In The Little Edges, Fred Moten is in search of what pleasure sounds like. Each poem in the collection is divided into stanzas—his phrase is “shaped prose”—that emphasize sound and rhythm, the groupings set off from the book’s margins, and from each other, with wide spacing. The “little edges” referred to in the book’s title mark the spaces between the conversations the poet is having with his subjects and what a reader might like to know about them. Moten’s poems are so full of allusion that they bump up against other poems, songs, and criticism as they go, acknowledging the references like a nod to an acquaintance when you pass her on the street. The book’s opening poem “fortrd.fortrn” teases:
here go a box with a lid on it. If you open it you can come into our world.
up in here you look
like cutty do. house
look like he up. if so,
don’t you wanna go?
Every poem presents a new soundscape and often a new dedication to an occasion or individual. “hard enough to enjoy” begins in remembrance of Ralph Lemon, the choreographer and self-described “conceptualist,” but by the third page drifts into a more discursive riff, preserving only its own music as it encounters Frank O’Hara: “Another alignment of questions and I could be having a coke with you.”
The poem “test” ruminates on a 1969 incident on the New York City subway, when a train car broke down in Harlem and passengers, in an act of defiance against Transit Authority employees, refused to leave. The poem has two epigraphs: one from a New York Times article, the other from a treatment of the event by Hannah Arendt in On Violence. Moten finds in the breakdown of social order, and between the idioms of reportage and academic criticism, a breathless music:
your refusal ain’t unsustainable it just can’t sustain itself. you do what they say till you die like a dog. too much
stress on the impossible one. we stress this past the point to bring the history of getting down.
In The Little Edges, Moten moves freely between the rarefied language of criticism and historical record and the musical, improvisational language of street talk. At home in both idioms and alive to the music of each, he has the rare ability to draw readers from both worlds in and through to the other.