The Rusted City by Rochelle Hurt

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There’s one thing—and only one—that Rochelle Hurt got wrong in The Rusted City, her brilliant debut collection on the Marie Alexander Poetry Series of White Pine Press. This isn’t a “novel” in poems as the subtitle tells us. It’s a play! The book is arranged into five sections that move with the drama and intrigue of five acts. Some moments, like this one, are downright Shakespearean:

_________________________The Only Solution
is to trick him into touching her. At home in her room, iris in hand, the smallest
sister licks her finger, dips it in the bowl of red at the flower’s center, and smears its
rusty pollen in a line across her palm.

In the kitchen, the favorite father is a wall of heavy breath and denim before her.
“My hand,” she says, clutching it to her stomach. “I cut it in the scrap garden.”

The table of contents reads as dramatis personae. In this play-in-poems, each reader will encounter the character of Quiet Mother. What is she like?

One half of the ceiling caves in after her, but the quiet mother still smiles.

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.

And Favorite Father? What about him?

[…] he is perfect. He is all clanging and steam. He is in the kitchen, sorting through
pipes beneath the sink. [….] “I’m going to stay this time,” he says to himself, not sure
yet how to speak the language of daughters.

There is Oldest Sister, too, who is defined by verbs, actions of rebellion and longing, tenderness and rage. This sister “smashes cans;” this sister “follows,” “whistles,” “reads,” “speaks,” and “braids.” Perhaps she apprenticed herself to the constant motion of a father who “chases a tornado through the river with his camera.” This sister tries very hard not to be afraid.

And then there is Smallest Sister, who guides us into the story of a family imperiled, set against the backdrop of an urban wilderness. The reader shadows this character most closely throughout the play, hunkers down with Smallest Sister as she “climbs into her handmade dark […] and pulls her fingers tight around her,” even as she “rubs herself sooty and red, rubs until there is nothing left.”

The final character on the dramatis personae is the one to whom this play-in-poems is dedicated: “Youngstown, City of Homes.” The place is the protagonist. Perhaps the place is also the antagonist. Regardless, Youngstown, referred to simply as “The City,” emerges as the most richly developed character of all. In the first act, we are introduced to Youngstown via

__________________________The City Swallows
falling scraps like a dog at a dinner table, its river tongue-lapping them in from the lip
of the shore. It jostles them down its throat, shaking an old town out as the scraps rub
and clash their way underground, groaning in their beds of dirt. This is the din that’s
rattled centuries of the city’s floorboards.

In 2010 in a New York Times article titled “Trying to Overcome the Stubborn Blight of Vacancies,” Sabrina Tavernise wrote, “Youngstown used to call itself the City of Homes. An enduring problem now is that so many of those homes are empty.” A more recent article from the Hampton Institute (2013) described Youngstown as “America’s Fastest Shrinking City.” Upon this “blight” and from this “shrinking,” Rochelle Hurt (her bio notes she was “born and raised in the Ohio Rust Belt”) performs a literary transmutation of the highest order. Case in point:

____________________________At the Edge of the City

wastewater tanks squat like the sorry fists of old men, time-peeled. Water seeps from them
as from clenched knuckles—an inevitable dribble—and the ground dazzles with it: amber,
chartreuse, aubergine, puce. The smallest sister weaves between the fists, wind-kicked, a black
leaf. She spots something in a tank a few yards away: a trash back drifting in lazy circles. It
looks to her like a girl, skimming: she sees a black-coated back travelling the circumference
of the tank, cutting liquid seams, and she watches the water stitch itself together in the girl’s wake.

Now, as a reader, I do not regard Youngstown in some abstract way—say, a representative city in an economic decline. Neither do I simply imagine Youngstown. Hurt’s is a penetrating aesthetic. That is, I do not merely empathize with a city imperiled. I enter it and am immersed in it. The poem is so sumptuous and all-consuming that I emerge from soggy with “wastewater,” my own “liquid seams” cut and dripping.

What I love most about poetry is its capacity to embody—visually, viscerally—what other genres strive instead to name. While much prose points with arrows and measures with yardsticks, the best poems pierce the skin. What I love most about Hurt’s play-in-poems is its capacity to stretch even beyond embodiment toward enactment, as in the bringing to life of characters and events upon a stage. The reader not only experiences the events of this book in her own body; she simultaneously witnesses these events as they are performed before her by others. Hurt’s poetry pierces the reader’s skin just as the arrow of a gesture, a phrase, a natural disaster, pierces a character’s skin, a city’s soft shell. The set is mirrored, the effect prismatic. The choreography is flawless right up to the moment where subject and witness merge.

Or, put it another way: Hurt’s stage is a page. Hurt’s lighting is ambient. Hurt’s text is printed in the center of each page inside the parameters of invisible glow-tape squares. The margins function as wings. The language likewise functions as wings. As readers, we are elevated by the imagery, the sui generis kind her showing.

As in:
the city was full of tin-can men
who cracked their morning
eggs on their foreheads

Often, a wife watched the yolk
slide down her tinny man’s
face into the pan,
where the egg squealed
and blackened.

(Who knew a man could be “tinny” or an egg could “squeal”—and yet they can!)

As in:

The smallest sister is behind the wall, watching through a termite hole.
She sees their hands and legs tangle into a knot of twine binding itself
to the bed. When one of the hands reaches up and ties itself to the chain
in the ceiling, black spills into the room.

(Who knew the primal scene could be rendered anew—and yet it can!)

The final act of is a wonder of linguistic theatrics and visual parataxis. The last poems appear side by side, one called “The City Opens,” the other “The Smallest Sister is Radiant.” These poems are like actors on the stage, looking deeply into each other’s eyes, reciting their lines with conviction.

___________________________The City Opens
along its river-seam like a swollen belly, expelling antiques. The smallest sister makes a list of what she finds on the banks […] Every night she finds more, so she begins to build herself a home from them. Every night another wall, every week another room, every month another house—her new city birthed from the refuse.

We might say this book, too, is “birthed from the refuse.” No detail, no sensation, is squandered. All the red rust—the “rustblood,” Hurt calls it—permeates the text as it permeates the speaker’s tongue, and likewise, the reader-watcher’s tongue.

_______________________The Smallest Sister is Radiant
inside. Patient under her tongue, a word waits like a grenade of rust, fool’s gold,
and what else she can’t say. [This play is the enactment of that unsayable.]

She can’t say when it will arrive, but she knows at the moment of death, she will be
brilliant. Her body will shine like a city inside.

The city is in her, as she is in the city. We recognize and are affirmed by this interpenetration, this pleasing parallel structure. The book, we recognize, is a city, too—a “new city” which is not merely written by its author but built. Hurt’s poetics are unusually architectural, exceptionally multi-dimensional. She is both singer and set designer of this play-in-poems. Her performance deserves a standing ovation.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of 13 volumes of poetry, prose, and hybrid forms, including the newly released poetry collection, Skirted (The Word Works, 2021), the book-length lyric essay, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing (The Ohio State University Press, 2020) and the limited-edition, hybrid-forms chapbook, P*R*I*D*E (Vermont College of Fine Arts, 2020), which won the inaugural Hunger Mountain Chapbook Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University. More from this author →