Rochelle Hurt, The Rusted City, White Pine Press, 2014
REVIEW BY CODY ERNST
The Rust Belt is an industrial region of the United States that underwent dramatic economic decline at the end of the twentieth century. As manufacturing jobs left the region, families of former manufacturing workers were abandoned without a sense of identity. The Rusted City, the debut poetry collection of Rochelle Hurt, gathers elements of a Rust Belt Childhood and paints a complicated picture of wonder and decay. The collection is dedicated to Youngstown, Ohio, “City of Homes,” and its poems have to do with a family whose two daughters come of age during the industrial decline of a Rust Belt city.
This is a collection that is deeply concerned with legacy. Both the family and the rusted city itself are haunted by pasts that seem unforgettable. The family at the center of the book (comprised of four members with nursery-rhyme-like names: The Favorite Father, The Quiet Mother, The Oldest Sister, and The Smallest Sister) exists and grows despite relations of silence, lust, and mistrust. Similarly, the book’s city continues to grow despite an industrial past that has forever tinged it.
As the title suggests, rust permeates these poems. Mineral flecks and the color red are literally consumed by the inhabitants of The Rusted City. Their lips, ears, and other mucus membranes are coupled with rust throughout this collection to great effect. Fathers exiting a factory are described as, “a heap of coughs.” The city’s women are silent because, “(they) sucked stingers / from garden bees.” This feeling is refreshed throughout the collection by Hurt’s inventive use of language. Rust becomes pollen. Pollen becomes secrets. Secrets become red mites thumbed into the pavement. The rust and the red in this collection are relentless. The air in these poems is not breathable, yet The Favorite Father, The Silent Mother, The Older Sister, and The Smallest Sister live and breathe it.
The Rusted City is described on its title page as a novel in poems. The majority of the book’s poems are written in a prose-poem form, and the family’s progression throughout the book is chronological, making “novel” a reasonable way to describe how the collection’s content is organized. There are five sections that alternately contain prose poems and lineated poems.
The prose poems have to do with the history of the book’s family. They have titles that run into their first sentence. For instance, one of them starts:
Outside, the Smallest Sister Hugs
the factory walls. She watches through a window as crane arms dip and curl over an ocean of fathers lining up to be caught like so many babies to be born. Wearing their hard hats like cauls, they bob and jimmy and john their way into the world outside through a chute…
The lineated poems (with the exception of two, both titled “Wife Song”) all have titles that begin, “In the Century of…” describing the twentieth century history of the book’s Rusted City. For example, The Rusted City boasts “In the Century of Rust,” “In the Century of Dusty Hallways,” “In the Century of Research,” and “In the Century of Records.”
The simultaneous stories of The Rusted City’s family and city are told very effectively. The family’s prose poems contain some of the book’s most moving images of its city, and the lineated “In The Century” poems expand the scope of the family’s setting. Particular images that come to mind are The Smallest Sister’s sanctuary in an abandoned amusement park, the description of The Favorite Father as an ant among a large group of anonymous fathers, and a description of The Silent Mother’s words as silverware falling to the floor.
Decay in The Rusted City is handled beautifully. The metaphors throughout the book are odd but effective. The movement of rusty air becomes, “Whorls of rotting confetti [that] hurl up from the ground with the flutter of a hundred baby tongues.” In one of the book’s most memorable poems, the repression of memory is compared to mites, “Now the oldest sister crushes the mites on the concrete with her fingers, one by one—little bursts of memory undone.” Along with rust, silence strikes me as an enduring theme of the book. The city’s rust clogs the mouths that wish to tell its story. Minerals are the only thing left over when mouths and memories can no longer function.
There are difficult questions being asked in this book about history, legacy and family. It also uses the difficult subjects of poverty, sexism, environmental degradation, and sexual abuse as lenses through which these questions are examined. The cohesive images and sounds that Rochelle Hurt employs keep the varied subject matter of the book tight. A coat of rust seals the distance between the various poems.
The formal organization of this collection propels it forward through time. In every new section, the family ages and so does the city. The natural environment of the city becomes hellish, and new neighbors with new types of lives move in. The Family’s members grow decrepit and distant, yet they get physically closer to each other and grow a wider range of familial emotions. The book ends on a note of beauty. The rusting away of life makes apparent a shine of minerals that will exist forever. I came away from the book feeling a sense of forgiveness toward some of modern life’s inherent injustices. There is an understanding in these poems of how we should live amongst powers beyond our control.
Sense of place, relentless imagery, hypnotic sounds, and a childlike sense of wonder make The Rusted City a worthwhile read. There is tremendous depth in this book anchored in formal simplicity. Rochelle Hurt’s writing is on point. It is playful when it wants to be and elusive when it instills senses of wonder or dread. Prose poetry is used to great effect throughout this book. The prose writing is confident and poetic. The form never stutters or questions itself, and as a result, it tells a story of Rust Belt life that is clear yet complicated, specific yet universal.
Rochelle Hurt was born and raised in the Ohio Rust Belt. She holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, and she has been awarded prizes from Crab Orchard Review, Arts & Letters, Hunger Mountain, and Poetry International. Rochelle’s poetry and prose have also appeared in various literary journals, including The Kenyon Review, The Southeast Review, The Cincinnati Review, and Mid-American Review. Currently, she lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, with her cat, Frida.
The Rusted City
by Rochelle Hurt
White Pine Press, April 2014
$16.00 paperback, ISBN: 9781935210528