The Rusted City by Rochelle Hurt
Peter Johnson, editor of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, defines prose poetry as an intricate balance. He explains, “Just as black humor straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy, so the prose poem plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels.” Rochelle Hurt’s The Rusted City, the latest from the Marie Alexander Poetry Series, is a first book composed primarily of prose poems that exemplify Johnson’s description by presenting the reader with elements of magical realism, persona, and the confessional set against the landscape of Youngstown, Ohio. The Rusted City is a book filled with poems that consistently present themselves to readers with a quiet tension built by Hurt’s precise balancing act of seemingly disparate poetic elements. It is this tension that ensures that The Rusted City is more than just a collection of individual poems. This is a book of poetry that tells a story through movement and character. It is a story that ends only when Hurt has crafted the tension between poems into a rope taut enough to vibrate at the slightest touch, creating a growing crescendo that draws readers towards an inescapable release.
The Rusted City is a collection built on character. The landscape and narrative are presented to readers through the voice of the smallest sister. However, the smallest sister is only one of the menagerie of characters that inhabit Hurt’s rusted city. There are also the quiet mother, the oldest sister, the favorite father, and the city itself. The relationships among all of these characters are in the midst of decay in the same way that the landscape around them is also in the process of deterioration. There is love, mistrust, misunderstanding, and, ultimately, a silence that permeates the relationships presented in these poems. This silence is not only the ultimate result of decay, but it is also what drives the book forward. It announces itself in the stilted speech of “The Old Mill,” the very first poem in the collection, where Hurt introduces the relationship between the smallest sister and the quiet mother:
The quiet mother slides a thread between her lips, sucks a minute, as if on licorice. She’s working on a slipcover. “That’s impossible—” she says, eyes crossed on the thread she now pulls from her mouth, “they’re gone.” The smallest sister shakes her head, a spring-hinged door swinging as the birds flit in and out and in.
Although the poems often contain dialogue, it is what is left unsaid among characters, as illustrated in the passage above, that communicates most profoundly and lures the reader deeper and deeper into the heart of Hurt’s world.
Occasionally, Hurt leaves the prose form behind to build the timeline, or, rather, the creation myth of her rusted city in lyrical bursts that hinge on the reoccurring temporal title element: “In the Century Of. . . .” These poems are a fresh breath outside of the sometimes-redundant prose form. They allow Hurt to personify of the rusted city as a place whose fate cannot be separated from the fates of the people that inhabit it. The rusted city is a place of magic, as well as of beauty and violence. It is a place at the mercy of its people, a point Hurt makes clear in poems like “In the Century of New Skin”:
Children split like bad cells
into a frenzy of more children.
The City squirmed with them,
an ant laden peony, sinking
into its grass, blooming
black from black.
It is through images such as these that Hurt is able to achieve the greatest impact within the constructs she has used to build the poems in this collection. In this beautiful moment of lyricism, the city and its people inhabit more than just the landscape Hurt has cultivated for them. More impressively, they reach out to the reader and begin to do the difficult work of poetry: combining the personal with the universal. In its best moments, The Rusted City reminds us that we all have a place that we come from, and the relationship we have with that place and the people who inhabit it is complex and continually changing. In the poem “In the Century of Silences,” when Hurt manipulates the familiar image of an industrial plant closing, she gives her readers a lyrical roadmap to this complicated idea of change:
When the plant closed, no
exclamations were heard,
but the city opened with the pink
of a thousand gapemouths, all
of its citizens miming themselves.
The structure of this passage, as a representative of the structure in the entire collection illustrates the way in which Hurt allows readers to suspend their more rational selves and interact with the subject of place, a difficult and often overwrought poetic subject, on a honest emotional level.
Although there is much to admire about Hurt’s collection, the book, unfortunately, suffers from the common disease of too many poems. This is a problem in many poetry books, and something that is becoming an unfortunate trend in first collections. The Rusted City depends on the interlocking elements in its narrative and benefits greatly from the often-obsessive prose form. Because of this, it operates differently from a collection that is simply just a group or groups of poems. Each poem is in dialogue with the next, as well as with the previous poem to a degree that makes the consumption of the book a daunting task. This kind of richness in a poetry book has to walk a fine line between rewarding and alienating the reader. Unfortunately, there are points where the length of this collection becomes a hindrance to digesting the obsessive form of its content, and, as a result, the poems start to wear on the reader and distract from the consistency of what is, ultimately, a wonderful collection.
Prose poetry is a difficult form to execute well over a sustained period. Many prose poems often resort to redundant tricks of fragmentation or absurd subject matter in order to hold their reader’s interest. Although Hurt’s collection feels long in some moments, the poems themselves never feel redundant or expected. Each piece of The Rusted City is built and maintained by Hurt’s consistent vision for this place she has invited her readers to visit; it is through strong voice and her fresh take on the familiar and often debated prose form that compels the reader to stay.
Keith Kopka is the Managing Director of the Creative Writing program at Florida State University where he is completing his Ph.D. in Poetry and Cultural Studies. He also holds an MFA from The University of North Carolina Wilmington with a specialization in Creative Writing and Publishing. He has taught at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and currently teaches poetry and creative writing at Florida State University. His poetry and criticism have appeared or are forthcoming in journals such as The International Journal of The Book, Coldfront, Mid AmericanReview, New Ohio Review, Ninth Letter, The Greensboro Review, and others.