Thursday, April 10, 2008

Stuart Dybek - Windy City


The garments worn in flying dreams
were fashioned there---
overcoats that swooped like kites,
scarves streaming like vapor trails,
gowns ballooning into spinnakers.

In a city like that one might sail
through life led by a runaway hat.
The young scattered in whatever directions
Their wild hair pointed, and gusting
into one another, they fell in love.

At night, wind rippled saxophones
that hung like wind chimes
in pawnshop windows, hooting through
each horn so that the streets seemed haunted,
not by nighthawks, but by doves.

Pinwheels whirred from steeples
in place of crosses. At the pinnacles
of public buildings, snagged underclothes---
the only flag---flapped majestically.
And when it came time to disappear

one simply chose a thoroughfare
devoid of memories, raised a collar,
and turned one’s back on the wind.
I remember closing my eyes
into a swirl of scuttling leaves.

----Stuart Dybek

Stuart Dybek’s Windy City

It’s funny how we determine our origins. Growing up, other kids or adults would ask me where I was from and I would reply, without hesitation, Chicago. Technically, that was true. Born in Elk Grove, Illinois to parents who, themselves, were born in the city of Chicago. My grandparents were there; my aunts, uncles, and cousins were there; my sports teams and heroes were there; the food I loved was there. How could it not be my home, even though we were hundreds of miles away, living near Washington DC? It was a matter of immense pride to say I was from Chicago and there was always a part of me---still is a part of me---that felt I would return to Chicago because I needed to fully earn this sense of home. As I’ve grown into adulthood, I’ve laid my roots in other cities and towns. Virginia has become the place I most closely associate with home, in the form of towns like Clifton, Centreville, Fairfax, and the town nestled in the New River Valley that was my ultimate home: Blacksburg. Even in Boston, there is a small part of me that considers places in this area to be home: Dean Road Park, Our House West, Coolidge Corner, Emerson, the Boston Common, 75 Chestnut, Storrow Drive, and, of course, 70 Gooch St in Melrose, MA. If someone asked me where I’m from, I’d qualify my answer by linking together all the homes I’ve had: Chicago, Clifton, and Blacksburg. These are the places that remain substantial influences upon my character.

It’s important to begin my discussion of Stuart Dybek’s Windy City with my ideas on Chicago because I think we share the same vision of our hometown. A longtime resident of Chicago, Dybek presents us with a fantastical portrait of his home. His portrayal is far different than another Chicagoan’s, Carl Sandburg, who famously termed Chicago “Hog Butcher for the World, / Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, / Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler; / Stormy, husky, brawling, / City of the Big Shoulders.” The grittiness of Sandburg’s Chicago is something Dybek thankfully tones down and replaces with a contagious wonderment. The first line establishes the poem’s voice and focus by taking us into “flying dreams.” Clothes, at the mercy of the wind, are the gateway into this world. Dybek strings together memorable images of overcoats, scarves, and gowns, before delivering a duo of lines that I love: “In a city like that one might sail / through life led by a runaway hat.” In case you couldn’t see the folks in their billowing clothes before, now you have a hapless businessman chasing his hat as it whirls away, with the wind urging it further down the sidewalk. So I took some liberties with Dybek’s image and elaborated a little there, but he gave us the starting point. His images are not ones to fizzle in our brains; they expand and develop.

The wind is a splendid catalyst in this poem. It’s the moniker that many people associate with Chicago, the Windy City, and one can’t help but read this poem and see the wind as a character. Dybek equips the wind with God-like qualities; it is “pinwheels” he has “in place of crosses” on steeples. The wind gusts the young together so that they fall in love. Chicago’s music is created by the wind rippling “saxophones / that hung like wind chimes / in pawn shop windows.” (Notice the clever reference to “nighthawks,” surely a nod to Edward Hopper’s iconic painting Nighthawks.) Just when we are convinced the wind is invincible, Dybek pulls us from the dream with the simple act of raising our collar and turning our backs on the wind. It seems too simple, which is a testament to how effortlessly the poem has moved. Dybek constructed the poem to resemble the wind, and that it certainly does. I’m a sucker for poems that end with a flourish. We’ve been launched into this dream world, pulled from it, and in one last movement that resembles the push and pull of a strong wind Dybek yanks us back in one last time. The whole poem it’s been about the second person. He’s made the poem’s landscape the central character, but he shifts to himself in the end to say: “I remember closing my eyes / into a swirl of scuttling leaves.” That line cooks in your mouth. The sonorous S sounds of closing, swirl, and scuttling are delightful, not to mention the image of the leaves in the wind. Dybek closes by ensuring his Chicago is seeping with magical possibilities. My Chicago, too, is a city with magic brimming behind every brick, beneath every bridge, atop every skyscraper, and in the swirls of wind that topple from the heavens to the shores of Lake Michigan.

My kind of town, Chi-ca-go, is my kind of town…

1 comment:

Mike said...

Loved the analysis... The concept of a "hometown" is very American - probably a reaction to the fact that we move so much, more so than pretty much any other society (I'm generalizing).

I'm enjoying reading the blog. Will you keep it going past April? Let me know, so I can add you to my blogroll...