TYRONE WILLIAMS Reviews
The Straits by Kristin Palm
(Palm Press, Long Beach, CA, 2008)
Full disclosure: in many ways I am the worst possible person to review this book. Like Kristin Palm, I, too, am a former Detroiter with fierce loyalties to the city. Unlike Palm, I grew up in the city (she was born in Mt. Pleasant, a northern suburb), and I retain, to my surprise, much of the antipathy we in the “inner city” learned to feel toward the suburbs and suburbanites. That I currently live outside the legal boundary of Cincinnati, Ohio (as much of my family in Detroit lives outside the city) in no way diminishes this almost instinctual hostility.
That said, this is a fine, if somewhat thin, narrative documentary of the history of the city, from its founding as a French settlement in 1701 to the narrator’s departure in the early 21st century. Divided into two long poems, “The Straits” and “City of Conscience,” The Straits offers a history of the city that only slightly departs from its official histories, many of which are cited as source-texts at the end of the book. The first poem offers a mixture of Susan Howe textual appropriation and quotation and Muriel Rukeyser narrative documentation without the latter’s moralizing. At the same time the contrast between the city’s promise of economic vitality and the social costs of those aspirations (from the first wars with Pontiac to the forced relocation of entire sections of the population to pave the way for industrial “progress”) suggests that the Catch-22 of capitalist prosperity demands a rethinking of “progress” and economic “viability,” to say nothing of social and cultural welfare. Aside from suggesting that one reading of the 1967 riot pits blacks “(and some whites)” against “the state” provides some interesting—and perhaps necessary—frisson against the city’s well-documented racial problems, Palm is largely content, in “The Straits,” to show.
This strategy is telling, as “City of Conscience” makes clear. Unlike “The Straits” which moves back and forth between the tradition of apostrophe (e.g., “City, your hands are candles”—19) and Howe/Rukeyser experimental documentation and narrative, “City of Conscience” incorporates a first-person singular “I” (as opposed to the “we” that makes a few brief appearances in “The Straits”). Thus, this second poem sounds much more personal, a felt mourning for a city drained of economic, and thus, political power. To her credit, Palm does not excuse her own decision to leave: “I know it’s been said it’s time to decide whether you are going to be the problem or you are going to be the solution, and my first thought is that I don’t know which I am though I suspect that the answer is both.” (90) Of course, the reduction of the complexity of industrialized sites to matters of individual choice is itself part of the apparatus of late capitalism. I am not blaming Palm for feeling this way; I recall feeling precisely the same way when I left for good in 1987. Still, such feelings, however genuine, play into the hands of the very forces marshaled against individual agency. Palm, in the same paragraph cited above, recognizes this dilemma even as she turns away from its darker implications: “I could write a letter here, a litany of my city’s history so that it collides, runs up against itself, and I could say that this shows all the forces that have run up against each other and themselves over all these years to make this city what it is today with all its attendant problems…What takes precedence? What do we view together and in isolation? City, I could write about you until the end of time and it would not make me able to return to you.” (90)
The Straits is an important document, and its sheer breadth and range makes it worth reading. I only wish it had a bit more kick to it.
Tyrone Williams teaches literature and theory at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of two books of poetry, c.c. (Krupskaya Books, 2002) and On Spec(Omnidawn Publishing, 2008). He also has several chapbooks out, including AAB (Slack Buddha Press, 2004), Futures, Elections (Dos Madres Press, 2004)and Musique Noir (Overhere Press, 2006). Recent poems are in or forthcoming from Critiphoria, Laurel Review and The Nation. He is currently writing a book of poems for the innovative writing press, Atelos Books.