Matt McBride’s Cities Lit by the Light Caught in Photographs (H_NGM_N BKS, 2012) is a series of portraits composed of urban decay and the castoff detritus of consumer culture that follows, at least thematically, the lineage of Eliot’s apocalyptic vision in The Waste Land. Throughout the chapbook, image after image of a city’s forgotten or damaged remains accrue, building around the reader the architecture of a modern wasteland. Take, for instance, the following excerpts:
an abandoned gas station
shuttered with plywood
The phone disconnected
but we got messages anyway:
the kind of things
dentures would say
after their owner died
a thousand set of Russian dolls
haphazard and mismatched
amidst a field of broken televisions.
Each basement was a museum
of progressively rustier stationary bikes.
You’d watch a blank VHS take
‘til it stopped
All the area rugs
are horridly stained
Mannequins, left outside
fuzz with mold
In Cities Lit by the Light Caught in Photographs, these images and others saturate the book’s landscape with a sense of failure, symbolized by the rusted, haphazard, and dilapidated refuse populating the poems.
And just as inanimate objects become discarded remnants, people in these poems have also died or have been forgotten. All that remains of them are ghosts who are “too alone / to be lonely.” Even when they’re encouraged to “feel you are wanted,” the ghost of these poems are readily aware that they’re not “wanted most of the time.” Yes, humans transform into ghosts because even they too are perishable.
Of course, one could argue that the city and those citizens not yet forgotten have disposed of outmoded objects and persons because they’re exchanging them for new and shiny replacements more fit for the future. But in the poem “Cities of the Future,” we learn that this is not the case:
Rusty coats hanger
bang against each other
on tree branches.
smells all hospital.
Our blood feel like soap inside us.
We have people landfills.
We are not uncontent.
It would appear that in the wasteland of McBride’s chapbook, the future is still “Rusty” and the chemical odor of a “hospital” fills the air in order to cover the scent of the “people landfills” were carcasses pile on top of one another. The most frightening aspect of the poem is the collective admission that “We are not uncontent.” No, civilization in this wasteland might not be content, per se, but it’s certainly not discontent. Instead, they look passively at “a scaffolding used to pull stars out by their roots, a kind of urban renewal for the sky,” watching the “urban renewal” of the heavens, but too “not uncontented” to do much about their own plight.
To further compound matters, looking back in reverie to a better time gone by is not an option either. Admonishing those who would look to the past, the speaker of the title poem claims that “Memory is the only pornography”; and later in the collection’s final poem “Cities of Perpetual Distraction,” the speaker declares: “Nostalgia’s a kind of cancer.” Yes, to think of a time passed both fetishizes the past and eats away at our current livelihood. As such, there is no escape in the past or the future; there is only the urban wasteland of the present, which we are complicit in creating.
This, of course, begs the question: does a collection of poetry need to offer its audience an escape, redemption, or a solution to the problems we face in life and literature? Or can a collection of poems simply offer an apocalyptic vision without hope? Cities Lit by the Light Caught in Photographs seems to favor the latter of these two options. While such a stance might not sit well with some, the failing economies and urban decay of cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, and any number of Rust Belt cities argue, sadly, that such a wasteland is already upon us. McBride, who is a native of Dayton, OH and a current Columbus, OH resident, no doubt is quite familiar with these landscapes.
But one could argue, as I did in a review of Russell Atkins’ Here In The, that the poetry that derives from these broken cityscapes is itself a redeeming quality. Of Atkins’ poetry, I wrote:
in these “hideous” and “abject” images, Atkins creates a singular, Cleveland-based beauty in his language and the sounds it produces. Yes, while his content focuses on the death of a city, he enlivens that very same material through his poetic technique. Through an aestheticized vision of Cleveland, then, perhaps writers and artists living here (and other cities along the Great Lakes) can find an answer to the manner in which we engage our troubled city: acknowledging its decline, but doing so in a way that honors its inherent beauty.
One could say the same thing with regard to McBride’s poems. Indeed, the content may be harrowing, but through the act of writing poetry and aestheticizing the decay, we can discover beauty in the destruction.