by Katrina Vandenberg
I’m sorry I didn’t write about the Detroit River back when I lived on an island surrounded by it. I never put the river in a poem, though I crossed one of its two bridges, back and forth, nearly every day. When I was twelve, my seventh-grade English classroom had wide windows overlooking the river, and when lake freighters passed, heavy and kingly, it would take several minutes before the whole ship crossed the window’s frame. I never put a lake freighter on the page either, and I am no longer certain how I really felt about the freighters or the river when I was twelve.
If one of the many sayings we have about rivers is true, that you cannot enter the same one twice, then my Detroit River is forever gone. Now that it has been twenty years since I lived anywhere near it, though, what a pleasure it is to try remembering it in exquisite detail: how it was always changing color, gunmetal to green depending on the light; how it lit up orange at night when slag was poured over at McLouth. The river could be placid, or choppy with white-capped waves, depending on the wind and rain. On cold mornings steam rose from the water. In July the fireworks upriver in Detroit would flare briefly like flowers, then drop bright seeds into the river. When I go home to visit my parents in Downriver once or twice a year, more than anything else the river pulls at my heart—the fetid-yet-wonderful smell, the sound of a wake slapping against a seawall.
The current is still-and-always hard at work. The river has a job to do, as my father did as general foreman in charge of maintaining a plant. The river is an elegant piece of machinery. We halt for its procession of freight, ore, coal, and limestone in one direction, cars in the other. The county bridge opens on the quarter hour for boats, and on glorious summer evenings this meant cutting the engine and getting out of the car with my sister and parents to lean over the rail and watch and talk with everyone else who was waiting. The current is scary, too. As children we had learned early that if we ever fell in, we would be swept away into Lake Erie, and no one, not even our parents, could save us.
The river is broad-shouldered and too dirty to swim in, too suspect for us to eat its fish, in too much a hurry to produce a reflection. The river is as my father was to me when I was growing up: obsessive and talented and restless, able to innovate an assembly line, able to work eighty-hour weeks for years on end without ever stopping, jazzed and spent by the noise and adrenaline of keeping three lines running in a plant that could turn out more engines than any other plant in the world. The raw energy ran one way and the paycheck ran the other, giving me books and music lessons and plans to travel far away. Now my father has retired and each year retreats a bit further from the world, growing ever more silent. One day he will disappear, returning to whatever mysterious place he came from. I’m sorry I couldn’t stop the river from moving, that I never really saw it when I lived Downriver. I’m sorry I never managed to get it on the page.
Katrina Vandenberg is the author of two books of poems, The Alphabet Not Unlike the World and Atlas. She was born and raised in Downriver Detroit, and now teaches in The Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University, where she also serves as poetry editor of Water~Stone Review.
SLAG GLASS CITY • Volume 1 • May 2015
Image header by Sarah Spencer.