“The form of a city changes more quickly, alas, than the human heart,” Baudelaire wrote in his poem “The Swan” (published in Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857). Here in St. Louis, where I’ve lived now for over a decade, the pace of change is somewhat slower. On my lunchtime walks downtown, it often seems that the same buildings are undergoing an endless process of renovation, lurching toward vaguely defined, gentrified future when “creatives” will dwell there. At the same time, it has changed. Walking through the Delmar Loop the other night with a young friend, my wife and I spoke of bygone places like Riddles Penultimate and Streetside Records in the melancholy tones of tour guides. We’ve been here long enough that our mental maps of the city no longer quite line up with what’s out there: or our memories hang over the city, a tracery of the foreclosed and demolished and vacated, not really there in any actual sense but present as a ghostly shadowing.
We didn’t grow up here, and many of our friends’ memories run deeper than ours. They can tell us stories of the Checkerdome, the Library Limited, Mississippi Nights. Place as a series of palimpsests, containing not only the physical form of the city, the shaped terrain, but everything that has been thought and said and imagined about it.
For a long time I’ve been wanting to write something about John Keene‘s Annotations, which I think is one of the most remarkable books about St. Louis, though I’ve never met anyone else who has read it. (I might have called this post “The Best St. Louis Novel You’ve Never Heard Of.”) Published quietly in 1995 by New Directions, its understated title and gray-scale cover guaranteed its obscurity, arriving already a cult object that would be discovered only by a few. I am not sure if this is what Keene intended, but the humility of the title, as well as the slinky, elliptical methods of the writing, suggest that he might not have minded. It’s a work that falls halfway between poetry and prose, and does not go out of the way to explain itself. It has the feel of something private, something written out of necessity, a book one eavesdrops on as much as reads.
As the title suggests, the book sometimes has the feel of marginalia or endnotes to a main narrative that is missing. That could be frustrating to some readers, but it also is one of the special pleasures for a St. Louisan, recognizing the local references that are dropped into the narrative like incantations: Homer G. Phillips, Chatillon-DeMenil, Natural Bridge. These names, dropped seemingly at random into unrelated paragraphs, begin to build an associative logic, and show how cities and memory are inextricably linked (as Calvino also realized).
Though hardly a straightforward one, Annotations is also a vivid coming-of-age story that speaks of a sensitive, artistic, black boyhood in North St. Louis and later the western suburbs (Keene attended the St. Louis Priory School in Creve Coeur). It deploys a narrative voice that can dwell in luminous specificities:
Many backyards wore a chain-link garter that stretched out to the alleyway, and so whenever the rudipoots shattered their wine or soda bottles into smithereens of glass, it always fell to us to sweep them up. Now-or-Laters. Snoopy, the second in a cavalcade of pets, would parade regally about the screened-in porch. Daddy soaked then bathed him in a pan of gasoline to strip his coat of mange, so that when we spoke of him at all, it was as “under quarantine.” Children often see with a clarity that adults ignore.
This may give some sense of the way Annotations can move in and out of abstraction. It is childhood observed with crystal precision, but also great distance. The signifiers of childhood — Penrose Park, Chain of Rocks — become a kind of code that is still vivid and evocative but not fully legible, either to the narrator or the reader. It’s tempting to quote Keene at great length, but one more passage should suffice to give you a basic idea of how he operates:
One could still go tobogganing down the steeper part of Art Hill, but there were lesser hills much closer in the more historic parts of Webster, where the dauntless ones could sled or ski-board on a stolen trashcan top. On your back, in the snow, making angels the sun would summon. White swath. Summer they awaited for its bounty of trips and excursions, such as a return to Meramec Caverns or Silver Dollar City, now, from what he read, not far from where the Klan was presently headquartered. A cathode bath usually proves easier than self-immersion in a written text, thus did the ends of those evenings eddy through that small, transfixing screen. On the other hand, you noted at the Monet exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, which you attended with your classmates and chaperone, that although painting had once served as the transcriptor of the soul, it now mainly served to break the hold of mechanical reproduction.
What brilliant associative leaps make up this half-page: from the sledders to the snow angels, from the snow angels to the white robes of the Klan, to the “snow” of a TV set at the end of the evening, to the blizzard of color in a Monet. This book may be Keene’s own version of impressionism. It does not connect all the dots but is all the more powerful and distinctive for its ellipses, and the way it acknowledges that growing up is not some linear and legible process, but a jagged and halting course, sometimes progressing, sometimes regressing. Likewise the voice of Annotations can be there or here: channeling the voice of a child with magical intimacy, then speaking from afar in the abstract jargon of an academic. As a retrospective portrait it feels uniquely truthful.
Annotations runs a slim 85 pages, including notes — these notes contain some of the most fascinating material in the book. “Rudipoots,” in case you were wondering, is defined here as “a colloquialism akin to ‘ghettoheads,’ meaning an ignorant or foolish person.” We also learn, for example, the meaning of Treemonisha: “A 1905 opera by Scott Joplin, written while he was resident in Sedalia, MO, and not premiered until 1972, in Atlanta, GA. The theme of the opera is the salvation of the black race through education, and Treemonisha, a young woman, is the protagonist.”
I don’t want to give away too many more of Keene’s Easter eggs, but this appendix beautifully unravels the culturally mongrel roots of St. Louis, which Keene describes as “a Creole core.” (Elsewhere, Keene wonderfully describes his own family as the result of “vibrant miscegenation.”) There’s a deep historical mind at work here, running from French-speaking slaves to the protests at Jefferson Bank, and the city’s ugly racial tension is not glossed over. Cops that could be relatives of today’s say “stop and don’t move”; a white cashier mouths a racial slur, thinking the narrator is out of earshot. He’s not. Still, Keene is attuned to what is best about the city, its rich, pungent multicultural soil.
It has been twenty years since Annotations came out. I’ve already read it twice and am probably just beginning to unlock its mysteries. Still, I was greatly excited to learn that New Directions is publishing another full-length work of fiction from Keene. It hits the shelves this week. The man has hardly been idle, teaching at Northwestern, Brown, NYU, and Rutgers, writing poetry, collaborating on art installations, and translating work by the controversial Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst. His new book, Counternarratives, a collection of stories and novellas, has been called “an extraordinary work of literature” by Harper’s and “suspenseful, thought provoking, mystical, and haunting” by Publishers Weekly. Hopefully this new publication will bring more readers to a great writer who beautifully excavated his North St. Louis roots and can be added to a list that includes Chopin, Williams, Eliot, Burroughs, Shange, and Gass. In any case, I know what I’ll be picking up at Left Bank Books later tonight.