I have a friend from Youngstown, Ohio, so when I first opened up Rochelle Hurt’s The Rusted City and found the book’s dedication was for the city, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Youngstown’s been through some tough times, which has earned it spots on lists like Buzzfeed’s “Bleakest Places on Earth” and Comcast’s “Top 20 Miserable Cities,” but my friend from there describes the city in loving terms. The city of Hurt’s book isn’t necessarily Youngstown, but it’s safe to say it’s at least part Youngstown, and maybe part Cleveland, Ohio; part Dayton, Ohio; part all the cities of the Rust Belt. The Rusted City is a look beyond the bleak exterior of these places and into the heart of them, the people that make them tick.
These people aren’t without their own flaws, though. Like the city, who can’t be mentioned without the rust, these characters are all given certain qualifications—the “smallest sister,” the “favorite father,” the “quiet mother.” The book begins with this “quiet” mother telling her two daughters about the “favorite” father, describing to them how great he is, though there’s indication that this father isn’t as great as she says. In “The Quiet Mother Smiles,” the mother hands a ring to her daughter, gold and heavy, but in the next poem, “The Smallest Sister Goes to School,” we see the daughter carrying a rock of fool’s gold, which eventually turns to coal in her hand. The beauty has vanished and the girl ends the poem by climbing into darkness, the next poem moving into the personification of the city as it swallows scraps. In these movements, we see a slow descent into the murk, a foreshadowing of sorts for when the “favorite” father returns in “The Smallest Sister Meets the Favorite Father.” This father is part-man, part-city in a way, his body “all clanging and steam,” its own Rust Belt. His appearance seems to signal an upturn in the other character’s life, the daughter proclaiming how perfect it is, but this is short lived—before the poem ends, the father has already expressed doubt in his statement that he’s “going to stay this time.”
In this rusted city, it’s hard to know what will stay, everything deteriorating. In “The Favorite Father Gets Home from Work,” we see the father dripping with rust. In “The Oldest Sister Teaches,” we see a swimming pool empty except for rust. There’s an impermanence here—anything metal can decay, and in this city everything is metal, everything is in danger of disappearing. When the “oldest” sister teaches the “smallest” sister about their city’s history, it’s filled with these same themes. Men filling their lungs with burning. Sentences “swelled… and burst.” This rust and this desolation and the spirit of the city have built themselves into the blood of these citizens. There’s a pride in being part of a city. Just as a New Yorker stands and proclaims “I’m a New Yorker!” the people of Hurt’s book are proud of where they’re from and skeptical of outsiders. In “Downstairs, the New Neighbors,” a new family moves in, their apartment filled with whiteness. It’s something clean, something foreign from the dust that dominates the city, and the “quiet” mother is uncomfortable with this, pretends to sleep because she can’t handle the pressure of sleeping upstairs from these people who aren’t one of them. I’m reminded of gentrification here, of attempts to “clean up” the city, when the city doesn’t need to be cleaned up. This rusted city and its inhabitants are flawed, sure, but they’re also part of a tradition, a culture built from generation to generation. At its core, this is what The Rusted City is digging toward, this understanding of why a city and its inhabitants exist, and how the people become part of this city. The Rusted City is also the rusted people. The “favorite” father says it best in “The Only Solution”—“rustblood.”
The Rusted City, by Rochelle Hurt. Buffalo, New York: White Pine Press. 96 pages. $16.00, paper.
Justin Carter is a PhD student at University of North Texas. He has an MFA from Bowling Green State University. He co-edits Banango Street and is Reviews Editor for Mid-American Review.