When I’m asked where I’m from, I often have to pause before answering, “Well, Chicago,” before going into a speedy thirty-second summary or explanation of my life. Because, yes, I was born in Chicago to immigrant parents, but then I moved to the suburbs, and then, well, I spent most of my youth in central Illinois, but I couldn’t stand that “cookie-cutter farmtown” feel so I returned to the city to complete my college education. But, in the end, Chicago has always been a part of my story, a part of my identity, and Wherever I’m At: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry reflects just that: an array of people who were born and raised in Chicago, people who moved to Chicago or lived in Chicago only briefly—poets and artists like Arthur Ade Amaker, Ana Castillo, Tyehimba Jess, Xavier Nuez, and Alma Domínguez to name a few. They help define what Chicago means and is and always will be.
Chicago has been called many things over the years, each term serving its own truth, former truths, and depicting a different side of the city, the neighborhoods, the people, the culture, like the Windy City, Chi-Town, and the White City (some less favorable like “Chiraq”). But these names shine a light on what Chicago is really like. While, sure, it may be windy, its political scene has been described as “long-winded and windy” since the 1800s as the Chicago Reader put it. Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago” describes us as “stormy, husky, brawling” and “City of the Big Shoulders…” While Chiraq is one of the more controversial nicknames, it highlights the darker side of the city and has since become the unwanted posterboy for crime and violence.
Featured poems, like “Summer and the City,” “Chicago is Illinois Country,” “Bronzeville Poet” and “What it is about Chicago” are a strong contrast to headlines like, “Chicago police officer shot,” “Gunman injured in shooting on East side,” “Mother of child killed in hail of gunfire fights for justice.” But each depiction and each poem behaves almost like an old 90s hologram 3D card: tilt it one angle, and a version of Chicago in chaos and crime exists, but tilt it another way, and it’s a version of Chicago, with everyday people, in technicolor. Each version is layered on top of the other. Each version is part of a larger truth.
Angela Jackson paints a nostalgic version of Chicago with “Summer and the City” by weaving lines centering on childhood—“as we danced jagged up and down the street”—with lines depicting the older generation, like “slow rocking grandmothers.” I cracked a big grin reading the lines “last night, night before, twenty four robbers at my door,” recalling when my friends and I sang the same song while jumping rope in the school playground.
While comparing two generations is nothing new, Jackson does so in such a way that instantly pulls the reader into the narrative of warm summer nights, soul food, folding chairs, and street lights. Chicago is alive in “Summer and the City” but there are also undertones of something more. Lines hint at America’s history in the Deep South, and the Great Migration or exodus of Black Americans fleeing to the North in search of opportunities—a Promised Land. Jackson ends the piece by drawing parallels to the Biblical story of Exodus with “the memory of us, their milk, their honey.”
Elaine Equi’s “Ode to Chicago” portrays the “larger than life” side of the city, comparing buildings and streets to prehistoric beasts. There’s almost a sense of someone outside looking in—Chicago is massive, all encompassing with “pterodactyls swoop[ing]” and “sea serpent[s] enticing tourists with lewd chatter.” A visitor’s experience can be seen just as that: excessive, extraordinary, extreme, and more. We’ve all seen tourists excited to be taking the bus or train, ooh’ing and aww’ing at the slightest details that we may find tedious. But by using dinosaurs and mythical monsters as metaphors, Equi’s themes of origins and “know[ing] where we come from” shines through.
“Our homeland in exile that floats like a desert island, in the deep and vast sea of the City of Chicago…” is the last line of “A World of Our Own (to the People of Humboldt Park)” by Johanny Vaquez Paz and encompasses the overall piece. Chicago is a city of immigrants, full of rich culture, with 28.6 percent of the population being Latinx, 29.2 percent Black, 47.7 percent white, and 6.8 percent Asian. Humboldt Park in the North Side has a large, but changing, Puerto Rican community and once had the largest Puerto Rican middle class in the Midwest. Vaquez Paz illustrates the neighborhood’s glory days by creating a strong sense of community—“a neighborhood with well known faces” and small businesses, restaurants, and cultural centers. Switching between English and Spanish further enhances the tale of “between two flags,” and the shadows of colonialism.
Also layered throughout the pages is artwork from local artists: black and white images of construction sites, sketches, action shots of Chicagoans in their everyday life, paintings of neighborhood landmarks all answer the question, what is Chicago like? It only enhances the experience that each visual is from a different year, spanning from the early 1900s until present day.
Each poem and photograph in Wherever I’m At: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry serves to paint Chicago as a whole: several shades of cerulean, azure, burgundy, vermillion representing the stories and voices of the millions that share this city. A city of the old and young. A city of immigrants. A city of low income and extreme wealth. The foreword and introduction both highlight not only the history of Chicago, but its evolution.
One hundred and sixty authors and artists with roots spanning from India and Korea to Nigeria and Chile reflect the essence of the question: what is Chicago like?
As Donald G. Evans writes in the introduction:
“This is what it’s like. And this. And this. And this.
And the other.”
Wherever I’m At: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry, Chicago Literary Hall of Fame’s first major publication, $25, plus shipping and handling, 311 pages.
Sarah Luyengi earned her B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2014. Some of her non-fictional work has appeared in Borderless Magazine.