Boston Review, January/February 1993 Vol. XVIII No. 1
City River of Voices
Edited by Denise Bergman

Reviewed by Kate Rushin

City River of Voices, edited by Denise Bergman, is a poetry anthology of 48 women and men who have lived or worked in Cambridge, MA. This wonderful democracy of poets reminds us why we love city life, and how, by addressing the problems of our cities, we are taking care of ourselves and our increasingly fractured and interdependent future world.

Many of the poets represented in this collection are well-known around the Cambridge/Boston reading circuit and from the days of the once-flourishing poets-in-the-schools programs: Ted Thomas, Sharon Cox, Marjorie Agosin, Robin Becker, Chris Gilbert, Li Min Mo, Alan West, Martín Espada, Kathleen Aguero, Susan Eisenberg, Jane Barnes and Diana Der-Hovanessian. There are also poets new to writing (or writing in English) and poets better known by their day jobs.

Two common criticisms of poetry anthologies based on location are that either the perspective in the work is so insular that it is of limited interest to "outsiders," or the themes are so disparate as to create a hodge podge, thrown-together effect. Denise Bergman, by exploring the theme of the city, and through her thoughtful selection of poems, skillfully avoids any sense of arbitrariness or parochialism. Although Somerville, Harvard Square, and Roxbury inform the poems, the poets also bring their personal and group histories from Brooklyn and Buffalo, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe. City River of Voices gives a good sense of the fact that the Boston/Cambridge poetry scene is not limited to one school of poetry or one neighborhood.

"The city is a book," declares Ruth Lepson, where as Marla Zarrow writes, "Languages mix it up/ in the shoving wind...." English is spoken here as well as French, Portuguese, and Spanish. Rosario Morales warns us not to rob ourselves of "the joy of writing all our words, of the/ sound of your Mama's voice, my Papa's voice, of the smell of the/ kitchen on the page." The grandmother in Li Min Mo's poem admonishes us along with her children to "...find your/ own stories,/ your own American song."

There are poems of public spaces: the alley, library, ball park; the boarded building and the empty lot. They speak of children, work, unemployment, trash, homes, homelessness, and money. There are apartment buildings and landlords but no talk of condominium associations. These are poems of the streets and subways and our brief encounters with each other's fears, needs, expectations and plans, where, according to Barbara Ann Blatner "tempted to speak/ we do not/ speak."

Bill Holshouser observes, "As I grow older, I see the city grow more/ fragile." These poems do not ignore or simplify the problems of the cities, the clashes between people and cultures. In these times of evictions, drugs, guns, hate crimes, and people who don't know any better than to shudder at the word "city," Sharon Cox refuses to allow the us/them dichotomy, "I've been on both sides/ and the edge/ one son killer/ one son dead."

The poets of these poems are witnesses to injustice, violence, and despair. Yet they retain, at least, Leigh Donaldson's "half a hope" that people can meet across the differences of race and class and color and language. The city dwellers resist and persist. "Mrs. Baez," Martín Espada tells us, "Serves Coffee on the Third Floor." Pierre Valentine exhorts "...those simple folk/ Who believe in trees and Spring/ Never give up, until you find/ Your/ Blanche St. thing."

These poems mean and matter in the spirit of Muriel Rukeyser who believed that poetry is "a way to allow people to feel the meeting of their consciousness and the world..." and the spirit of Audre Lorde who reminds us that "Poetry is not a luxury." This is a book to be read and talked about, a book to be used as we come together to grapple with ourselves and each other "living for the city."

City River of Voices
Edited by Denise Bergman
West End Press, $9.95
click here to order.