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A City’s Anatomy
City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry. Ryan G. Van Cleave. University of Iowa Press. 173 pages; paper, $19.95.

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In a call for submissions on the subject of Chicago, Ryan G. Van Cleave, the editor of this wonderful volume, received over 1,500 submissions. Out of what must have been a very daunting stack, he chose the work of ninety-nine poets, some of whom are widely known, and some not. A work of this nature, obviously, depends greatly on the editor and his knowledge of the terrain to be covered, and though he is not a resident, Van Cleave knows his subject. Early in his introduction, he tells us,

I see Chicago for its beauty and its mystery, its vibrancy and its depravity, its joy and its strangeness. There are places in this city that are simply unsafe, unclean, and unkind. There are places that are torn down, rebuilt, then torn down again in a constant state of flux.

Or, as John Dewey wrote to his wife in the late 1890’s,

Chicago is the place to make you appreciate at every turn the absolute opportunity which chaos affords, it is sheer Matter with no standards at all… things are rather too interesting…. Every conceivable thing solicits you, the town seems filled with problems holding out their hands, and asking somebody please solve them or else dump them in the Lake…. Think of all hell turned loose, and yet not hell any longer, but simply material for a new creation.

These poems come close to informing us of the shape of that new, or rather continual, creation; they tell us of the human data used in that shaping. It is both difficult and wonderful to see this volume merely as a book of poetry in that what we have here is a braiding of art, of experience, of memory. To read these pages is to read more than poetry; it is to observe the anatomy of a city.

The editor tells us that the anthology is “arranged alphabetically by authors’ names,” and while such an arrangement might seem arbitrary and neglectful of thematic possibilities, the assembly is shrewd as it describes an arc that begins with the glaciers 10,000 years ago shaping Chicago’s geography and ends with a loving goodbye from a visitor who combines a present Chicago with one of history and memory and who arrives at a recognition of Chicago that is both romantic and real. In a prose poem, Brenda Yates writes: “Let us mourn ourselves; celebrate ourselves; let us be horrified by ourselves & yes, glory in ourselves. Here is a place to contemplate what we’ve allowed to happen, what has happened to us. Look at what we built, at what we destroyed.

While there are a number of prose poems in the collection, these pages revel in a display of varied forms. These poems come in accentual, syllabic, biblical, and free verse, among others. It is to the editor’s credit to have chosen a number of slam/spoken poets who, as Van Cleave points out, rarely find their way into traditional print anthologies. And while the formal structures are widely varied and come from a hundred different poets, the poems, all of them, are easily accessible. They are Chicago music, implicit, and often made explicit, as in Chad Prevost’s recollection of old blues, who summons Buddy Guy’s “Heavy thumb-picking, howling, / ‘Still Waiting,’ and ‘Sweet Home Chicago,’ making the pain / hurt so much you can taste it in your beer.”

It is interesting that many of the poets who once lived in Chicago don’t live there now. They are dispersed over a wide American geography, yet a longing for the city persists, as Karen Carcia tells us that “small birds come // to my window remind / me why it is almost / better to live one place // and long for another.”

In three poems that follow each other, through their juxtapositions underlining and enlarging the others, we are given poems full with the heavy weight of leaving the city, as exemplified by an episode in...