A Review of Rochelle Hurt’s The Rusted City
By J. Andrew Goodman
The Rusted City is an imaginative debut novella-in-poems by Rochelle Hurt, chosen as the 2014 installment of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series, an imprint of White Pine Press. The collection follows a family living in the Rusted City where buildings, fauna, and people have corroded from disuse. Jobs and fathers are mythologized and ephemeral, leaving wives and daughters equally susceptible to corrosion. “[Rust], mothers would say to one another, will eat through anything.”
The collection follows a family of four–the Favorite Father, the Quiet Mother, the oldest Sister, and the Smallest Sister–similar to many families in the Rust Belt town amid the strife of unemployment and listlessness and their byproducts. However, Hurt’s vibrant prose animates rivers, turns scrap gardens into jewelry boxes, and rust and oils into something palatable. On one’s first tour, the city glints with old world glory.
The Rusted City subsumes color–patina and verdigris, rust and blood, snow and ash–as a metaphor seemingly changing as scenes and characters do. In one scene, the red of rust signifies the accumulation of secrets; in another, the physical redness of eyes after much weeping.
Through Hurt’s tight and deliberate language, rust, the consequence of the city’s halted production, corrodes the alloyed inhabitants. Such corrosion makes them stiff, opaque, lacking in reflection. Rust becomes a metaphor for callousness or numbness. The city’s many fathers are guilty of sexual abuse. The Favorite Father seeks reconciliation with the Quiet Mother, but she reacts as her moniker suggests:
Once you were silver,/ skin-tease and flash, // I could reach inside/ your chest, empty // as a tin canister, the air / thick with echo, I could stretch // my fingers out and tap / my nail against your heart, // which hung like a spoon / from your ribcage, // once I tapped too hard / and it clattered to the bottom // of your gut. I spent months / trying to hang it back up.
The Rusted City’s other women respond similarly, ossifying against their husband’s apologies, effectively becoming constructs. “In need of music, dancing women began to hum, // bus still refused to move their tongues. Their men resolved to hold them still until // some mouths softened with moss or crumbled.” All the citizens adopt such forms to conceal their trauma or distress. Rochelle Hurt’s clever rendering of bodies reveals the “impatient decay” of heavily tested love, how quickly silence becomes distance.
Silence exudes almost every page as a gift of reprieve, as a secret, and as a weapon. The Smallest Sister, whom the collection follows most closely, tries to recapture the language to speak of her own abuse, to give a name to her experience. She appropriates it one word at a time with help from the Oldest Sister.
Once inhabited by silence, Hurt’s characters are inert machines: cold and interchangeable cogs, the mothers are indefatigable and quiet in their “sweeping” of the past. “Often, mothers caught one another / by the river at night, eyes wide, / arms locked to brooms. Often, // they agreed to make another secret / of their sweeping, and no one knew // how much of the city’s past / the water had swallowed.” More and more, the citizens and their pasts are enveloped in rust. In concerted effort, Rochelle Hurt reveals the nature of pain: infectious and ubiquitous.
The Rusted City is a product of collective labor. An entire city works to conceal its past before younger generations may rediscover it. In the process, one wonders if the intense corruption begins in the atmosphere or whether it is internal, spreading outward.
The Rusted City is an intimate examination of familial strife. Rochelle Hurt’s use of metaphor compounds the affect of language and implication. Her imagery is smart and wondrous, while her insights remind us that reconciliation is precipitous and piecemeal.
Rochelle Hurt, The Rusted City. White Pine Press, 2014: $16.00
J. Andrew Goodman is the Managing Book Review Editor for As It Ought To Be, a Library Page for the Louisville Free Public Library, and a former marketing and editorial intern for White Pine Press. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from Murray State University.