Being lost for the fun of it. A blog post as meandering as it sounds.

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Streets keep turning up where they shouldn’t—unless my map’s the wrong way ’round. It’s useless anyway: the streets here are unlabled. Daylight’s quickly drifting off in no discernible direction.

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My viewfinder has led me here, although I don’t know what I’m looking for, exactly. Traces of something…but how would I recognize it? Here, old and new run together, and, as anywhere new meets old, it tends to gobble it up. Few of these buildings seem to want to share the stories they so clearly have to tell. They collude with unsigned streets to maintain anonymity.

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“LITTLE PETER STREET!” one non-compliant edifice shouts, placing me back on the map. Now I must feign being lost. I turn my lens toward the railroad tracks, whose massive Victorian arches I follow. Red bricks, blackened with damp, and green with lichen and moss, recount lifetimes of industry, dereliction, reuse—whatever my eye will read into them. Surely there was a history here. Mundane as a train schedule, unrelenting as rain, ubiquitous as cotton thread, or: unrelenting as trains, ubiquitous as rain, mundane as cotton. No matter. Ponderous and decayed but lasting as the capitalist’s monument to himself.

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I’m no archaeologist, nor historian, nor even a photographer. I’m merely recording memories, impressions. Memories may congeal around photographs, but in the end, they are more painterly. My feet ache, my body stiffens, the light is all but gone, and I can’t stop taking pictures.

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A month ago, I was in Manchester, UK, where I presented a paper (“A Wounded Presence: The Virgin of Vladimir Icon”) at a conference (“Images, Icons, and Idols”) at the University of Manchester. I had a couple days free to wander around City Centre, which resulted in what you’ve just read above. These are also some of the photos I took. They’re dreadful photos, and heavily reworked in Photoshop. But they’re all I’ve got. I’ve made a promise to myself that I’ll spend some time learning how to use a camera once the weather turns nice again here in Detroit (and the daylight sticks around longer). You know, June. May, if we’re lucky.

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Here’s another photo from my Manchester trip, of “the Wheel” in Piccadilly Gardens, which is less of a garden and more of a public square with civic statues, this big Rerris wheel (which is for seeing the vista, like the London Eye), and the convergence of Manchester’s utterly chaotic bus lines. Seriously, the buses will make you want to walk even if you don’t happen to love walking to begin with.


So, this is a blog about “Poetry, God, and Detroit, in no particular order.” The above italicized musings don’t quite amount to a poem, I admit. My trip was God-related, since I was there for a theological conference. But I’ve also always wanted to go to Manchester, in part because some of my favorite music has come out of that city, but even more so because it’s often (been) compared to Detroit. Both cities are northern (in their respective countries), and both have an industrial past, complete with all the building projects wealthy industrialists like to engage in (as they’re a socially acceptable sort of pissing contest), and the ensuing economic depression from their respective industries’ inevitable declines. Both have offered their industrial ruins to photographers’ lenses. Both have working-class populations who take an inordinate pride in their cities—here’s mine; as I always say, I have a “chosen delusion” ( <–right there, I admit it’s a delusion) that when I mention I’m from Detroit, people will be jealous. And, of course, both cities have given the world plenty to dance to.

I take issue with this.

Poster on the exterior of the former Factory Records headquarters, now a nightclub called Fac51.

The sign pictured above says: “FACT: Statistically there are more rock stars per capita of population from Manchester than any other city in the world. …” Leaving aside the redundant wording, I think the facticity of this claim depends on how you define “rock star,” “city,” and “from.” There’s no need, really, to point out that in Detroit, we invented punk, and techno, which, incidentally, featured on the dance floor even in “Madchester.” Oh, and there was that record label a factory worker started out of his house on Grand Boulevard. But it’s not my intention to start a pond war or anything. There’s been some nice cross-pollination between the two scenes.

Manchester’s seen a revitalization, though, in the past couple of decades. John Gallagher includes it among the cities he compares to the D in his book, Revolution Detroit. I made a point of getting a copy of the book before my trip in order to read the section on Manchester while on the plane over. Beginning in the late ’90s, I remember hearing and reading the opinion that the music scene essentially brought about the city’s transformation, but I never could believe that would be the whole story. In Gallagher’s book, he reports a more sensible assessment: that it was thanks to creative, sustained, hard work on the part of various city leaders. And then there was that other factor…

…which my friend, who picked me up from the airport, also mentioned. “But we’re not supposed to talk about that,” he quickly added. This was something I’d never heard of till I read it in Gallagher’s book, so, well done, Mancunians. But it’s not really quite a secret, just because I was unaware. I was living in Holt, MI and working at a TV station in Lansing in 1996…how could I have possibly heard of something so newsworthy?

Don't mention it!

Polite circumlocution in the Manchester Cathedral

What that plaque is not quite saying is that the IRA bombed City Centre (very near the cathedral, I’m told) in 1996. Following that attack, naturally, people rallied to rebuild whatever was damaged, and it mobilized a lot of good energy, it seems.

I’m not qualified to really analyze all that after one week in the city all these years later. But I can report on this little bit I’ve seen, heard, and read. In my not-so-qualified opinion, despite all their similarities, Detroit and Manchester have very different stories, especially from their lowest points on up. The cities have, have had, and will have very different paths, and quite possibly the only thing Detroit can learn from Manchester’s success is that such things are possible, and they take a lot of work, and a lot of civic-mindedness.

Crap. We don’t really have that in Southeastern Michigan. We have a toxic city-suburb divide, which is largely our own circumlocution to bypass actually talking about race and class. (Except that we’re always talking about race and class, just not productively.)

The Metro Times (Southeast Michigan’s alternative newsweekly) recently published a blog post anyone fascinated with Detroit should read, titled, “Please, please, please: Stop ‘saving’ Detroit.” Just as Manchester wasn’t “saved” by a single factor (or, ahem, Factory), Detroit won’t be either. Detroit’s already a great city, just as it’s been for a long time (by American standards, that is), and it will continue to be. The good news is that the good things happening here are piece-meal, grass-roots, and idiosyncratic, just as you’d want them to be. You might not want to get lost in our streets just yet…but there’s a lot to explore here. And a lot of creative, sustained, hard work to do. Just as you’d want it to be.

You’ve made it to the end of this post. Enjoy a couple more photos from my trip!

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My flight, which went through Paris, was the day after the Charlie Hebdo incident. This photo was taken on January 10, 2015.

My flight, which went through Paris, was the day after the Charlie Hebdo incident. This photo of a street artist at work (with chalks) was taken on January 10, 2015 in Manchester City Centre.

A little Detroit in San Francisco

Despite my promise to return to my trip home, I had to write about this exhibition I just saw. So here’s a brief (who am I kidding, I can’t be brief) photoless post – you’ll have to follow the links to see pictures!

Tonight, I attended the opening of a great show at Meridian Gallery in San Francisco: “American Beauty,” works by photographer Philip Jarmain. The show features his photography of many ruined, abandoned, and decaying buildings in Detroit, but at least one that is currently under renovation (the Whitney Building). The prints are huge—4×6 and 5×7 feet, the exhibition description says. (I didn’t bring a tape measure to the gallery.) Jarmain, whose day job is in advertising photography, shot these images using a large-format camera (which is about all I can repeat, my knowledge of the technical aspects of photography being embarrassingly small for having lived with a photographer for 8 years).

I walked in just slightly late but still able to join a tour of the photos led by Detroiter and photographer Sean Doerr, who seems to have a pretty encyclopedic as well asintimate knowledge of these buildings. Jarmain was also present, and I was fortunate to be able to chat with both of them a bit after the tour.

Of course we all know by now that when photos of modern, and especially urban, ruins are being discussed, the potential charge of “ruin porn” has to be acknowledged. [I’ll wait while you groan a little. Actually, I’ll groan with you.] These images do not fit that category. They are contemplative, not voyeuristic. Thanks to their large size, and the skill with which Jarmain has treated color, light, and shadow, the buildings in the photographs assert their presence with a brilliance reminiscent of a religious icon. The comparison is apt. Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart writes that “beauty does not ‘essentialize’ (essences are supremely anaesthetic), but remains always at the surface…it is the ‘eloquence’ of being, which reveals being’s gratuity.” [David Bentley Hart. The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2003), 141.] While Hart is not writing specifically on icons in that passage, the pride of place he gives to the surfaces of things is also key to the Orthodox tradition of icons [on this, see Bissera V. Pentcheva, “The Performative Icon,” The Art Bulletin, 88 (2006), 631-55).]

Even I didn’t anticipate quoting David Bentley Hart and referencing icons when I started writing this post. Hmm.

While the images remind me of some of the work of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre—who sought “to watch [the ruins] one very last time…wondering about the permanence of things”—Jarmain has photographed Detroit’s decaying buildings not as ruin qua ruin, but as architecture. As such, the compositions are staid, the subjects stately. Standing before them, the viewer is presented with rich details that would be easy to miss at the actual location unless one really looked, really made her or himself fully present and attentive to the site. These buildings are not the mere objects to which pornography of any type would reduce its subjects. They are Other, in the sense of Martin Buber‘s “Thou.” The viewer is easily encouraged by these photos to approach the subjects much like the photographer must have—without, or at least being willing to let go of, preconceptions or preconditions. And even though decaying or ruined buildings reveal something of their inner structure, in these photos you will not find “the skull beneath the skin,” but rather a woundedbut dignified, even graceful, work of architecture. The sort of superficial beauty Hart has commended.

Speaking to Wired, Jarmain emphasized his interest in the buildings themselves, and in their history, saying that his intent was to “document [them] carefully and with craft,” so that the viewer can enjoy their amazing architectural details. According to the Wired article, he “sees his work as optimistic and uplifting.” (Do read that article.)

Tomorrow (Sunday, 7 Sept 2013), his collaborator Sean Doerr will present a lecture—which, to be honest, I’m a little bitter I can’t attend—titled, “Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus – Quoting from the Past to Question the Present.” Such an evocative title! It’s kinda a Detroit thing to forget the past, but in recent years, Detroiters—native and new—have been taking more of an interest in the city’s history. Questioning the present is a vital step toward building the future, and the past holds many clues. The built environment is a great place to start, because it was produced by, adapted by, and has housed so much history. It both reflects and shapes how people live and think.

I can’t help but hope that those “with eyes to see” the beauty and dignity in ruined buildings will bring a much-needed mode of thinking to the process of reinventing Detroit—or even the idea of a city in the 21st century. So go see these photos, online if you can’t go in person, and train your eyes. Take a moment to virtually dwell in these richly textured spaces, and let them impress something of themselves into your imagination.

Jarmain mentioned to me that his motivation is to get discussions going, and that for him, the photos are about story-telling. So in that spirit, please share your thoughts and stories in the comments below. What stories do you have about the places included in the show?

I learned, after exploring inside it in 1998, that my great-grandfather, a carpenter, worked on the Michigan Central Station. His sister was an organist. I know from family history that she played in various churches but also in the “movie palaces” around Grand Circus Park. As I looked at the photographs of theatres featured in this show, I couldn’t help but wonder…did she play there, this great-great aunt I never met?

The Poet Among Ruins

OMEN

It’s an after-the-fact
stress test, this
building in reverse; the ceiling
drops its burden, finally relieved
of having to define “above.”


Somewhere
the blueprint probably
remains, archived on acid-free paper.
Its secrets have spurned their confinement.
As though soulless, the structure
yields to transparency: even at night
you can see through to the same blank sky
on the other side.


I don’t think I belong here
like that man clearing away rubble
to stake out tonight’s home.
I am more transient,
a scavenger
for mementos I can use
in my own abode: sizeable fragments
of textured glass; marble tiles;
the assurance I’ve found beauty
present still in fallen things,
dressed up in decay.

 

Each broken detail charms
my uninvested eyes.


My friend is a photographer.
He seeks the proof
of my assumptions, posing the question
with his camera lens.

 

A small bird’s dusty skeleton
lies, fetal, in the new dirt floor.



This poem has been slightly revised since it appeared in 2000 in To Kiss the Sun and Mean It.  It was written in 1998, after I accompanied three photographers into the Michigan Central Station. We looked around a bit; they took pictures with cameras; I took pictures in my head. There’s some fictionalization going on: I combined my photographer friends into one; and I didn’t take any marble tiles. I did take broken fragments of glass, because they could not be re-used in the station were it to ever be restored in any way. The fragments I took were just the right size to make coasters. I never finished sanding down the edges with emery stone. The roughly 1/2 inch thick glass is ridged on one side, and has octagonal chicken wire in it.


We climbed all the way up to the roof—a precarious undertaking, since the dark stairwells included steps that were broken. I recall in a hallway seeing the plaster ceiling, with a wire backing, hanging down and just about touching the floor. We came across evidence that people were living there: sleeping bags and refuse, mostly. But we also saw a man—probably “Catfish.” I did find a bird skeleton on the floor in the main waiting room, but of course the floor only appeared to be dirt. There’s a basement underneath it. It was simply so covered with debris that it gave me that wonderful poetic image. I did point it out to one of my friends; she wasn’t happy with the resulting photograph.


Thanks to the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library, I now have pdf files of the blueprints. So, yes, they do remain.

You can read more about the station in Dan Austin’s excellent article over at Historic Detroit.

Incidentally, after my visit inside the MCS, I found out my great-grandfather was one of the carpenters that worked on it back in 1912-13! That excursion also produced the photograph (of me) on the cover of my second book, When Midnight Comes Around:

Photo by Paula Styer




Here’s another poem referencing ruins, although that was not the initial impulse behind it.

HIGHLAND PARK

From our parting embrace
my dumb hands
drop to my sides. I have
no use now
for these words that pool up inside
these numbed lips.
I am skin, 
I am bone,  

I am crumbling cinderblock and shattered glass,
standing on a corner,
channeling the wind,
wearing marks of my abandonment.
I am bone.

I am skin, wearing
these precious abrasions: why
not/if only/what else
And the wind in me reverberates
the howling memory
of our often dissolving
structure and
moment
in touch
 
This one actually began in a reflection on that experience of being together with someone—perhaps at a train station or airport, or carpooling—and suddenly, having said goodbye, finding yourself alone. For me, the situation goes directly from animated conversation to very sudden silence, with no one to talk to. Still in conversation mode, the brain keeps churning, but there is no longer anyone to share your thoughts with.
 
Similarly, buildings teem with life, with human activities, until, for whatever reason, they become abandoned. Perhaps a building is condemned, due to poor maintenance over the years. Perhaps it is largely, but not completely, destroyed by fire. Or it may be trapped in an economically depressed geographic location, where buildings, and people, are so often abandoned, discarded as if they were such useless trash as the wrapper on a take-out cheeseburger.
 
Highland Park, an enclave city completely surrounded by Detroit, has suffered such abandonment for a very long time. I was living just across 6 Mile from Highland Park when I wrote this. Originally, when the poem appeared in To Kiss the Sun and Mean It, it was called “H.P.” But when I read it at the book release party, one friend commented, “Wow, I’ll never think of Hewlitt Packard the same way!” 
 
I may still revise this poem, but that goes without saying.
 
I have already shared another ruin-related poem, “There Is No Nothing,” on this blog. The theme of modern/industrial ruins has long permeated my thinking and my aesthetic tastes, and so it appears frequently in my poetry.