Friday, April 17, 2009

kristen palm, the straits

After reading a number of books of poetry on the city of Vancouver over the past year or so, it’s interesting to see American poet kristen palm work through her own poem, her dream of the American city, through her first trade collection, the straits (Long Beach CA: Palm Press, 2008). In two long poems, “The Straits” and “City of Conscience,” she works the two sides of the city of Detroit, a city she called home for a number of years, working from fragments and history, as the first works “then” and the second works “now.”

The fort, square in form, is built on firm soil.

It is measured with cords and pickets.

It is set at the bend in the river.

It is constructed of white oak timber.

It is a sculpture.

It commands a city.

It is a testament to our instincts.

It follows mathematical lines. (“The Straits”)

City, you are obsolete.” she writes, in one part of the first long poem, writing a poem on a city and how a city gets constructed, writing a history of Detroit through battles between the native population, English and French settlers and armies, moving through industrial turns and the building, rebuilding and collapse of the auto industry (and the city itself), and race riots after the Second World War. Palm writes her city of one constructed by people, as the building process of the physical city manages to keep undermining its own citizens, even as officials claim they are supporting them. I wonder, does she know of the social histories that work through some of the Vancouver poets doing much of the same kinds of work, whether Sachiko Murakami, Jeff Derksen, Rita Wong or Stephen Collis?

One was defending his shoe repair shop with a baseball bat
Two burned inside a drug store
One was riding in the passenger seat
One carried a bucket of water to his roof
One tried to break up a fight
One was a security guard
Two were firefighters
One was a cop
One was National Guard
One was ex-National Guard
One broke into a patent medicine and package warehouse
One decided to drive around town
One carried a shiny object
Three were running from police
One was the victim of an “accidental shooting”
One was involved in an altercation
Two were looting a liquor store
One carried a handful of groceries
One did not stop at a roadblock
One stepped on a power line
One was walking to the bus stop
Two were inside a pawnshop
One had stolen a car
One was driving a truck
One was branded a sniper
One was visiting on business
One smashed a window with a tire iron
One continued past a checkpoint
One carried a transistor radio
One had loaded a box with bottles
One refused to halt
One refused to run
Three were cavorting with prostitutes
One stood near a cigarette lit in the dark (“The Straits”)

Palm writes an interesting collage as a thread that works through the history of her former city (she currently lives in San Francisco), working through the when and what of the social construction and failures of an industrial city, writing her then in “The Straits” and moving into the now of how the city itself lives (and she, as resident, too) in the second part, “City of Conscience,” wondering a poem that seems to strive for answers. But which is more important, the answers or striving for those essential questions?

We came for cheap housing

We came for art school

We came to get out of the suburbs

We came to escape war-torn nations

We came for entry-level publishing jobs

We came as Jesuit volunteers

We came to start a garage band

We came to join our families

We came to work in a grocery store

We came to agitate for an egalitarian future

We came to seize power

We came to create a new ecological paradigm

We came to live in an anarchist collective

We came for a new downtown condo

We were born here and remain (“City of Conscience”)

There are parts of the poem, the poems, that can’t quite seem to decide, never really reaching far enough into either side. Still, the straits writes out her Detroit and the social responsibilities of such to remind us that cities are made out of people. As she writes near the end of the collection:

I could write a letter here, a litany of my city’s history so that it all collides, runs up against itself, and I could say that this shows all the forces that have run up against each other and themselves over all these years to make this city what it is today with all its attendant problems (broken streetlights, failing schools, Crazy Larry pushing his shopping cart down the left turn lane of Woodward Ave., come here, he says, and me all belligerent, no, you come here, and he does to show me a picture of a baby girl—can he have a dollar—who may or may not be his). What takes precedence? What do we view together and in isolation? City, I could write about you until the end of time and it would not make able to return to you. I know it’s been said it’s time to decide whether you are going to be the problem or you are going to be the solution, and my first through is that I don’t know which I am though I suspect the answer is
both. (“City of Conscience”)

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