Maybe this is one of those silly, self-centered illusions of life. Like the one about being the hero of our own life story. Or the one about the universe coming to an end when we die. But it sure seems from where I sit (in my classroom, in Chicago, just east of the corner of Division and Milwaukee, down the street from Young Chicago Authors and Nelson Algren’s old haunt) that Chicago is one of the centers of America’s literary universe. Maybe not as big-titted, tummy tucked, ass-lifted sexy as LA, or as swagger, swagger, yadda, yadda important as NYC—but what is?
At least it seems that an awful lot of poetry has been written about this city over the years. Not just by the big guns, like Carl Sandburg who, in one long, frequently reprinted poem named after our town, tried to do for Chicago what Walt Whitman did for Manhattan. But plenty of lesser-known poets, not to mention slam champs and runners-up and high-school poets hoping to be louder than a bomb, have tried to leap on and pin down some wild aspect of our untameable city. Ryan G. Van Cleave found enough contemporary poetry about this big, loud, crass, graceful, amazing city to fill a 174-page anthology. And the University of Iowa Press thought it was important enough, and interesting enough, to publish it.
And they were right. I have been carrying this book around with me for three weeks. Reading and reading it. Figuring out which are my favorites. Holding them up to the light. Swirling them on my tongue. Finding out if the poems leave an aftertaste. And what kind.
First I read the poems in the order they appeared in the book, which is ludicrous. Because there is no reason to read them that way, except it is the way we have always done it. The editor didn’t arrange the poems by subject or theme. They appear alphabetically by the poet’s last name. Which means Kathryn Almy’s touching, witty childhood reminiscence is followed by Nin Andrews’ eloquent but angry screed about pollution in poor neighborhoods. And that is followed by Dori Appel’s meditation on race, privilege and Michelle Obama, which is followed by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s hilarious poetic celebration of Chicago’s thick, gooey, high-fat, high-sodium, artery-clogging, heart-stopping favorite foods.
Then I gave in to my more anarchistic side, opening the book at random, rereading the poem I found there, or the one before it, or the one two or three pages after it. I read the poems the way I click through other people’s albums on Facebook, hoping to see familiar scenes with fresh eyes. This anthology abounds in such fresh-eyed snaps. There is an astonishing poem by Thomas L. Johnson that shows Billie Holiday, years before she became somebody, blowing it in her debut performance at Chicago’s old Grand Terrace Cafe, getting fired by the manager and throwing an inkwell at him.
There is a gorgeous poem by Renny Golden about a Memorial Day picnic in 1937 among the striking workers at the Republic Steel Chicago South Works that begins with images of “Boys kites throw[ing] diamond colors to a cobalt sky” and ends with cops firing shots into the unarmed crowd and dragging an injured worker from a car, to bleed to death in the street.
The collection is packed with plenty of lines as delicious as the first words in the first poem in the collection (“Routes” by Kathryn Almy): “The glaciers came down from Wisconsin/and carve Illinois into moraines and ravines/and 10,000 years later—after the pioneers, Al Capone,/ and the Manhattan Project—my parents/ lead us into a small patch of wild inside/ the suburbs.”
Most of the poets in this collection are not well-known, though a handful of literary celebrities are represented (among them, Stuart Dybek, Campbell McGrath, Patricia Smith) to satisfy, I suppose, the star-fuckers. Dybek’s poem is an impressionistic landscape of workers and pigeons at rush hour at an el platform in Ravenswood. Smith’s is a witty parody of Sandburg’s poem “Chicago:” “Heart Breaker, Stacker of the Deck,/Player with Northbound Trains…/Frigid, windy, sprawling,/City of Cold Shoulders.” And McGrath’s poem is, well, not to my taste. Entitled “Sandburg Variations,” it is one of those tightly knotted up academic packages, full of literary allusions and intentionally difficult to understand. It resists easy opening, and so, after several attempts, I moved on to the next poem in the collection.
The beauty of this anthology is that, like Chicago, it sprawls. Each poem is another Chicago neighborhood. And the way to enjoy it is to explore and explore. If you don’t find at least one in this volume that speaks to you, you aren’t really looking. (Jack Helbig)
“City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry”
Edited by Ryan G. Van Cleave
University of Iowa Press, 206 pages, $20