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Tony Fitzpatrick, Bum Town

Tony Fitzpatrick’s book-length poem Bum Town is a tough but deeply moving ode to Fitzpatrick’s father and the disappearing Chicago they once knew. From the very first stanza (“From 79th Street/Southworks flexed its/Muscle of light,/An infinite halo/Of orange and white;/Like they had captured/The sun/In four steel walls…”), Fitzpatrick sets the tone: his poem will not be about the Chicago of skyscrapers and celebrities and victory, but of railroad tracks and steel mills and rubbled lots, of death and the commercial gaudiness of Western Avenue and local hero Tony Zale losing his title bout to Graziano at the Stadium on one should-have-been-magic evening in 1946.

Much of the narrative consists of Fitzpatrick’s memories of driving around with his father—to Montrose Harbor (where the smelt are “a whir of silvery light—/As indecipherable as/The tails of/Comets”), to a butcher shop at 18th and Halsted and the garlic smell which overpowers the car’s interior, past the Stadium and the site of Zale’s defeat, and to Mt. Olivet Cemetary, where Fitzpatrick’s Uncle Ray (a childhood victim of a train accident) is buried and haunts Mr. Fitzpatrick’s waking hours. Their meanderings are set to a soundtrack of Bob Elson announcing White Sox games and Mr. Fitzpatrick’s memories of and reflections on the city.

The verse is written in short and crisp lines which cleanly present the vivid descriptions of the city passing by:

I could feel the
Murderous rumble
Of my Dad’s Oldsmobile
Weaving in and out of
Night and day traffic
Like a gull in the wind.
He’d tool up Western Avenue
And remind me that the
Green Hornet streetcars
Once rode the longest line
In the world,
Right here.

And Western would trot out
Its goods: grocerías
And tarted-up car lots
Lit up like the Carnival
Or Saint Rocco’s day,
Used cars and short skirts,
Hot-dog joints and the union hall.
Then like now
Western looks like the girl
With too much eye-shadow.

In the scrap lots,
Bottle-gangs of invisible men
Drank pints of Mad-dog
While burning garbage
Kept them warm. They seemed to
Disappear into the smoke
One orange ember
At a time.
Like human coal
The city shovels
Into itself.

Although the tone is elegaic, Fitzpatrick acknowledges that the past isn’t really gone—his father lives on in Fitzpatrick’s memory, and the old neighborhoods, while no longer familiar to him, live on for their new and very different residents. The past is present, as it were. Fitzpatrick is, of course, also a very accomplished artist, and the verses are accompanied by his wonderful pencil-sketched collages, with the images and the verses complementing each other perfectly.

Bum Town is a wonderful work of art, one which deserves a place on the shelf of great Chicago literature alongside Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make, Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, Farrell’s Studs Lonigan triology, the poems of Carl Sandburg, the stories of Stuart Dybek and the newspaper columns of Mike Royko. It’s that good. I can’t recommend it more highly.

August 16, 2006 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink