[ToC]

 

WHEN YOU SAY YOU'RE FROM DETROIT

Rachael Button

1.

You stop to see
if his face flattens, flinches,
or stares back pancake-blank.
A personality test,
you've learned to like it

when people search you back.
"Is it bad there?"
Your response, an AP
face-stretched smile.
You describe tomato plants patted
into vacant lots, bodies
twirling between booths
of collards, Saturdays
at Eastern Market.

Once in Detroit
a stranger
patted the gun
in his pocket during a fight
with your father
about a farmer's market parking spot.
While you palmed ginger root,
pomegranates, bouquets of carrots,
Dad's eyes
never rested—
"I don't feel safe here."
You don't talk about this
to outsiders.

The city is fragile
and stories
can break it.

 

2.

You're not from Detroit,
not really.
You grew up fifteen miles
outside the city,
a patchwork of lawns
lining a golf course.

Papa moved to the suburbs
in 1970. Mom was eight
when tanks rolled down
her cul-de-sac.
From her bed, she could hear
the pow of paint cans bursting
in the mini-mart. The air
smelt of ash.

To you, the city
was mystery:
vents steam
barrels of fire
towers scrape the sky.

 

3.

You claimed Detroit in 2008

when you moved from Michigan
to Iowa, where flat stalks flanked
the horizon brown.
2008, the year the Big Three
failed. The year your father
worked full time
for no salary.
You came home that Christmas,
saw row houses lining
the freeway, abandoned homes.

Abandoning home,
you wondered what you left.
Detroit: French
for "strait," the place
where waters meet.

 

4.

Detroit's motto,
in Latin: We hope
for better things, it will rise
from the ashes.
In 1805, when fire swept
the city, Detroiters watched
from canoes
as houses crumbled.
You imagine them
in blankets, whispering,
we hope
for better, we hope
for home.

Driving in Hamtramck
you saw Detroit's motto
carved, plywood in the window
of a burnt-out building.
You stopped, got out,
stood. The glass-
dusted doorway smelt
of liquor and soot. 
We hope for better things.
The writing felt smooth
on your fingertips.
It will rise from the ashes.

 

5.

At twenty-four, you fell
a bit in love
with a Detroit historian.

You tore down a house
together, pulled
cement blocks, pink puffs
of insulation
and rusted beams.
He unearthed ceramic
from rubble. "Someone
used to live here,"
he whispered. You
imagined a family
a window nook,
cereal bowls, sipping tea,
the smell of coffee.

Later, when you walked
by empty space, the historian
showed you a video
of the Lafayette building
demolition. Marble collapsed,
clouds of asbestos covered
clods of stone.

He knelt, letting dirt dampen
corduroys, palms
to ground.
You thought you saw him
tear, but it may have been the sun
shining water
into his sad eyes.

 

6.

Sadness drew you
to Detroit:
shattered windows
and coffee cups buried
in earth.
But when you say
you're from Detroit--
You think of history
yours and its.

You remember the day
you returned to the neighborhood
where Papa grew up,
talked to a man who'd lived
in the same house
sixty years. He picked you
a sunflower—roots
and all.  You drove home,
petals on your carseat
and Detroit-soil shrouded
in Kleenex.

 

 

 

 

 


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In graduate school one of my professors called my writing a complicated love letter to Michigan. A complicated love poem about a complicated city.