Cal Freeman’s childhood home in Detroit
There are perils involved in writing about a place like Warrendale, my childhood neighborhood in West Detroit and the topic of my first book of poems, Brother of Leaving. Nostalgia is a temptation. I’m sure I also open myself up to the charge of engaging in “ruin porn,”a banal and malleable term seemingly applicable to anyone who chooses to write about, or photograph, Detroit in a way that doesn’t praise the creative class and suggest that small start-up capitalism will save us.
The cover of Brother of Leaving features a shot of the abandoned Tipperary Pub taken by a friend. The building is tagged over with shambolic graffiti art, and the front is shagged in milkweed and trees of heaven that grow between the pavement cracks.
I sometimes pick up my copy of the book, look at this picture, and think that maybe my biggest problem with time is this: I can see and feel it passing, but I can only occasionally understand how it works. The most glaring evidence is its ceaseless ablations and attrition, the cratered-in porch, chipping paint, and empty windows of my childhood home, which I drive by far more often than any healthy person would.
I was given the name of my father and my father’s father, and when I started writing poetry I became aware of the very accomplished American poet, John Freeman, author of, among several other books, the cryptically titled Standing On My Father’s Grave. I have since published all my poems under the name, “Cal Freeman,” as opposed to my ridiculous-sounding given name, John Calvin Freeman III. This is primarily to distinguish myself from the better-known poet, John Freeman, who is of no relation to my father, my father’s father, or me.
This has the added benefit though, at least in my mind, of distancing my family from anything I write. If they decided to Google me, they would discover the more famous John Freeman and give up. But now they’ve got wind of the book and the cat’s out of the bag, so to speak.
After the book came out, my mother wrote me a message: “I am writing a poem called ‘Son of Departure.’ It will tell of trips to amusement parks, The Detroit Yacht Club, The Dearborn Inn, basketball camps, horse riding lessons.” She is upset by circumspect references to her mental illness that come up in some of the poems. I reply:
This was a version
of you, a buoyant one like a balloon
with a ravelled string that has loosened itself from a spindly branch
though no lazy descriptor of your mind will do.
She does not write back. She has made a good point: explaining my family (as I do in Brother of Leaving) in terms of oneiric birds, abstract geometrical propositions, and a bombed-out neighborhood where we used to live takes some serious self-mythologizing.
The Tipperary Pub on the cover of Brother of Leaving
There are happier times to which I could have harkened. There are more upbeat stories about the city where I was born and raised. The weekly magazines and amateur food bloggers who brim with hope that prudent consumer decisions and the adventurous gastronomical spirit might save us write such stories each week.
Detroit functions as the ultimate euphemism for the dual specters of racism and failed capitalism that haunt us as a culture. In a perfection of middle class ethos, hardly anyone talks about white socio-economic dominance or self-segregation, red tape, spit, or rain. The news stories about Detroit like to emphasize mismanagement of resources; it makes it much easier to other the city from more affluent municipalities in the region.
My parents wish I would quit writing about madness and flight. I disagree. It may be as self-serving as any aesthetic principle, but I’ll throw it out there anyway: If your friends and family are unequivocally proud of you, you’re probably not going far enough. Our writing should disillusion us of our fondness for people and places. It should leave our readers less sure of their own inherent goodness, too. It isn’t therapeutic, as some do-gooders would have us believe, but alienating.
There were no good times because this time was borne out of those times, to paraphrase Robert Penn Warren. And refusing to idealize people doesn’t constitute vilification. Ultimately, I love the crazy, over-prescribed, drunken lot of us more than I can say. I love my mother’s fears and my father’s silences. I still have recurring dreams of that irredeemable past when everyone was happy.
If you were to drive down that block of Vaughan Street between Warren and Whitlock now, you’d see empty, overgrown lots and the occasional pheasant. You’d see the tops of rat walls smoked over and jutting above the ground like bad teeth; you’d see “gas cut gus” written in orange paint over plywood windows. You’d see our house, where flame has licked the old slate siding and left a series of gorgeous black oscillations like a high-water mark.
Cal Freeman’s debut poetry collection, Brother of Leaving, is a lyrical allegory set in contemporary Detroit. Combining surrealistic sensibilities with Midwestern grit, Freeman’s family drama, involving an academic father and a chronically ill mother, mirrors the slide of this rust belt city into economic recession and historical senescence.