Monday, September 30, 2013

City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry, ed. Ryan G. Van Cleave


I have a bone to pick
with whoever runs this joint.
I don’t much like
being stuck out in the rain
just to feed on the occasional
vole or baby rabbit
and these wet weed-salads
confound my intestines.
A cat can’t throw himself
into the Chicago river,
not even in the luscious fall.
I get yelled at in human
language every single day
for things I can’t begin
to comprehend, let alone change.
But I go on cleaning myself—
why shouldn’t I?—
and so I think I smell sweet,
even though I suspect otherwise.
I wouldn’t harm a fly normally,
but why doesn’t anybody
take care of me? How am I
supposed to know that it’s Easter,
that I’m not allowed to die
in my own bed, and that neither prong
of this wishbone is meant for me? (Don Share)

Taking as its subject the City of Chicago itself is City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry, ed. Ryan G. Van Cleave (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012). Over the past couple of years, Vancouver and Winnipeg have each produced anthologies along similar veins – A Verse Map of Vancouver, ed.George McWhirter (Vancouver BC: Anvil Press, 2009) and The Imagined City: A Literary History of Winnipeg, ed. David Arnason and Mhari Mackintosh (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 2005) – each utilizing and exploring their cities-as-subject in poetry specifically, and literature generally, predominantly by residents former and current. Chicago has long been known for a city of poets and poetry, from the origins of Poetry magazine over a century ago and Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems (1916) to more recent activity by poets such as Srikanth Reddy, Suzanne Buffam and Nathanaël, among others. The anthology explores and expands the mythology of the city by those who have known it, in whatever capacity, sent in after an initial call for submissions. As editor Ryan G. Van Cleave writes to end his introduction:

1916’s The Chicago Anthology: A Collection of Verse from the Work of Chicago Poets, edited by Charles G. Blanden and Minna Mathison, was one of the first attempts to define and present the poetry of Chicago as a distinctive, unified body of literature. Indeed, plenty of writers have gone on to be defined by their relationship to the city: Carl Sandburg, Karl Shapiro, George Dillon, Edgar Lee Masters, and Gwendolyn Brooks, to name just a few. And this anthology takes up the literary torch with some of America’s brightest poetic lights who’ve been touched by Chicago’s many inspirations. But by no means is the poetic conversation about Chicago over. It’s a vital, important part of the literary landscape of America, and it’s clear that new members are appearing daily. More than a few contributors remarked in their cover letters that the literature of Chicago is experiencing a renaissance. After seeing so many fine new writers and quality veterans, I’m inclined to agree.
            The poems in this anthology are not just beautiful objects to be enjoyed once and then put away. Savor the ones that seem written specifically for you. Consider the rest a challenge to be met. I guarantee at least three poems in this book will unlock a memory (real or imagined) of State Street vendor brats, the cacophony of smells that is the Taste of Chicago, or the sight of children skating at dusk at Daley Plaza – even if you’ve never been to the Windy City itself yet.
            Chicago is my hometown. No matter your background or interests, these poems do a fine job of making it yours too.

City of the Big Shoulders also provides an interesting counterpoint to the more author-specific anthology The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century, eds. William Allegrezza and Raymond Bianchi (Chicago Il: Cracked Slab Books, 2007) [see my review of such here]. I admit, I’m more interested in the sake of a geographic anthology to gain a sense of what kinds of writing and writer activity is happening within that arbitrary boundary, rather than an exploration of the personality of that geographic space. Still, I’m fascinated by the exploration of the myth of Chicago, one I’m very little aware of, but for the story of the city as central rail point, or inventor of the Second City comedy troupe, or namesake of that easy-listening shameful 1980s-era pop band. Who are you, really, Chicago?

Windy City

They wrote all over the rocks, the ones
who came before and come still; choicer
than graffiti, the paint cubed and letters
blocked like epitaphs: Acid or small groove
or baby cakes. And primary colors whet
the schools of foam the lake makes,
its mobile cursive less serene, while the city
wells above that trace of sociability—
its steeples snuffed, or nearly, in the mist:
this could have been Christminster,
or these the moral rocks Tess read
on her journey home in terrible,
delicate boots: the shores mirror us
always, but the city transpires. (Christina Pugh)

There are remarkably few names in this collection I’m previously aware of – but for Rachel Loden, Tony Trigilio and Don Share – meaning that the bulk of writers from the city working in an entirely different vein, including the more language-centred and more experimental poets are somehow absent from this collection. Contributors to the anthology include Barbra Nightingale, ElisePaschen, Janet Wondra, Vivian Shipley, Maya Quintero, Ellen Wehle, Susan Elbe and some two or three dozen others, each providing their own perspective on the windy city.

At the Crawford Coal-Fired Power Plant

As she inhales the scent of boiled eggs, the woman thinks of childhood, the farm she grew up on, the chicken coop down the hill from the clothesline. She thinks how back then, coal dust could coat sheets in a matter of minutes. Not anymore. These days it’s what she can’t see that worries her. But the plant manager says that this is a forward-thinking plant. Why? Because Crawford has reduced its mercury emissions ahead of schedule. And its nitrogen oxide emissions are down 30%. She doesn’t ask him what schedule. She doesn’t ask how much mercury or nitrogen oxide a person should breathe. Nor does she ask why the plant has been in the news in the past few years for spewing deadly toxins into the Chicago air and increasing the risk and incidence rate of asthma. She’s a guest here, so she smiles and nods when he hands her a hardhat, goggles, and orange earplugs. The building hums and throbs around them. She can barely make out his words as he shouts and points. She sees the pulverizer where the coal is crushed and blown into a furnace. She sees the boiler, the precipitator, and the fireball that glows like a small sun. In one room fly ash lands on her black sweater. She tries to brush it off, but it sticks to the cashmere. She asks if she should wear a facemask. She asks if the ash is dangerous. No, no, he says. These days we collect the ash from the precipitator and gather it into bins. Then we sell it for cement. But it’s in the air, she tries to tell him, pointing to the ash she sees rising like dust. She’s not sure he hears her. She’s not sure he sees what she means. He keeps opening and closing his mouth, as if to reassure her, as if to explain that everything is fine. She has nothing to worry about here. (Nin Andrews)

Perhaps this might be a matter of the style itself in which those more experimental poets work, given that subject was the centre of the collection (or perhaps these writers simply didn’t submit to the original submission call), a call more easily suited to a narrative, metaphor-driven lyric style. This also means that the work within the collection are predominantly, if not entirely exclusively, from the previous decade. It would have been interesting to have seen an anthology that worked archivally, to actually dig through the past half-century or so of Chicago (and further) writing, to see how the city has been already depicted, instead of the fraction of the anthology that appears to have been composed for the call itself. How has the city already been discussed, and by whom? What kind of portrait of the city has already been painted?

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