“Vocal Executive Chides Critics of Detroit” reads a recent New York Times headline, confirming a synecdoche firmly engrained in the American imagination substituting industry for place. Kristin Palm’s first book of poems, The Straits, delves into Detroit’s tumultuous history revealing that, even before the Big Three, this indicative entwinement of territory and business was already the norm. Natural place names seem to be scarce in Detroit, except for the city’s name itself, which is French for “straits.” One of the poems in the book traces the origin of the city’s street names—“(grand boulevards emanating / like the spokes of an elaborate wheel)”—attributing a majority of them to landowners and to those legally entitled to apportion the land: “Bates, named for Frederick Bates, one of the first Territorial Judges (1831) […] Crawford, named for real estate dealer Francis Crawford (1852).”
Palm’s rhapsody of Detroit covers the arrival of French settlers, their battles with the English, the great fire of 1805, the recurring race riots, and the auto industry’s takeover and ensuing desertion of the city. Weaving bits of her own personal history, she reminds readers that: “Cadillac is an explorer, the town where my grandparents met a motor car / Pontiac is an Ottawa chief, the location of the Silverdome a motorcar / Ford is a man, a freeway a motorcar… .” If her premise is reminiscent of Williams Carlos Williams’s Paterson, her approach to the subject differs significantly from his. Williams acknowledged to have been “thinking of writing a long poem upon the resemblance between the mind of modern man and a city.” Palm stoically casts aside that identification. In the wasteland that Detroit has become, a semblance of integrity can only exist in the mind—one aware of the possibilities for poetry to mine the holes that hubris has left in its wake. After reading Palm’s book, it’s impossible not to sense that behind the stories of vehicles on their not-quite-planned path to obsolescence—take the quasi-mythical Dodge Viper muscle car or the brawny Ram pickup, for instance—lurk all the elements for a classic Greek drama to repeat itself.