In The Rusted City we are introduced to a family of four whose names are never given and are only described as the smallest sister, the oldest sister, the quiet mother, and the favorite father. Most of this novel-in-verse collection is told from the perspective of the smallest sister who views the world around her in wonderment, although most of what she sees is coated in rust. For instance, in the opening poem, "The Old Mill" she explains that she knows birds are living in an abandoned mill: "The birds are there, eating the rust from the wings." Certainly, it seems as if these birds are acting as phoenix symbols -- rising from rust as if they are rising from the destruction of fire and ashes.
Although we don't always necessarily see the characters rising from their rusty world, we do see them as hopeful survivors that seem to make the best of their situations. In "The Smallest Sister Decides to Make Herself Red" we see a child who wants to make herself attractive by stringing "corroded washes into a necklace" and coloring her lips with "sanguine river water." In another poem, "The Oldest Sister Smashes Cans" this same sister learns the art of destruction from her sibling: "Each can lets out a wheeze as it folds into itself, a burst of breath/ that whooshes the rust-laced pollen on the ground." While many of the poems do feature the smallest sister and her relationship with other characters and the world around her, some let other people speak including poems where the quiet wife takes center stage. For instance, in "Wife Song," the speaker likens her love to "impatient decay" while in the two sentence poem "The Quiet Mother Moves," that acts almost like an interlude to the collection, we understand this figure that walks "like breath, and an out of the house. Like a lung, the house empties and fills."
Yes, we get a strong sense of how the characters are navigating this world of debris, but perhaps the most interesting section of this collection is where the older sister relays the history of their hometown. In the poem, "In the Century of Lunch Pails" she explains that the world was once filled with "the grown and whistle of liquid/aluminum, churning the river to a radium loam" and "coins/inside all the hollowed-out fathers as they walked." This world of busy factory activity ends, however, and is followed by the sullen stillness of unemployment described in "In the Century of Silence" when "the plants closed, no/exclamations were heard,/but the city opened with the pink/of a thousand gapemouths, all/of its citizens miming themselves."
Navigating the American Rust Belt through poetry is tricky -- it's easy to fall into clichés and nostalgia. But Hurt avoids all the rusty overwrought drama and creates a new world from the old by using rust as more than corrosion and damage. In her lyrical poems, she transforms a world that is familiar debris to a place that is beautiful and hopeful.
For more information about The Rusted City, visit Rochelle Hurt's website. The Rusted City is part of White Pine Press's Marie Alexander Poetry Series which highlights prose poetry. More can be found about this series here.