police is hard. You're exposed to danger and the worst that humanity has to offer. The problems you confront are always bigger than you are. External validation, not to mention decent pay and benefits, is hard to come by. Spouses and civilians can't relate to what you have to do to just get through the day. For the best, being police is more a calling than a job. Better to take comfort in the arms of strangers, or in a bottle, than in people who love you but want you to be something else. These aren't excuses, but explanations. The flaws exhibited by the characters on The Wire are a way of honoring the men and women who become police. To see complicated, real people struggling to do right by their city is more meaningful than seeing cops as buffed and polished superheroes. The difficulties and pitfalls of the job would be there with or without the War on Drugs, but the War makes an already difficult path even more brutal to walk than it would be otherwise.

Like Homicide, The Wire has a strong sense of place. It is steeped in Baltimore history, politics, and society. Don't let that tempt you into writing off David Simon's critique of the War on Drugs as only relevant to that city. Baltimore maybe more on the front lines than other places, but its experience points to the pitfalls of seeing America's social problems through the metaphor of war. The Wire shows us that wars are sure to create war zones and warriors, but little else.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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