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In the beginning—before Cadillac and Pontiac, Dodge Main and Compuware, Coleman Young and Kwame Kilpatrick—the river flowed. As riots erupted on the Belle Isle Bridge above it in 1943, the river flowed. For decades it has continued to flow as industry has pumped pollution into its waters. As Detroit’s economy has been threatened by corporate disinvestment and unprecedented decline, the river goes on flowing, absorbing evidence, both physical and intangible, of the city’s rich and varied history.
In fiction set in Detroit, the river often serves to represent changes and new beginnings. In Joyce Carol Oates’s them, Maureen Wendall, needing money, accepts a ride from a man, who drives her along the river: “Freedom came to her like air from the river, not exactly fresh, but chilly and strong; she was free and she had escaped” (203). In quite another way, standing in front of the Underground Railroad Monument in Hart Plaza and gazing across at Canada, one cannot help but feel the promise of freedom and possibility.
In Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, narrator Cal Stephanides, describes his grandparents’ train “approaching along the shore of The Detroit River” after their journey from Greece. The river is one of the first things Lefty and Desdemona see as they arrive in the city, and continues to appear at pivotal moments throughout the novel. Jimmy Zizmo, the husband of the cousin with whom his grandparents come to live in Detroit, runs rum across the river from Canada, as many real-life bootleggers did during Prohibition. One night, ostensibly taking Lefty along on an operation, Zizmo drives his Packard, onto the river. He accuses Lefty of having an affair with his wife and begins to drive recklessly on the dangerously thin ice. Lefty jumps out just before the ice cracks, and Zizmo and the Packard appear to sink beneath the frozen river. Later in the novel, however, it becomes apparently that Zizmo has used the river as an escape from his circumstances. As Eugenides puts it, “Just like ice, lives crack, too. Personalities. Identities. Jimmy Zizmo, crouching over the Packard’s wheel, has already changed past understanding” (125). For Zizmo, the river is the scene of both an escape and a rebirth. It is also a place where identity comes into question, and where it is possible to transform into someone else.
Near the end of Middlesex, Cal gives his version of the death of his father, Milton Stephanides. In his final thoughts, Milton imagines that he has avoided the collision that ends his life and that his Cadillac Eldorado rides up “the weird, slanted back end” of his brother-in-law’s Gremlin, and flies up above the Ambassador Bridge, over the river and above downtown Detroit, before plunging into the river (509-11). As a way of coping with his death, the family jokes that “he got out just in time” (511) before several difficult events in the life of the family and the country. Cal, the narrator, who has undergone a transition from female to male, mentions that Milton’s death prevented him from seeing Cal, whom he had known as his daughter, as the man Cal has become. “With respect to my father I will always remain a girl,” he says. “There’s a kind of purity in that. The purity of childhood” (512). So it could be said that the river, in Cal’s view becomes an imaginary escape for Milton too, as well as a purifying force. And once again, it is a place where identity (in this case Cal’s) is fluid.
In Detroit poetry, the river often serves as a place where people of different backgrounds and experiences come together, where they can shed the identities that separate them. In Philip Levine’s “Belle Isle, 1949,” a teenage boy and girl from different ethnic backgrounds swim naked in the river under moonlight, temporarily escaping the tensions that keep them apart, “baptizing” themselves ”in the brine/ of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles,/ melted snow…” (New 131). Afterwards they dress “side by side in silence.” Rejoining their roles in a divided society is as inevitable as putting their clothes back on. But the poem illustrates the river’s power to free them temporarily from these identities. In “Down by the Boulevard Dock,” Mary Minock tells of another pair of teenage lovers who come to the river to explore connection:
and then another time the lights at night—
the sign on the bridge flashes
and I twine with the boy
in the parked car—
white street lights, the breeze and sound of lapping—
I am pregnant this night
with the smell of the water on me—
a remarkable baby girl
full of oceans and fish that won’t be caught will follow. (Boyd and Liebler 248)
In this poem the river connects several events as well as people in the speaker’s life. The speaker remembers the river as a place “where old black ladies/ and my old white mama” would fish and talk together (247). The poem’s last stanza ties all of these images together in the present:
Today the wind picks up at sundown;
the lovers are due,
odd children, mine among them,
connected to fishermen and lovers
run through indestructible grass
planted over homogenized ruins
of a warehouse. . . . (249)
The Detroit River runs through the city’s literature and life. Sometimes its waters seep into the cracks of a poem or a story; sometimes they flood the work’s entire theme with energy. As an artery pumps life through the body, a river gives life to a city, and is indeed the reason civilization springs up there in the first place: No wonder that references to the River in Detroit literature are as diverse as the myriad treasures, creatures, and debris that lie beneath its surface.
As Levine writes, in “Salt and Oil,” the river’s waters bear the secrets of the city’s past and its future:
. . . the river
sliding along its banks, darker
now than the sky descending
a last time to scatter its diamonds
into these black waters that contain
the day that passed, the night to come. (Boyd and Liebler 223)
These days, connections happen on the RiverWalk, where it’s hard to believe you’re in the same city that keeps appearing in “ruins” in the national media. Along the river, the city’s population jogs, saunters, and fishes. At the fountains and ice-cream stands near the Belle Isle Bridge and behind the Renaissance Center, a new generation of Detroiters laughs and plays. And the river—which is not actually a river, but a strait that connects two lakes as well as two nations—continues to flow, carrying with it the many secrets and identities, stories and hopes of the city.
Rebecca T. Klein grew up two blocks from the Detroit River. An English major, she graduated from Marygrove in 2003 and received a Master of Arts degree from Brooklyn College in 2014.
Photo by Anna Fedor
Boyd, Melba Joyce and M.L. Liebler, eds. Abandon Automobile: Detroit City Poetry
2001. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2001. Print.
Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2002. Print.
Levine, Philip. New Selected Poems. New York: Knopf, 1993. Print.
Oates, Joyce Carol. Them. New York: Fawcett, 1996. Print.
Editor’s note: Other works in which the Detroit River has significance include the following:
Poetry: Stephen Tudor’s “Detroit River North to South” and “Factories along the River” • Melba Joyce Boyd’s “the view of blue” • Naomi Long Madgett’s “City Nights” • Perri Giovannucci’s “Cadillac Dreams of the Detroit River” • Jill Witherspoon Boyer’s “Detroit Summers” • Philip Levine’s “On the River,” “The Great Truth,” and “A View of Home” • Margaret D. Collier’s “Open Water,” “S.S. Columbia,” “Linguistics,” and “Regatta on the River”
Fiction: Loren D. Estleman’s Whiskey River,Jitterbug, and “Kill the Cat” • Peter Markus’s Good, Brother;The Singing Fish; Bob, or Man on Boat; and “The Dead Man’s Boat” • Charles Baxter’s “Westland” and “The Disappeared” • Lolita Hernandez’s “Over the Belle Isle Boundary”
Posted June 12, 2014