Aurora : Still of a Hometown

The palm of Chicago’s outstretched hand is cut down the middle by a river. The mud-dragging Fox runs north to south, dividing the city into east and west sides that sprawl beneath I-88. 
 
Here is every point of a spectrum—old money and land to the west, new money and chic to the east. Middle and working classes fill in from the edges and meet downtown in an uncommon harmony: filthy taverns, charming Irish Pubs, an aging casino, an old roundhouse-turned brewery where grandfathers of those scattered around the smaller nearby towns—farm graveyards—built and loaded trains and sent them steaming back to Chicago. 
 
There are housing projects. There are vined mansions, streets kissed with Frank Lloyd Wright’s ingenuity. There is everyone you’ve met’s uncles and aunts, cousins and kids. There are parks that bore the feet of NBA players and local legends who could have, who should have been.
 
There are people to speak of history, of every high school duel in the century-old rivalry between two sides of a city divided by a river, united by a game. These are a few things that matter here.
 
Aurora is called the City of Lights because it was one of the first American cities to line its roads exclusively with electric streetlamps. An innovative place. Now, even the crumbling buildings downtown are beautiful and proud, ambitious in the way they perch above the traffic, the theater goers and elevated trains cutting through the air. Today, a police cruiser rolls over the New York Street Bridge, scanning the Riverwalk below for a body. There is no blood, just soiled denim and stench. The officer finds him, still breathing against stairs as the sky releases a misting rain.
 
The officer wakes his subject, calls him by name. Get up now. You gotta clean yourself up. He will not impose a desire to correct, but will take him to another side of town to steady up, the type of support needed by those bound to make the same mistakes. 
 
The steel railing that lines the river beads with rain. In the shadow of the new library, a man’s brow beads in sweat as he stares upward into the vacant sky of an old building. A renovator, he sees what once was, and from it, what he wants to build.

Jacob Nantz

For "Salem"

What is the significance of this work to you?

I stumbled over some hidden family history, the details of which helped me answer some difficult questions about myself. A trip to my great grandfather's hometown was the culminating event in a series of self-reflective exercises, and ultimately helped me gain empathy and compassion for a man who, based on my research, had a tendency to squander opportunity by repeating the same mistakes. In order to understand him, I wanted to understand the place from which he came, and this piece reflects my findings.

What is the significance of the form you chose for this work?

As I began to write more about my family history, I viewed each piece as an artifact of my research. I wanted this 'still' to resonate the way a photograph might if you were to analyze it: capturing the images of a town and unpacking what they might reveal about its people.

What was your process for creating this work?

Like any small town that serves as a county seat, Salem, Indiana revolves around its town square. I recognized this instantly, and sat on a bench near the courthouse taking notes of the different stores and shops. I also spoke with a few people: some distant family I had never met and members of the town's historical society. I wrote this as if to direct the reader through my observations. 

For "Weight We Carry"

What is the significance of this work to you?

I learned my great grandfather had several children with his second wife, half brothers and sisters my family never knew about. These new great-uncles and aunts were integral in my discovery process, and I was floored by their generosity and kindness when I reached out with questions about their father. This piece is documentation of my first ever conversation with a great uncle, who wanted to know just as much about me as I wanted to know about him.

What is the significance of the form you chose for this work?

I had this conversation on a train, and wanted the piece to embody literal and figurative movement. I also replaced my questions with personal reflection, allowing my great uncle to speak on his family's behalf. My hope was for the poem read like dialogue, though it's more me listening and sorting through the information's meaning.

What was your process for creating this work?

I wrote the first draft almost immediately after hanging up the phone, using the notes I took on the call as a jumping point. Writing his answers allowed me to slowly discover why the call felt so important to me, and my surroundings seemed to contribute to what I wanted to say (the farmland outside, the near-empty car). Eventually, I was able to clearly articulate my side of the conversation and marry it with my great uncle's answers, which are almost direct quotes.

For "Aurora"

What is the significance of this work to you?

I have such an affinity for my hometown, which is also my parents' hometown, as both sets of my grandparents landed in Aurora after growing up in Chicago. There's a grit to Aurora, and like most midwestern places, a feeling of community. I wanted to give the reader a snapshot of this place I love. It is as much an ode as it is a 'still.'

What is the significance of the form you chose for this work?

Similar to "Salem," this piece was to represent a captured image of a place. It is a detailed answer to the question "where am I from?"

What was your process for creating this work?

Leaving a place will highlight the things you miss about it. I sat in my apartment on the east coast and outlined as many characteristics of my hometown as I could. The piece quickly fell into place on its own.

Jacob Nantz is a poet and essayist based in Northern Virginia. Originally from the Chicago area, he received his MA in Poetry from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. His work has appeared in Gigantic Sequins, Sinking City, Five SouthEmerge Literary JournalThe Evansville Review, and elsewhere.