If Michel Gondry and William Faulkner were to team up and write a book about Cleveland, you might wind up with something akin to Rochelle Hurt’s debut collection The Rusted City (White Pine Press, 2014). Hurt’s collection is about not only a city collapsing in on itself, but also a family.
Hurt’s collection is decadent in the truest sense of the word. We watch as the rusted city eats itself alive. In one poem, Hurt writes:
The City Swallows/ falling scraps like a dog at a dinner table, it’s river tongue-lapping them in from the lip of the shore. It jostles them down its throat, shaking an old tune out as the scraps rub and clash their way underground, groaning into beds of dirt. This is the din that’s rattled centuries of the city’s floorboards. But as far as the smallest sister knows, it is only the cymbal hymn the earth has always been humming— (18)
But through its erosion, the city gains a quiet dignity, a kind of aura. Like snow, the rust that covers this city makes everything beautiful, even as it erases it.
Of course, the city isn’t the only thing falling apart. Conjoined with the rusted metropolis’ fate is a family. There is a mother who pines for a lost father, a man who works at the one surviving mill. Hurt writes:
The Quiet Mother Smiles/ as she tells her two daughters of the favorite father. ‘He’ll be your favorite too,’ she says, smoothing her hair with her palm. The smallest watches as red dust brushed loose falls from her mother’s head and collects on the kitchen tile, already stained a dull orange… The quiet mother tugs a gold ring form one of her fingers and hands it to the smallest sister. The ring is heavy as a marble in the smallest sister’s hand, and heavier every minute—a rock, anxious to be let go. The quiet mother picks up 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. (16)
However, if the father’s absence has left the family to slowly decompose, his presence is no less destructive. The father is obsessed with the spectacle of destruction. In one poem, Hurt writes:
The Roller Coaster is Burning, the Favorite/ father tells his daughters, buttoning their chin and ear flaps. ‘We go to get pictures,’ he says…
When they arrive swathed in ash, the roller coaster is folded in half, a writhing lattice of ruptured tracks, gangly as a giant insect. Hugging an arched belly of metal cars, its corroded arms are crossed already—the death pose, the smallest sister knows. (41)
The father’s speciation of disaster is far from uninterested though, and later we will see that his desire to watch is as destructive as the spectacle itself. Hurt writes:
The Favorite Father Chases a Tornado/ through the river with his camera. A layer of rust floating like algae on the water begins to break up. As he wades, his legs part one red island, making another. Soon there are too many tiny rust islands to count, and the river is a mottled red-brown. (75)
The corrosion and collapse of the collection also belies a subtle violence. The city, once a capital of industry that consumed the world around it, has now in turn become oxidized and is being consumed by the air it breathes. The violence in Hurt’s collection is atmospheric and structures that once sustained have now turned against themselves to victimize what they once nurtured. Hurt writes:
Spring-Cleaning, the Quiet Mother/ discovers the habit of touching that’s begun in her kitchen. It wafts like a sulfur perfume through all of her rooms. She finds burnt sugar cubes of touching stashed under beds and salt mounds of touching collected on tabletops. (49)
Narrating the collection is the youngest daughter, who must make a life in this dying city. Ultimately, it is her ability to move between the two meanings of decadence that allows her to survive. She sees not only the decay, but also the ways in which decay creates, the way even rust can be embroidery if looked at in the right way. Ultimately, this is what allows the smallest sister to survive—her ability to see the transformative power of decay, the way obsolesce makes something new. Hurt writes:
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 form the refuse. (82)
In the interest of full disclosure, I grew up in the rust belt. I spent the first two decades of my life in Dayton, a city as notable for its lost industry as its contribution to aviation. And maybe this is why Hurt’s collection resonates so well with me. It is a eulogy for places that only become notable once they have lost themselves.