With my smart phone in hand, I’ve read about the wars and companies America maintains in order to produce my smart phone in hand. Reading about Flint Michigan’s lead-poisoned water made me angry, and then thirsty. In these instances, and many more, I see myself as a speaker in David Roderick’s newest poetry collection The Americans (2014), saying “mostly I got // what I wanted, forgot what I was” (3). Roderick’s collection—a dark, lyrical conversation with the reality of American life, is haunted by historical and political context, and seeks to hold up American culture, history, and politics for evaluation in the light of the lyric poem, using the relationship between the individual and the landscape in America to question and complicate the idea of life in America.
The Americans comes eight years after Roderick’s first collection, Blue Colonial (2006), in which he explores the long and complex history of his hometown of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Roderick has received many awards for his work, including the Wallace Stegner Fellowship, the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize, and the Amy Lowell Travelling Scholarship, in which a poet is awarded money and required to live and travel outside of North America for a year. This second collection serves as an expansion of Roderick’s project in Blue Colonial, taking the developments and disappointments of the eight volatile years between the books, and the many decades and centuries before, as a jumping off point for exploring what it means to be an American.
The collection is broken up into two sections of roughly thirty pages each, marked by a single big star separating them. The first section of The Americans discusses American culture and history, from foreign travelers examining America, to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to 9/11 and the Great Recession, to the Kennedys, to traveling as an American, to nature in California, to wars and drones. The collection’s second section ranges farther from the subject of America, questioning the role of art and writing in justly representing reality, depicting Anna Akhmatova at Leningrad, parsing through meanings Irish ballads and meanings of the passion flower, and studying the image of the faithful seeing the Virgin Mary in an office window. These thirty page sections are punctuated by three poems titled “Dear Suburb,” lyrics in which a speaker addresses the comforts and trappings of life in/under suburbia.
Taking its title from Swiss photographer Robert Frank’s 1958 photo essay covering a vast cross section of the particulars of American life, Roderick’s collection is infused with both the keen de-familiarizing eye of the foreign observer, and the care and insight of the life-long resident, working in the simultaneous themes life as an American and America to a traveler. Roderick’s poems don’t simply describe American history, they enact it through the lyric, de-familiarizing the landscape by showing it infused with history, or creeping into the actions and perceptions of the speaker, as in the first poem “Dear Suburb,”
…I couldn’t resist
what hung in the toolshed
where, with a pair of garden shears,
I cut all the hair from my arms. That need,
that scared need to whiten
or clean a surface: plywood or lawn” (3).
In this opening poem, although the speaker attempts to find comfort in suburbia, he begins to enact on himself the suburb’s tendency to whitewash, to smooth out, to rush complicated and unordinary beauty—“gas can, tomato posts bent into art, / how half of a butterfly, cut crosswise, still looks like a butterfly, etc.” (4)—out of the speaker’s world. Roderick’s tendency to have speakers or characters in his poems identify with nature is not so much a retreat into the pathetic fallacy as a comment on the way the American landscape can influence an individual’s desires, the way they yearn for and interact with the world around them.
One of the defining features of modern American life in The Americans is separation from and yearning for wild nature—and therefore yearning for a wild, unregulated self. “California Clouds,” also in the first section of the collection, paints a portrait of a man hemmed in by modern life, by coffee shops, by his own need for safety (itself a process induced by modernity). This poem exhibits a number of Roderick’s skillful craft techniques, both in form and narration and in sound and meaning. The poem is in tercets, which Roderick makes even more off-kilter by alternating indented lines every stanza, first the middle line indented, then the first and third lines. The poem is also addressed to a “you,” to allow it to create a particular, but still accessible character, pulling the audience into the point of view of the main character. In this small vignette, a barista tells the “you” of a coyote who lives above the town. The “you” imagines the coyote and its landscape:
to know how it happened, howling
above so much domestic life, inside it:
gravel and tasted bait. O grovel.
O flatbed lovers and kids climbing
hand over fist—they pencil in the slated
sky and kink the chains of time.
You never shunned safety… (11).
In order to achieve this concrete yet lofty imagining from this ordinary character’s point of view, Roderick exhibits close attention to sound and apostrophe, as well as the line and stanza break, extending verbs through radical enjambment (howling // above), exalting the wild, unexpected images of nature (O grovel), and emphasizing meaning through the movement of stresses, from the regulated “above so much domestic life,” to the stressed “gravel and tasted bait.”
A review of The Americans would be incomplete without touching on politics, which permeate this collection’s thoughts and nightmares. The book is continually haunted by the dual specters of American imperial war, and personal complicity. Beyond its explorations of the state of Americans in America, integral to but beyond the question of what it means to be an American, is the question that Roderick seems to ask in his tightly grouped poems “Terra Incognita,” “Pale Tornado,” and “In My Name,” which is: am I culpable for my government’s actions? Like any thoughtful work of art, The Americans does not offer a direct answer, but, without resorting to polemics, puzzles through several possibilities relationships between the individual identity and the political landscape. “In My Name,” a discursive lyric on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the poet goes back to his father’s birth, which occurred during hundreds of thousands of deaths at American hands in Japan, and moves forward, with the speaker in bed, trying to sleep, thinking of drones:
…Here’s the price I pay
for sleeping: Reapers circling a far-off village,
my drones. To eyes at a distance, a screen
lies always between a failure and a dream.
In other words, homo fabula: we’re part story,
part human, but only if our names are known,
and only if our names, when spoken aloud,
are pronounced correctly, with proper inflection,
as when a mother addresses her son (31).
Can we separate the American government’s actions from the American people’s dreams? Are we to feel guilt for the country’s history that creeps into our being, or resist the country that champions a system which asks us all to pay in our humanity for what our government exacts in blood? How can we as Americans take responsibility for the historical failings of America’s system of empire and capital, and move forward to realize something better? The Americans begs us to ask these questions, and floods our lives and dreams with nightmares of history so that we might begin to wake.
Reviewed by: Evan Goldstein