a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
Several years ago, I visited Detroit, Michigan. I have no plan to do that again. Ever. Driving into Detroit from a surrounding city, the highway does a wonderful job of hiding the upcoming, insidious poverty that weaves its way through Detroit, and turns everything it touches gray. Once you arrive in Detroit proper and leave the highway, which I would advise against, you almost choke on the desperation and complacency that defines the city. And if out of shock and fear, you get back on the highway and begin driving towards Canada, you’ll notice that the highways that stumble into downtown Detroit, unlike their sisters, make no pretense of hiding the disease-ridden skeleton of the city. You find yourself wishing that they would; the atrophied structures seem to cry out. Scream.
It is difficult to pretend you don’t see the misery. It is difficult to ignore the lump of fear that is expanding in your throat. It is difficult to accept that people actually live in Detroit.
Detroit: a place that wants to be, struggles to be, but also seems to have given up on ever being, a respectable city. It has accepted and embraced – even taken an absurd pride – in being a ghetto. It was hard for me to make sense of that city.
The sidewalks in Detroit are unlike any that I have ever seen. Disemboweled sofas expose the last of their innards and lie collapsed on the sidewalk. Having relinquished their will to live, they lie helpless, slowly bleeding to death. Twisted chairs, battered dining room tables, and the bones of toys: all seem to sprout up from between the cracks in the concrete, like weeds. People walk around them, on them, and past them, as if they don’t see them at all.
The trees in Detroit are also unique. Leafless and starved, their arthritic branches point accusing fingers at the residents who seem to have forgotten to feed them. Or perhaps there isn’t enough food to go around. Every man for himself. The trees await death by drowning in a sea of parched dirt and trash.
It seems to be the touchstone of neighbourhoods in Detroit. He who has the most wins.
Amidst the trash, there are structures. Tired buildings that meekly present themselves to the onlooker, fearful they won’t be able to meet the definition of a house, slouch on gray, derelict streets. Some are clothed in irrepressible weeds that ascend desperately up their front and sides; a frantic climb to escape the poverty on the ground. The windows of these buildings are like defeated eyes that stare at you, plead with you. Eyes that are tired of, but have long ago gotten used to, days and nights littered with violence and vagrancy. Accepting eyes. Tired eyes. Gray eyes.
The stores in Detroit either droop like their cousins that parade as houses, or they perch on the land fearfully as if they do not wish to be there and wish even less that a customer should notice them and then want to come inside. But some stores are aggressive; encased in a sinister promise, they dare you to come inside. They blast angry music from their store fronts, announcing a message that I would rather not guess at nor contemplate.
Detroit’s poverty is powerful, flexible, and athletic; so much so that it reaches up and transforms the sky. Driving in a neighbouring city of Detroit, the sky is blue and pristine. It stretches far and away, sharing its beauty with other cities. Then it reaches Detroit. It recoils and becomes nauseated until it is at last a pale, sickly gray. But it cannot leave Detroit, and having no choice in the matter, for it must float over Detroit like it does all of the earth, it seems to show its aversion to the city by refusing to turn blue. Truly blue. Sometimes, here and there, a patch of blue appears; it is as if the sky is peeking to see if Detroit has changed, and disappointed at the city’s refusal, its nausea returns and it turns gray again. After years of exposure to Detroit, the sky that hovers above it seems terminally ill.
Sidewalks, trees, houses, stores, the sky; everything in Detroit seems gray and depressed. And many things in Detroit produce fear.
Detroit, Michigan, is the place where I intentionally ran a red light for the first – and hopefully the last – time in my life. Needing gas, I pulled into a gas station and was astonished and mortally frightened when, trying to pay for the gas, I was accosted by bullet proof glass that sat defensively between me and the attendant. Bullet proof glass in a gas station?
Leaving the store, monoliths were stationed at the gas pumps: SUVs sat on rims that sparkled and twirled provocatively as they awaited the return of their owners. In their interior, stereos vibrated offensively as an earth shaking crescendo mounted and eventually spilled out of each vehicle. Boom. Boom, boom. BOOM! Immune to this deafening noise, voices screamed, and laughed harshly. They didn’t know that Detroit is a ghetto. Or maybe they did know.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
Having escaped the gas station, I sat at the light, waiting for it to change. A car was suddenly next to mine and the driver, a man, was shouting. He was angry. From the corner of my eye – I thought it imprudent to turn and look at him – I could see that he was gesticulating furiously. And that ridiculous light preferred red to green. I ran the light.
But I fear that I have been unfair to Detroit, and you are expecting the truth. Here it is: My visit to Detroit was brief, and I got lost in what I imagine was – but may not be – one of the worst parts of the city. And for all I know, the man at the light may have been trying to tell me that my tire was going flat (but it wasn’t). In truth, I never made an effort to discover the city. The section of Detroit in which I got lost was frightening, overflowing with maleficence, and the only discovery I wanted to make was the on-ramp to the highway that led back to the pristine, the familiar. Admittedly, there may be beautiful neighbourhoods in Detroit, but after my unintentional tour of one of its more depressed areas, I lost any interest in seeing them.
This visit to Detroit about which I have been speaking occurred several years ago and it wasn’t until I chanced – through link hopping on the Internet – upon a poem by Maya Angelou that I began to understand what I saw in Detroit. Prior to that, I had no recollection of ever reading any of Maya Angelou’s work, but poetry is hard to see and not read. I read. I thought the poem was nicely written. Powerful. But I had no idea what it really meant. I guessed, and after a few guesses, I forgot about the poem. But I didn’t.
Hours after I’d read the poem, standing in front of a large bay window, I was watching birds fly across the sky. I smiled and took a deep breath. I looked out again and was mentally reconstructing the view in my mind when suddenly – unexpectedly – my mouth formed a small ‘o’.
In that moment, I think I understood something about the poem that Maya Angelou wrote. In that moment, I think I began to understand what I saw in Detroit.
A city in a cage.
A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
Detroit’s cage is poverty, despair, resentful submission. Its residents have stalked down its streets in rage, and they have destroyed their own neighbourhoods; the city is barely alive. But their loud, aggressive language and their attempts at indifference are betrayed by their longings, their dreams. SUVs that they cannot afford, the tires of said SUVs hugging rims that a year’s worth of my salary could not hope to pay for, and the wearing of clothes that require an income earned by the middle class: the American Dream longed for. Still.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still1
While I was lost in Detroit, I do not recall having the impression that its people wanted anyone’s sympathy; they wanted something more.
Kristal Peace enjoys autumns coloured with russet, lavender and red, winters obscured by snow, and books. Her poems and a short story have appeared in the Pennmen Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Scrittura Magazine and Ink Pantry.