THe City Visible
2007 Anthology of Chicago Area Poetry
Edited by William Allegrezza and Raymond Bianchi
Cracked Slab Books, Chicago, 2007, 251 pp., $22.95

Review by T. Hibbard (10/07)

"From T.S. Eliot and Nathanial West to Thomas Pynchon, Edward Albee, and Norman Mailer, the pervading image has been one in which an atmosphere of doom, like an apocalyptic nightmare, hangs over the modern city."
                          -James Machor

The modern "Metropolitan Area." The Metropolis. The Big City. Today's urban landscape. What is it? Where does it begin and end? What are its attributes? These questions seem at times beyond answering, beyond comprehension, just as the growth of America's large cities seems beyond control. The city is apart from us. "Tout autre est tout autre," writes Derrida, deadpanning a tautology that we interpret as "All others are the Other entire." The city of which we are a part disavows us as we can not conceive of disavowing ourselves. Like a god, It calls us to sacrifice.

The city embodies both human fulfillment and human failure. It mirrors thrillingly the infinite universe itself; yet its depths are chaotic and abysmal. It sparkles with the jewels of far-sightedness. Yet it adamantly denies attainment of individual dreams. It speaks a lofty language that its own power forbids us to hear. Big city streets are haunted by discarded egos, chronically, repeatedly; by guttering candles of ignored cries; by despair; by abandonment in the bony catacombs of virtue.

In The City Visible, a 2007 anthology of "Chicago Poetry for the New Century," edited by William Allegrezza and Raymond Bianchi, it is pretty clear, though not overtly clear, that the imaginative skills of a younger generation of adventurous poets are being pitted against the dark tentacles of urban angst. This must be a scary square-off, because the editors have softened their stance by recruiting poets that are also from Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin, and choosing much poetry that is not specifically about the city.

I take the title, The City Visible, to be an echo of Carl Sandburg, troubadour of the midwest, depression-era prophet, author of such books as Chicago Poems, Smoke and Steel, Cornhuskers, The People Yes. These titles themselves speak of sorrows overcome, of giant achievement, of discovery out of tribulation.

Before the Great Depression, Sandburg famously described Chicago as "City of the Big Shoulders" and "Hog Butcher for the World." In Chicago Poems (1916), poem after poem takes up the subject of some injustice, some "tears and trouble," "some lost child," some "tired face," some "fish crier" or "shovel man," some sorrow under the Clark Street Bridge or on the Halsted Street Car, with a determined Settlement House sentimentality that imbues the writing with what Archibald MacLeish describes as a bright human destiny.

Voices of broken hearts
...Voices singing, singing
...Silver voices singing,
Softer than the stars,
Softer than the mist.

In fact, despite having not overwhelming amount about Chicago in it, I would say that The City Visible is similar to the poetry of Sandburg, along with other early socialist writers such as Upton Sinclair, author of books such as The Jungle, King Coal and The Metropolis. In this contemporary anthology, the city of poetry in and around Chicago is perhaps no longer the city of big shoulders, but it is "visible" in the sense that it is active, engaged, on the alert for stragglers, responsible, brave, aware of problems and the scope of problems, not nihilistically passing by its fellow human beings.

These poets of today do not seem to be troubadours, vagabonds. There is no sense of the open road, experience with the harvest or even factory work. Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), describing working conditions in Chicago's meatpacking industry, brought about the implementation of The Pure Food and Drug Act. But today's writers also seem to be concerned with legal issues, such as war, health care, land use, air and water pollution, spousal abuse, minority rights and equality. There is a fragmenting stringency formed along partisan lines, a living of one's teachings. (In July an event co-sponsored by "Poetry Magazine" and The Poetry Foundation called "The Printers Ball" at the Zhou B Art Center on W. 35th Street was summarily shut down by gun-toting Chicago police in full riot gear.)

In the poem "Masses" Sandburg writes,

Great men, pageants of war and labor, soldiers
    and workers, mothers lifting their children--
    these all I touched, and felt the solemn thrill of them.
And then one day I got a true look at the Poor, millions
    of the Poor, patient and toiling; more patient than
    crags, tides, and stars, innumerable; patient as the
    darkness of night...

This prose poetry is like the writing in The City Visible. There are no targets. Rather, there is a sense of touch, of the humble gray shapes, forms, interconnection and consistencies of the city, shapes that are predominantly inner rather than outer. As with the earlier writers, there is reference to the lake and its shore. But the waves on them are sensuous ripples of insight that trouble and stir the walled-out heart and psyche. The "poor" are the writers themselves.

The writing in The City Visible is filled with diversity, so much so that diversity can be taken as its guiding principle. The poems are notably dissimilar. The poets do not write about Chicago; they write to go beyond it. They commune with their secret selves. In this sense the city is not visible but manifest. What is noteworthy in this is that though the city may be inimical to life it is perfect for poetry. Its problematic, its incomprehensible coldness is made for poetry to thrive.

The city remains untamed, still the city of big shoulders, still hog butcher to the world. The problems it poses today are of no less magnitude than during the Great Depression. But these poets are finesse fighters rather than sluggers. They dodge the hurt, with many stylistic devices, having become so breathtakingly accustomed to complexity that Chicago is once again a Native-American fishing village at the base of a large, unnamed body of fresh water.

Watched the video of myself watching myself
On video Here I am saying that's me
Saying here I am
                   (Dan Beachy-Quick, "Difference in Triplicate")

You always store pebbles under your tongue. There is no difference between root and cheek. Sublime collector without an archive, please forget the taste of milkweed and my face in the morning.
                   (Ela Kotkowska, "Song Without Words")

The czar disappears into
the rain's rumpled plumage
my heart's gong-bruised knees
buckling through branches
                   (Kristy Odelius, "Thoughts of Falling, Pollen,

This high up always felt like suicide
                   (Ed Roberson, "When the Morning Come")

It has been you I have wanted to look at,
proving my faithfulness to my home away
from home: the appendix: something I can
live without. I had forgotten there were stars
                   (Erica Bernheim, "63rd and Pulaski")

Of course, all the writing in this anthology is excellent and all the writers equals, brothers and sisters, with the same amount of love for everything outside themselves. Nevertheless some of the writing is more useful in explicating than others.

Two writers that on first reading opened the anthology for me, showing in what way its poetry is about the city, were Simone Muench and Jorge Sanchez. Sanchez in "Poem" refers to "the modern dissatisfaction with cities" and in his last lines reminds how they can distort one's sense of importance.

We easily recall the smallest quivering
roadside iridescence, but stumble to call
to mind a theorem, making it hard
to remember an address, a birthday
or the name of a man you once knew well.

In Muench's poems, the accents hit on human misery, from strange presences in hospital rooms to the notion of sleeping with street people. Life in the city becomes a style of lostness in which emotion is sharply felt but one is endlessly alone.

Days when I gaze into your glass
eye, archeological remains

of your tortured back, mustangs
gather at your open mouth

you conspire against my pleasure,
your sadness is ferocious, taller

Thus, this anthology is not an unqualified celebration of the city of Chicago. It is a tale of two cities, the city of poetry and the city of Chicago, interacting, working on each other. In the end, it is more the city of poetry that is the city "visible," "the city of big shoulders," striving to rein in and refashion for a new century the city of Chicago.

There are many familiar names in the anthology associated with poetry in various ways. Maxine Chernoff. Lina Ramona Vitkauskas and Larry Sawyer (excellent poem "Me Tronome") edit in Chicago the e-journal "Milk." Poems by the anthology editors, Allegrezza and Bianchi, are included, Allegrezza being editor online of "Moria," which last year published Jordan Stempleman's Their Fields as an e-book. Bill Marsh is associated with "Factory School." Roberto Harrison publishes the Bronze Skull Series. Chuck Stebelton ran the Myopic Bookstore poetry series in Wicker Park until 2006 when he became associated with Woodland Pattern small press book center in Milwaukee. Stacy Szymaszek recently moved from Milwaukee and Woodland Pattern to New York where she is program coordinator at Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church. Many other well-known reading series and publications are represented. Each of the fifty-plus poets is identified with a photo, a bio note, a "Poetic Statement" along with a sample of poetry.

In his foreword, Paul Hoover, also included as poet, attempts to supply some recent background for the anthology's poetry: Starting from the mid-Seventies, Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, Gwendolyn Brooks, Haki Madhubuti, Angela Jackson, Paul Carroll, The Yellow Press, The Poetry Center, "Poetry" Magazine, "Big Table," "The Chicago Review." Hoover says that during that time Chicago was not especially known as a poetry center, with some writers moving out of the city. Around 2000, the city's literary and academic institutions, such as Northwestern University, became more open to an innovative poetry using a variety of formal techniques that Hoover says he is tempted to call the "New Modernism."

What we call innovative in poetry is a portrait in language of the world as is and therefore, as possible; it is a form of realism.

Hoover goes on to say, "What we need is the greater experience of language as world making...."

The ability of poetry to use words in the same way improvised music combines notes sheds light on such concepts as rationality, solidness, morality, consciousness. It seems to me word-improvising, poetic exploration and exorcism are the most common ways in which contemporary poetry presents itself. But there are other ways. One of those is a strongly elliptical, carefully delineated visually-oriented conceptual or virtual map or template. The words are dot-like landmarks in an area of white space. Though this type of poetry lacks the limitless capacity of improvisation, it creates a sense of whole worlds, with beginnings and ends, possibly in the same way manifestos are able to speak more directly and establish objectives. In doing this it takes a step I think toward the "world-making" that Hoover calls for. Samples of this type of poetry in The City Visible come from Mark Tardi, Chris Glomski, Jesse Seldess, Laura Sims and Chuck Stebelton. In his long poem "IL LA," Chris Glomski pieces together a verbal collage of bits of conversation, found phrases that successfully and significantly elicit today's Chicago.

Poetry anthologies are not without exception good ideas. Historically they have tended to be superficial, witness the many anthologies during the early 20th Century that have nothing in them by Eliot, Pound, Stein or Joyce. Somewhat acquainted with the enthusiasm and energy of contributors in The City Visible, I feel it is different. Published in paperback by Cracked Slab Books, it pulls together strands of the efforts of a group of committed people in a fashion and at a moment that should encourage rather than discourage poets, writers, artists that are not included. It should bring writers in to the world-making endeavor. It gives reward to those that have worked hard. It is hoped that the anthology will be an embarking point for greater activities and new feats of accomplishment, accomplishment perhaps already distantly sensed amidst the great visions of the past.


I saluted a nobody.
I saw him in a looking-glass.
He smiled--so did I.
He crumpled the skin of this forehead, frowning--so did I.
Everything I did he did.
I said, "Hello, I know you."
And I was a liar to say so.

Ah, this looking-glass man!
Liar, fool, dreamer, play-actor,
soldier, dusty drinker of dust--
Ah! he will go with me
Down the dark stairway
When nobody else is looking,
When everybody else is gone.

He locks his elbow in mine,
I lose all--but not him.
                           (Carl Sandburg, Cornhuskers, 1918)