Wearing Heels in the Rust Belt
Is there such a thing as a coming-of-age poetry chapbook? This is that and more. Although the narrator appears to change from poem to poem, she is always female, rural or small-town working-class in the Rust Belt. The collection won Main Street Rag’s 2011 chapbook contest, and I can see why: the poems are richly evocative, and mingle lyricism and gritty realism in just the right proportions.
I grew up in the Rust Belt myself, and Weyant’s portrayals ring true to me. I was reminded a bit of Jeff Walt’s Soot, thought I think Weyant’s characters are a bit less hopeless, a bit more fully realized. This is also a more ambitious collection: Weyant sets out to define a Rust Belt aesthetic in the opening poem, “Ways of Writing Rust,” introducing themes and imagery that will re-occur throughout. It begins:
Use a red pen. Push October’s full moon through every line.
Scribble down an old barn and a children’s game of tag
that ends with a nail’s scratch and tetanus shot.
Remember to cross all your t’s.
Save the graffiti, the sharp letters, the language,
even if you are not sure if the words are a Bible verse
or lyrics from an old rock-n-roll song.
Scrawl down corner bars and closed stores.
This is one of three poems in the hortatory mode, incidentally, which may explain why I liked it so much. The others are “How to Be a Rust Belt Feminist” and “Advice For All the Rust Belt Cassandras” — the closing poem. Most of the other poems are first-person narratives, almost all of them just about a page long. The almost-title poem, “How We Learned to Wear Heels in the Rust Belt,” actually brought a tear to my eye, I’m not sure why — I guess because the determination simultaneously to learn toughness and cultivate traditional femininity seems so desperate and doomed.
Our world a catwalk, we practiced balancing on construction planks,
railroad ties, backporch banisters. […]
We swaggered our thin hips and thighs,
every strut full of defiant assurance.
But if conformity to social norms seems a stretch, that’s because in other poems girls question religious orthodoxy, collect bees and bones, throw stones at porn shop signs, carry knives for protection, and are troubled by the shunning of the children of scab workers:
I learned grownups knew how to punch,
how to kick, how to spit, how to yell
bad names, like the boys at recess
who threw rocks and sticks at Danny Pontzer
calling him Scab Spawn. I learned
the power of silence, like the way the girls
shunned Stacey Mitchell at recess.
(“Sacrificing Scabs for the Union Gods”)
The poems have their share of natural imagery, too, though much of it’s fairly bleak: a shrike’s victims found during a dry spell impaled on barbed wire and thistle, gypsy moth caterpillars defoliating oak trees on Bear Mountain, and an off-beat portrayal of a gang of dead-animal enthusiasts in “Roadkill Girls”:
For every antler or loose feather, we found
groundhog teeth, a set of claws, soft wisps
of a rabbit’s tail. Sometimes, we grew brave,
flicking maggots from fresh kill, the dull thud
of soft bodies hitting tree bark reminding us
of June bugs hurling against back doors
and bedroom windows. […]
With every bone, we planned our new world,
starting with a single rib from a raccoon.
And I suppose that quote, which includes the closing lines of the poem, serves as well as any to showcase the subtlety of Weyant’s political stance. Whatever I might’ve thought I was going to get with a title like “Roadkill Girls,” this was something altogether more surprising — and disturbing. Starkly realistic as the poems in this collection may be, this is not old-school social realism with the characters flattened to conform to some ideological agenda. Instead, there’s a generous and imaginative humanism at work.
By the end, the lives and thoughts of these working-class girls and women seem not only compelling but admirable and worthy of emulation. In a literary tradition dominated until quite recently by men of privilege, and still largely the province of the middle class, such lives are nearly invisible. So I’m really glad that Karen Weyant has put together such a strong collection, and I hope there are many more to come.