I’m from Ohio. If you’ve ever met anyone from Ohio, you may have noticed that they love to talk about Ohio—but not in the same way that New Yorkers love to talk about New York (You won’t find better Thai food anywhere else!). That is to say: a lot of Ohioans have complicated relationships with their home state, especially if they’re from a Rust Belt city.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about what this region has to say for itself in contemporary poetry, and I’m clearly not the only one thinking about this. There has been a spate of new books about the Rust Belt in the last few years, and some interest in a new subgenre sometimes called Rust Belt Noir and/or Rust Belt Gothic (no vampires needed). While most of these books are novels or collections of short fiction, many poets have also been increasingly concerned with post-industrial ruin.
In Jamaal May’s collection, Hum (Alice James, 2013), post-industrial Detroit is more than a setting. The city merges with the book’s human subjects to become a character itself:
Look for me
in scattered windshield beneath and overpass,
on the sculpture of a man with metal skin grafts,
in patterns on mud-draggled wood, feathers
circling leaves in rainwater—look.
In the Gothic tradition, the haunted castle plays as important a role in the narrative as any of the characters. It houses the secrets and horrors that move the story forward, hiding and revealing them as needed. In May’s poems, Detroit is a Gothic space haunted by its own past, and a space in which the speaker ultimately discovers truths about himself. The act of searching and uncovering drives May’s collection forward. Take this passage from “Mechanophobia (Fear of Machines)”:
Come rummage through our guts
among fistfuls of wire, clutch,
pull until the LEDs go dark.
Our insides may be the jagged
gears of clocks you don’t realize
function until your blade gets stuck.
The current that sparks, scrambles up
fingertips, hurrying to your heart
will not come as a hot, ragged
light—you won’t notice when it arrives.
May’s imagery is almost frightening at times, but fear is also ever-present as a concept, lurking in this series of phobia poems (Athazagoraphobia, Aichmophobia, Mechanophobia, Macrophobia, etc.). The pulpy supernatural horrors of the Gothic tradition manifest here as real-life fears, and the mundane becomes magnified. In “Athazagoraphobia (Fear of Being Ignored),” typical anxieties of adolescence take on more weight given the setting—a city ignored, a bankrupt city, an elsewhere:
I used to bury plum pits between houses. Buried
bits of wires there too. Used to bury matches
but nothing ever burned and nothing ever thrived
so I set fire to a mattress, diassembled a stereo,
attacked flies with a water pistol, and drowned ants
What’s dead and gone never stays buried in this collection, as the motif of alternately burying and uncovering returns almost obsessively. There is something unsettling about this act, but it is what allows May's speaker to learn how to live in his particular –post (post-industry, post-adolescence, etc.). This digging isn't entirely negative, nor is it simply a balm.
photo via mrholle
Writing about the Rust Belt can be understood as a form of apocalyptic writing. (I know that for Youngstown, the sudden closing of steel mills on Black Monday was certainly an economic apocalypse.) The word ‘apocalypse’ shares roots with the Greek term apokaluptein, which indicates an uncovering or disclosure (think also of the word 'revelation,' as in the Book of Revelation). A new generation of writers in the US has set to work digging through the ruins of the industrial economy that was collapsing just as they were being born, and they are unearthing revelations of their own.
In “Greetings from 41°6′0″N 80°39′0″W,” poet Allison Davis (a fellow Youngstown native) writes of the difficult and painful digging involved in looking back and asking questions about a city’s decline:
Understand the city is steel,
both sides of it. There is no way
to make it talk, to avoid
the wreck, the tangle of shape
worked up into a point.
The paradox is that there is no satisfactory answer to be found in the wreck, yet there is no way to live in it without searching, digging, trying to uncover and recover the past. But what can be made from ruin? A post-industrial poetics (more tomorrow on what that can mean formally) offers the possibility of an answer to that question. Rust Belt and ruin poetry is a generational response to Philip Levine’s important poetry about the working class. In cities now devoid of the manufacturing jobs upon which they were built, the streets are still filled with the refuse of industry—not just byproducts, but the discarded, ruined products themselves—the broken windshields, wires, and LED lights of May’s poems. Digging, rummaging, scrapping, foraging, and uncovering are the new jobs of the working class. (I mean this both metaphorically and literally—think metal scrapping, thrifting, reselling.)
I think poets are putting this concept to work in poetry of place that represents not just the Rust Belt but a new, unfortunate era of US history. And I’m not talking about nostalgia. I mean a scrappy kind of poetry that represents the contemporary experience of trying to scrape together an existence in an economic and ecological apocalypse. But I also mean a poetry that defamiliarizes the sad Rust Belt narrative through strange new music and imagery.
Tomorrow: The Aesthetics of Ruin (Pt. 2): Post-pastoral.