Nestled between Gratiot, Mack, and the I-75 Interchange, Detroit’s Eastern Market has been a tradition for the past 160 years. Buyers from miles around gather to buy produce, meat, spices, spring flowers, Halloween pumpkins, and Christmas trees. Farmers holler out prices, chiming in chorus at times with street musicians who settle under the shelters. It is a place alive with a diverse crowd of people, from recent immigrants to longtime Detroiters.
Some Detroit authors have written of an encounter with grief in the chaotic aisles of the market. It seems to welcome people who need to nourish their souls as well as their bodies in times of transition. Thus farmer’s voices mingle with the beggars’. All seek something to sustain them, and in the middle of mourning or adjustment, is there a better place to be?
Carolyn Forche remembers her Slovakian grandmother in “Burning the Tomato Worms” as the speaker walks
to the Eastern Market
A half block under October suns that move away
Women still there selling summer squash
But always more die. (Gathering the Tribes 7)
There is an immediacy in her recollection of the market since she can walk to where these women sell squash. She notes that the women continue to die off, much like her grandmother’s generation. They are there for the moment, displaying their wares, but like October suns, they too, move away. She feels closeness to her grandmother in her connection to the market but distance because of death.
In “Memorial Day Weekend,” Terry Blackhawk’s speaker also deals with the aftermath of death—the death of a friend shot “point blank in his home.” She becomes “the camera/ without the film, trafficking from home/ to market, everywhere the same.” The traffic follows her into the market, where she tries
milky puddles oiled greenish-white,
merchant’s scowls, peelings,
rinds, slippery and smeared.” (52)
The market, like the traffic, provides no comfort in the wake of her shock and sadness.
Anca Vlasopolos describes another loss connected with the market in her poem “Late Encounter”: “Eastern Market is packing up as afternoon/ clamps on its tight damp lid” (Boyd and Liebler 373). Packing away the leftover produce immediately sets a somber scene. A familiar beggar, Tyrone, on crutches, approaches the speaker: “an approach from which I hasten away/ through the cavernous hangar.” There is something ominous in Tyrone’s pursuit, and when he “says/ into my silence,/ ‘I just lost my mother,’” the speaker empathizes. She admits, “here where you can’t hear me,/ the shock of meeting you in this semi dark, my fearful mirror,” is a “blot on my conscience” (373-4). In this Eastern Market wanderer lies a grief that touches the speaker—so much so, that by the poem’s end Tyrone is “mon semblable,/ my double” (374).
Lisa Lenzo also gives language to grief in her story, “First Day.” On the first Saturday morning out in public after a terrible accident, a father and son push through the crowded market. The father believes the market will accept Danny, who has lost both legs, “because so many of the people there are outside the norm” (51). They encounter stares and gasps, along with the quiet acceptance they’re after. Danny jokes about the farmers who resemble their produce and points up to the pigeons cooing in the rafters to keep his father distracted from the strangers’ reactions. As they move along, father and son seem to understand the need to hold each other together on this first day out and from then on.
Lawrence Joseph also writes of fathers, sons, and the market in his two poems: “Louie, Son of Hanna Francis” and “All Day.” In “Louie, Son of Hanna Francis,” Joseph tracks one son’s journey by bus from the eastside of Detroit to the Eastern Market. He also remembers the land of Louie’s forefathers “where, between two rivers,/ soil is soft and black, good/ for tomatoes, eggplant, corn” in this journey (27). Once Louie makes it to the market, this city’s reminder of the old country, he must
sausage from Hammond-Standish,
buy produce, but
no cauliflower, from
In “All Day,” Joseph writes of his grandfather who walks the three miles at four a.m. to Eastern Market to keep track of silver and pennies all day. By the end of the day, “he fills his bag again--/ with eggplant, squash,/ the last pieces of shank” to give away to “the houses he knows/ don’t have enough” on his journey home (30). Once home to his large family, the grandfather, unnoticed amid the bustle of the house, falls asleep sitting up, and
a world away,
the salamander sliding
down a rock, stars
dropping behind mountains
into the sea. (31)
Joseph again weaves the landscape of Lebanon into this Detroit scene. The market perhaps shows what was lost in the immigration to America. Both Louie and the grandfather live in accordance with old ways in this new land.
In Jitterbug, Loren Estleman mentions the Roma Café, a longstanding Italian restaurant at the north end of the Eastern Market that is “home of sow’s ears, fresh goat meat, and dead fowl with feathers on” (63). Estleman, like the other authors, notes physical details when writing about the market, capturing the sense of this place.
These poems and stories render wonderfully Eastern Market’s welcoming of the displaced and the distraught, allowing the reader as outsider into this microcosm of Detroit.
Anne M. Rashid is assistant professor of English at Carlow University in Pittsburgh. She grew up in Detroit and attended Mercy High School and Wayne State University. Her family has been patronizing the Eastern Market for four generations.
Photos by Anna Fedor.
Blackhawk, Terry. body & field. East Lansing : Michigan State UP, 1999.
Boyd, Melba Joyce and M. L. Liebler, eds. Abandon Automobile: Detroit City Poetry 2001.
Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2001.
Estleman, Loren. Jitterbug: A Novel of Detroit. New York: Forge, 2000.
Forche, Carolyn. Gathering the Tribes. New Haven: Yale UP, 1976.
Joseph, Lawrence. Shouting at No One. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1983.
Lenzo, Lisa. Within the Lighted City. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1997.