Nominated for the 2013 PEN Open Book Award, Francine J. Harris’s poetry collection Allegiance
(2012) is an exploration of Detroit’s social, cultural, and creative identity. Based on Harris’s own experiences of life in Detroit, critics praise the collection’s blend of personal history and universality. An award-winning American poet and creative writing teacher, Harris once served as the writer in residence at Washington University. She has run numerous poetry workshops for young people. She grew up in Detroit, experiencing the aftermath of the city’s motor industry collapse.
The poems in Allegiance
depict Detroit from every angle. However, more generally, Harris uses the city of Detroit to explore universal themes such as love, faith, sexuality, violence, and race. By taking readers on a tour through Detroit’s hidden spaces, Harris invites us to question two things. First, she asks us to consider how our surroundings shape our identities, and second, whether it is possible for us to remain the same even when the places we know change beyond recognition.
There are 12 distinct sections in Allegiance
. Within each section are a handful of poems connected by similar themes or poetic styles. For example, the poems in the first section, “Jumping In,” define Detroit by explaining what it is not. In other words, they define Detroit through a process of elimination. More generally, these three poems, “Sift,” “Costume Jewelry,” and “I Live in Detroit,” show readers how we can also define ourselves by understanding what we are not.
Harris uses quick jumps between images to illustrate just how much there is to see and experience in Detroit, and how impossible it is to capture Detroit’s heart in the written word. The poem “What You’d Find Buried in the Dirt Under Charles F. Kettering Sr. High School,” the first poem in the second section, “When it’s Time to Move,” illustrates this technique most clearly as Harris invokes multiple images in each line. Within the first few lines alone, she depicts bloodstained socks, cigarette butts, drumsticks, and tenth-grade chemistry books. Using this quick, sharp poetic style, Harris shows how these objects coexist within the same small space. She deliberately picks items that are familiar to readers to help them connect with both Detroit and the poem itself.
In addition to imagery, Harris uses a musical prose style and alliteration to describe Detroit. For example, in the poem, “Midday Nap,” she repeatedly uses s-sounds set against harsh letters such as t and k. When read aloud, “Midday Nap,” deliberately sounds like eating food, as food is a focal point of this poem.
Harris personally narrates one poem in Allegiance.
This poem, found toward the end of the collection, is titled “Katherine With the Lazy Eye. Short. And Not a Good Poet.” In this poem, Harris speaks of a woman called Katherine who died before she made it as a successful poet. Harris uses Katherine to describe how a place—in this case, Detroit—can hold us back from reaching our full potential.
Katherine worked at McDonald’s, but she loved writing and reciting poetry. More than anything, she wanted to be a poet. However, life didn’t work out that way for Katherine; she died still wearing her McDonalds uniform before she achieved her dream. Katherine symbolizes how we often find ourselves running in circles, never moving forward. It is both a cautionary and inspiring poem.
Religion is a prominent theme in Allegiance
. Harris specifically tackles the complexity of religion in Detroit, and how religion shapes our personal identities in the section “Build Us a Jesus.” For example, the first poem, “Would Like to First Thank God,” mocks our tendency to thank God first for our good fortune when the reality is that we should first thank the friends and family around us. Harris embraces the same negative technique she used in the earlier “Jumping In” poems, breaking down all the ways that God didn’t help successful people get to where they are today. Throughout the poem, she explains that God is not a mother, or a loved one, or a spouse, or a teacher. God is everything else, but He is not a nurturer, and He is not the one who helps us succeed.
In the final poem, “Allegiance,” again invoking religious connotations, an angel living in Detroit comments on what they see and experience. Though it is a harsh city, the angel never gives up on it. The poem has wider connotations—no matter how much our hometown changes, and no matter how bad things get, our hometown needs us more than we need it.