Lyric of the Unseen: Navigating Shadows in Nonfiction
by Barrie Jean Borich
The image of Chicago presented on most promotional posters is a photograph of the famous skyline, shot from somewhere out over the deeps of Lake Michigan. In these wide-angle portraits, the Sears Tower and the John Hancock are fraternal twins, each a third of the way in from the edge of the lit-up cluster, seemingly holding up the glassy herd of the Loop.
I grew up loving this view as much as any Chicagoan, and for a while, the summer I was nineteen, I rode the bus or the train into that center five or six days a week, to work at the Exchange National Bank--but I would be lying if I said that glossy skyline was my home.
I lived instead in the shadow city, industrial suburbia stretching south and east from the ports to the mills of Gary, Indiana, a region not likely to show up on any tourism brochure. The streets and houses where my family resided were nice enough, first a brown brick bungalow, then a red brick ranch, but we were never far from some smoke stack or slag pile or waste dump.
I share this behind-the-scene scenery because I believe, as a nonfiction writer, my job is to describe shadows and scintillation and the relationship between. I don't intend--this time--to make a point about the frenzied, lit-up stage set of the center that would fall down without the gray scaffolding behind, nor do I intend--this time--to take note of the damage done to this swath of land, once a tallgrass prairie but now scorched and soldered, memories of the original grassland springing up wild between the ties of the railroad tracks or in the names of area businesses--Prairie Cleaners, Prairie Bank and Trust, Prairie Tire and Auto. Nor do I mean to recreate another scene featuring my father and me, sharing statistics, projections, and fears about toxins that may have leached from this landscape into our bodies.
Rather, I am compelled to write about the eerie grace of ruined urban landscapes for the same reason I am compelled to write about female sexual and gender expression--because both post-industrial landscapes and postmodern bodies exist here, in the middle of everything, and deserve to be part of what we mean by words like "America" and "American." I want to describe the business of carrying the unseeable essence of the shadows onto a nonfictional page with a breadth no less than that skyline view--one tower with a footprint deeply embedded into the ground of this city of lit-up exteriors and gravel-gray innards, another tower set into the imaginative and resonant intelligence of lyric language--that which will not just describe promotional aspects of this city, but will also attempt to puncture notions of the Midwest as a landscape of absence, rupture the bright skyline posters with the smoke-spewing semi-truck of the industrial Midwestern urban real.
The way into the lyric of the commonly unseen--that compression of language and container which evokes a jolt of awareness--is through the tiny lingering details of beingness expressed through the breath of some particular human life inhabiting some fissure of location. The way into the urban unseen, or at least the urban unseen of my experience--whether I refer to the landscapes of dying industry or the tremendously vital reinvention energy of my own lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer worlds--is the evocation of the corporeal meeting the industrial. What is the quality of air? What is the taste in the mouth? What is the song of smoke?
For instance: When I was girl we lived across from a tangle of tracks and truck routes, under a sky made silver-gray from the smoke of the steel mills and paint factories of the far southeast side of Chicago. I didn't always notice the wincing stench in those years before the Chicago mills shut down, except when it got worse, on the way up to 103rd and Torrence, Mom's old neighborhood where her mother still lived, around the corner from Wisconsin Steel.
"Rotten eggs," my mother muttered, when I was six or eleven or fifteen, as we drove past the slag heaps and landfills along what was then still called the Calumet Expressway, her powdered nose crinkling. She'd told us many times--sulfur from the mills smelled just like rotten eggs.
I could see Mom's profile from the backseat of our blue station wagon, her down-turned lips, wrinkled nose, the tower of brown beauty-parlor hair, re-poufed every Friday afternoon. All the women we knew in the lower-middle-class steel-mill suburbs of Riverdale, Dolton, Harvey, in those days before shag haircuts and handheld hairdryers, attended, devoutly, the weekly communion of the beauty parlor, where beauty operator Sandy ratted an extra six inches onto their height, then consecrated them with hairspray, as their daughters waited in padded, bronze hair-dryer chairs, paging through Photoplay and Modern Screen, looking for who to be when we finally got away.
Mom complained about the stench as if she hadn't smelled those eggs her whole life. Yet she repeated the words "rotten eggs" with the authority of the devoted, muttering a prayer cycle, the blessed hypnosis of repetition, the American sacrament of knowing, yet refusing to know.
Dad drove. Headlights swept the leveled prairies and fouled wetlands, lighting up Mom's muttering. My brothers shoved each other. Holy. Rotten. Holy. We knew, but could not see, the lights of the Loop twittering. This night we would not ride that far north.
Moments like this one matter to me as a writer not just because the car ride into and out of the industrial plain is an actual and continuous memory of many of our Midwestern urban childhoods--as is the sticky smell of the hairspray from a pink can, and the Photoplay pictorials of Liz Taylor with a scarf over her hair, and the twilight glow of the mills and that stink that did smell like either bad eggs or the devil--but also because that moment links me to the history of cities, of mills, of class and ethnic identities, of human migration, of industrial pollution, as well as the subsequent attempts of the post-steel city to re-green itself, and my own attempts, and the attempts of so many queers like me who--through vocation, love, reinvention, and sexuality--mean to constantly re-green ourselves.
The creative nonfiction writer writes to elucidate the unseen, in order to better interrogate, interpret, represent and illuminate some aspect or version of what really does, or once did, or will exist in factual time and space. Seeing is part of knowing, but we can't see the whole until we see the middle.
BARRIE JEAN BORICH is the author of My Lesbian Husband (Graywolf), winner of an ALA Stonewall Book Award. She's the recipient of the 2010 Crab Orchard Review Literary Nonfiction Prize and has essays in recent or forthcoming issues of Ecotone, Hotel Amerika, Indiana Review, New Ohio Review, Seattle Review and Seneca Review. She is an assistant professor in the MFA/BFA programs at Hamline University where she's the nonfiction editor of Water~Stone Review.