The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century, edited by William Allegrezza and Raymond Bianchi
(Cracked Slab Books, Chicago, 2007)
“For years,” Paul Hoover writes in the Autumn 2005 issue of the Chicago Review, “Chicago was a fly-over city,” while “the real world of literature existed on the coasts.” Although “San Francisco comes ready-made,” he continues, “Chicago remained to be built.” But, as the former Chicagoan records in both that essay and in the foreword to The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century, Chicago’s status as a home for innovative poetry changed significantly in the 1990s and early 2000s, with the establishment and growth of graduate creative writing programs, a flourishing of homegrown magazines, small presses, and reading series, and, not least, an influx of poets devoted to, as he says in the foreword, “alternative formal strategies.” The result is a burgeoning experimental poetry scene in the Second City, leading to contemplation of a “New Prairie Renaissance,” perhaps even of a “New Prairie School.” Into, and out of, this ferment of poetic activity comes The City Visible, an anthology part-historical snapshot and part-declaration of independence—“a portal,” co-editor William Allegrezza writes, “through which you might begin to see the poetry scene in a high moment.”
The City Visible gathers work from fifty-two poets, some better known (Hoover, Maxine Chernoff, Ed Roberson, Arielle Greenberg, and Peter O’Leary among others), some lesser known, with many at the relative beginnings of their literary careers, and living in Chicago area (with interesting exceptions, including current San Franciscans Hoover and Chernoff). Throughout the anthology, we’re treated to many instances of the challenging forms and charged language of the best of contemporary innovative practice, as in Jennifer Scappettone’s punning update on the long Whitmanic line:
I was pre-Pandoran once, clear & amok, scarlet free where scarcely orange or purple
font, Greek, drunk, then, then Tyred, vinegar aspect for breakfast. How I seam now in
footage of national folding where only arson lives lives.
Or in the haunting final sentences of Suzanne Buffam’s prose poetic dramatic monologue, “Mariner”—
My voice has been described as nondescript, yet I continue to use it. I call to the hills and to the good people in them. I call to hear the sound of my own voice. The truth is, I seldom think about home at all. To grow up at sea is a mixed blessing, granted, but show me a blessing that isn’t.
As well as in the jagged, torqued lines of Michael Antonucci’s “Bicentennial Minutes from the Vet,” a poem (ironically) about Philadelphia:
cook/ed Astroturf ring/ed
candy kitchen heat
While the book does provide a snapshot of the contemporary Chicago poetry scene, the collection of individual poetics involved seem to point less to the development of a particular school or movement than to a melting pot of various avant-garde approaches at work throughout contemporary American poetry. Take, as another example, the minimalist work of Bill Marsh, who posits that the correct reading of his texts demands—through tearing out the pages—the destruction of the book itself: “The trick to reading [the poems] is to place them one over the other, with the ‘template’ on the bottom, and then to hold them up to a bright artificial light, such as a CRT computer screen or a TV tuned to Channel One”:
N. RIMES [template excerpt]
a e i o (you)
eva sum evo sum
eva cat service novice rain
2 0_ 0 2
N. 3 [poem] covet air
covet tao costume tao
costume air cantor never vain
Toward the goal of exhibiting each poet’s use of postmodern formal strategies, each selection of work comes prefaced with a poetic statement, which often provides interesting insights—at least into the poet’s consideration of his or her own work, if not to the work itself. The statements, as with the poetry, range widely in form and intent, from one-sentence axioms (John Tipton’s “I always try to make something beautiful”) to extended discussions of process and context that may be longer than the selection of poetry itself. In the statements, as with the poems, there are gems, from the memorable nugget—
A poetic that precedes a poem privileges certainty of form over discovery in form. I feel myself devoted to the latter difficulty. (Dan Beachy-Quick)
—to the lyrical, personal account—
My hope is that there are always friends and neighbors around who are interested. I count on them being there to heckle when a poem isn’t up to the task of cultivating an eloquent silence. (Chuck Stebelton)
—to the tongue-in-cheek list of “what the poems are about”—
The poems are about: work, money, water, loss, cars, isolation, love, nature v. man, insanity, death, survivor’s guilt, war, time, desperation, bodies, beauty, sickness, ironic occurrences, torture, disappointment, housework, joy, murder, motherhood, branding, imperialism, inexplicable violence, Spaniards, sex, old age, disappearance, abandonment, mysticism, tidal waves, longing, spiritual connection, institutionalization, and MRIs. (Laura Sims)
As with any inclusion of statements considering the intent of the work presented, the results are often-interesting tensions between theory and practice, purpose and effect—and in this case only add to the appeal of the anthology.
Interestingly, for an anthology based on a notion of locality, place in general doesn’t seem particularly important in these poems. Granted, there are several references to Chicago, with co-editor Raymond Bianchi’s work perhaps coming closest to the kind of tough talk one might associate with the popular image of the city:
Chicago unlike New York is a city where the basic and the hard won is prized and quick millions are envied but never respected. Donald Trump must be building that big building on the river because no one here thinks that his gold lame life is worth thinking about. (“American Master”)
But, as Hoover asks in the Chicago Review essay, “How exactly does a Chicagoan write? Is it different from the Pittsburgh style? The Trobriand Islands?” While Hoover’s point is well taken, The City Visible provides a convenient occasion to ask such questions about the relation between location and locution. How may locality influence poetic practice—consciously or subconsciously—and may it do so to such a degree that place can be detected in poetic form? Does the Chicago air pervade these poems as materially as it pervades the blood and lungs as those that live there? What relation would “Chicago” the city have to “Chicago” the school of poetry?
The City Visible contributor Tim Yu, in a paper presented at the Midwest MLA conference in 2006, suggests that co-contributor Chuck Stebelton’s work may best model the possibility of an aesthetic tied directly to Chicago: “Stebelton’s mix of density, seriousness, openness, and sense of place may best embody Chicago avant-garde writing,” he writes. “Stebelton’s ‘new prairie’ may be a highly built environment, but it retains an awareness of the wider and perhaps more open spaces that structure it.” Yu posits that “the distinctive textures of Stebelton’s work, and its structural analogies to wide-open Midwestern space, suggests that the idea of a new Prairie School of poetry is not so fanciful after all.”
While these questions remain open, what seems most important in considering The City Visible is to recognize that this particular network of poets, each with their own backgrounds and notions of poetic practice, are beginning to cohere in such a way as to produce an atmosphere of excitement conducive to poetic innovation in the city. While it would be hard to recommend The City Visible as anything more than a contemporary portrait of the state of Chicago’s experimental scene, the anthology as a historical and persuasive document does convince one that the flowering of that scene is both real and important. Is it a “school”? Probably not—at least not right now: Yu’s consideration of Stebelton’s work aside, it is hard to see how the individual poetics involved might coalesce into something peculiar enough to Chicago to warrant the name “Chicago School.” But is it a renaissance akin to the modernist Chicago Renaissance of Sandburg, Masters, and Lindsay? The City Visible certainly makes a persuasive claim that if it isn’t already, it may be soon.
Andy Frazee is a PhD student in English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. His reviews have appeared in Verse and Cutbank Reviews, with another forthcoming in Boston Review. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Eleven Eleven, 1913, Bath House, Faultline, Rhino, and The Sycamore Review, and has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.