A Review of Rochelle Hurt’s The Rusted City

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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

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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.

A Review of Magnolia & Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim

magnolia-lotusA Review of Magnolia & Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim, translated by Ian Haight and T’ae-Yŏng Hŏ

By J. Andrew Goodman

Admittedly, I had to read Magnolia and Lotus a number of times before I could appreciate its depth. Some poems are rigid; others are didactic or produce moral puzzles; some poems are merely observations of nature or human experience. Most, however, are evocative or clever in their explorations of human thought and playful in their allegories. Hyesim is a natural observer and an endearing persona. His life is an interesting one.

Hyesim (1178-1234) is the first Sŏn Buddhist Master dedicated to poetry. Sŏn Buddhism is the Korean equivalent of Zen Buddhism in Japan—both forms originated from the same Ch’an Buddhism tradition in China. And, like most poetry written in this tradition, the world is distilled through a tonal distance. Mood appears by observing nature or its juxtaposition with the ravages and delights of human experience. As Ian Haight says of Sŏn Buddhism in the introduction, nature is not an object, but an ideal.

In “Plantain,” Hyesim is imaginative in describing an aspect of nature: A plantain is an unlit/green candle of beeswax//the spread leaves, a vernal coat’s sleeves/desiring to dance.//I see this image in my intoxicated eyes/though the plantain itself//is better/than my comparisons.

The fruit is beautifully rendered here in simile and apt metaphor. In the second stanza, it is personified. In the final stanza, Hyesim acknowledges his limitations to describe the fruit completely. The inability of language to describe absolutely is another aspect of Sŏn Buddhism, and seemingly an exercise in Platonic forms. Magnolia and Lotus is replete with such poems.

“Instead of Heaven and Earth, I Answer” is another example of linguistic exploration and the human mind’s capacity for description. Hyesim recognizes the myriad distinctions a person may observe in an object, then asks in the poem’s final lines:

if one abandons this discriminating mind
what forms of matter are unique?

Nature provides the epistemological truths people should strive to learn. Such realizations lead to enlightenment and transcendence. As Sŏn Buddhists believe in “sudden enlightenment,” it is no surprise to see such didactic poems written in simple verse. The poem is expansive because so much depends on the reader’s thoughtfulness.

These poems feel like anecdotal lectures that may only interest readers who enjoy cerebral foreplay. Other poems intimate Hyesim’s life and a wider gamut of readers will find those more accessible and enjoyable.

In the collection’s introduction, readers are given Hyesim’s biography in short detail. Its brevity owes to little information about Hyesim’s personal life; the book’s translator, Ian Haight, even claims that arranging this collection as a chronicle of Hyesim’s life is presumptuous. What I find most interesting in Hyesim’s biography is his determination to become a monk, though his mother disapproved—his father died when Hyesim was still young. At his mother’s request, he entered the National Academy to prepare for government service. When his mother died and he had no other familial obligations, Hyesim immediately left school to become a monk novitiate.

Hyesim’s own life seemed analogous to Sŏn Buddhist teachings. To achieve enlightenment and to cultivate the mind through self-discipline and abstaining from desire, there is certainly some ambition in the quest. Hyesim proved it could be obtained with humility—he famously refused titles, promotions, and tried to refuse royal gifts—but he seemed to always desire self-improvement toward a more natural ideal. Sŏn Buddhists believe all humans are a part of the Buddha-mind. The Buddha-mind assumes a type of objectivity through which to view humanity and likely accounts for Hyesim’s ease at writing witty, quixotic, and insightful poetry.

In the poem, “Patiently Dreaming, a Buddhist Layman Asks for a Poem About the Pasture Cow,” Hyesim slyly acknowledges the distance between a liberated Buddhist mind and those who do not seek enlightenment, while also addressing the effects of humanity’s exertion of power over nature.

Put to pasture on a family’s field,
a cow watches other cows drink water.
Sometimes this cow tries to eat a little grass—
held by a nose ring, her head cannot move.
As days pass, the cow grows accustomed to this—
after years, the cow accepts it as natural.
In an eternity, the cow never yearns for freedom—
how many years does it take to accept the habit of a yoke?

One wonderful quality about Hyesim’s poetry is its timelessness. Magnolia and Lotus is a collection of poetry written approximately eight centuries ago. Still, Hyesim is thought-provoking. His commentary on nature resounds as a quality of human nature in spite of their sometimes symbiotic relationship. His poetry contributes to modern rallies for human equality and liberation from consumerism. Haight’s translation recovers a unique Korean voice, often overlooked among other Buddhist poets and scholars. Hyesim’s voice is a refreshing one, minding new readers that transcendence is humanly possible. Our only obligation is to watch and to listen.

Magnolia & Lotus: Selected Poems of HyesimTranslated by Ian Haight and T’ae-Yŏng Hŏ. White Pine Press, 2012: $16.00

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J. Andrew Goodman is a recent MFA graduate from Murray State University and an intern for the independent literary publisher, White Pine Press. He currently lives and works in Louisville, Kentucky.