|cover credit: White Pine Press|
White Pine Press (2014)
Reviewed by Angele Ellis
“…Using elements of surrealism and magic seemed like the best way for me to write a place like Youngstown into something new. A mythical approach allowed for this more than a documentary style would have, which is why I chose to call my city simply ‘The Rusted City’ and not Youngstown.” ~ Rochelle Hurt in an interview with Belt Magazine, December 2014The reader enters Rochelle Hurt’s lost kingdom through an empty chair. Her cover illustration, Sharon Pazner’s “Throne,” is a doll-sized, kitchen-chair construction of concrete and bent, tarnished nails that might guard a parking space in any American Rust Belt city. Delicate and tough, homely and haunting, it is a near perfect metaphor for the world Hurt recreates from rough materials and memory.
Hurt’s impressive debut is a full-length collection of prose poems mixed with free verse (the eighteenth volume in the Marie Alexander Poetry Series). It reads like an extended fairy tale, a modern version of an old-fashioned story in which rust/blood, fear, and pain leave trails on the road to rebirth. Her recurring characters—The Quiet Mother, The Favorite Father, The Oldest Sister, and The Smallest Sister—are archetypes into which the poet breathes harsh individual life.
In “The Smallest Sister Decides to Make Herself Red,” this child character “often” takes into herself relics of the rusted city. “… She strings corroded washers into a necklace. She dresses her lips in the sanguine water and sucks the stain from the pipes behind the aluminum plant…” As in a fairy tale, these rituals age The Smallest Sister beyond even The Favorite Father’s reach, as demonstrated by the following punch line:
… When he touches her, she is as old as the city that closes around them like a fist.The Favorite Father is a photographer as well as a mill worker. In “The Roller Coaster is Burning, the Favorite,” “father tells his daughters, buttoning their chin and ear flaps. ‘We’ve got to get pictures.’” But the family, walking in “a line of red caps… a lit fuse,” is too late for the burning but not the death. Hurt describes the grotesque scene:
… the roller coaster is folded in half, a writhing lattice… gangly as a giant insect… its corroded arms are crossed already—the death pose, the smallest sister knows.In “The Favorite Father Chases a Tornado,” his daughters’ attention is not on “[t]he sky [that] troubles and fills with orange funnels” but on the way the father “ruined” the rust-coated river while “getting his shot.” Hurt writes in this striking sequence:
… A layer of rust floating like algae on the water begins to break up. As he wades, his legs part one red island, making another. Soon there are too many rust islands to count, and the river is a mottled red-brown.The Rusted City often turns moments of creation into destruction. In “The Quiet Mother Smiles,” the house crumbles around the mother as she cleans her wedding ring in anticipation of the father’s return. The reader feels the chill of ill omen:
… The ring is heavy as a marble in the smallest sister’s hand, and heavier every minute… The quiet mother picks chips of rust from where the ring had hugged her finger and blows on it like something too hot, sending a storm of red to the floor.The titles of poems in the second and fourth sections of this five-part collection begin “In the Century of…,” bringing the weight of history to bear on subjects as small as lunch pails, dusty hallways, and dirty water, and as large as records, research, and silences. In Belt Magazine, Hurt says:
“Using ‘In the Century of’ was my way of avoiding the constraints of literal time, which seem irrelevant to history in terms of how it’s told between family members and how it affects the lives of individuals. When history is remembered through our own experiences, it always gets warped and mythologized. There are so many centuries in this book that by the end, the city is thousands of years old. In this way it becomes larger than real life.”“In the Century of Birthmarks” is a startling example of how Hurt positions the rusted city as an eternal city, as demonstrated by the poem’s opening stanza:
parents held their newborns upAnd “In the Century of Lunch Pails,” the industrial city becomes a noisy, all-consuming monster: “… Everywhere the chew of pipes branching / through copper soil could be heard.” It leeches life from the lunch pail-carrying fathers even as it provides their livelihood, as in its eerily beautiful closing stanzas:
to the sun and read the shadows
cast through them like runes.
Everywhere the whisper ticks of fingers,Hurt ends The Rusted City with two poems of death and rebirth. In “The City Opens” (like a corpse, or a Caesarian section) the smallest sister rebuilds from its amazing array of “expelling antiques.” “… Every night another wall, every week another room, every month another house—her new city birthed from the refuse.” And in “The Smallest Sister is Radiant,” the smallest sister imagines her death as “… a grenade of rust, fool’s gold… She can’t say why she / swallows the word, but when she does she knows it will burst in her / throat one day.” However, death cannot destroy the city that words have immortalized, as shown in the book’s last lines:
every hand a clock. And every evening,
the clinking, ever nearer the doorstep, of coins
inside all the hollowed-out fathers as they walked.
… but she knows that at the moment of death, she
will be brilliant. Her body will shine like a city inside.