David Roderick’s latest poetry collection, The Americans, is like a massive magnet that draws diverse objects into its field—as any successful book attempting to distill “Americanness” should. A “diary with the trick lock,” “a cherry tree falling,” the collapse of the twin towers, the plastic carts at Target, John F. Kennedy’s death, David Lynch, David Hockney, mothers, Ireland, the Middle East, and fast food restaurants—these are just a few of the wide-ranging materials Roderick amasses around his central lyric about American life, and stunningly so.
Roderick undertakes his ambitious project by taking multiple ways through, via epistolary poems, ballads, prose poems, and other lyrical forms that at times incorporate the techniques of imagism and impressionism. For example, the first half of the book begins with an epistolary poem that sets the theme for the rest of the book, “Dear Suburb”:
I’m not interested in sadness,
just a yard as elder earth,
a library of sunflowers
battered by the night’s rain.
When sliced wide, halved at dawn,
I see how you exist,
O satellite town, your bright possibility
born again in drywall
and the diary with the trick lock.
The lines, in the “yard of elder earth” and in the “library of sunflowers/battered by night’s rain” directly speak to the overall theme of Roderick’s book, which might best be characterized as a yearning for a deeper, nonamnesiac American past—for indisputable roots. Despite the seemingly positive tone of the first half of the poem, however, it doesn’t proceed or end on a note of certainty about the existence of satisfying roots and stories (and necessarily so, since if there was certainty involved, we wouldn’t need to read further, now would we?):
Blind suburb, dear untruth
you who already know what I mean
when I praise every spared copse,
you were my battery, my sad clue,
but after I mowed the lawn
and watched robins chesting
for seeds, 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,
and the spywall behind which I stood,
stock-still, and sinned against
the fly’s flyness.
By the “the fly’s flyness,” I assume Roderick means the materiality of the fly, a materiality that the speaker feels alienated from as a voyeur, divided self, conscious being. These are, it seems, like uniquely “Western” problems (I say “uniquely” only in the sense that Western theology/philosophy seems to involve a more dualistic view of the world, while Eastern theology resists dualism). The brave uncertainty in this poem prepares the reader for more poems that, directly or indirectly, meditate on this question of rootlessness in America, particularly in the suburbs.
Thankfully, the poems don’t deign to arise from a vein of American exceptionalism—this would be too simplistic for Roderick—but rather, a sometimes guilt-ridden or unseeing or fearful or loving need to understand the relationship between Americans and their experiences in America. For example, “On the Bullet Train from Hiroshima,” a poem made up of five tercets, we get a taste of the ways we might experience a distinctly American guilt:
It’s hard to believe we’ve tweaked the physics,
pared friction from sleek machines—
like this porpoise-nosed engine hushing the rush.
Even my seat on the aisle seems pleased
with its shape. It’s my privilege, I guess,
to relax, if I can shake the calm memorial:
children in the galleries, on the walls
pictures framing the smoke and wrack.
Chains of paper swans. Melted cameras.
A kimonos pattern burned into a woman’s back.
The poem begins on a universal note—that being the scary power we wield over nature—and ends on a uniquely American note of guilt at, presumably, the bombing of Hiroshima during the Second World War (“Melted cameras/A kimonos pattern burned into a woman’s back”). I say presumably because I can’t be sure that these images refer directly to that historical moment, but it’s also an unavoidable association. In any case, the encroaching silence evoked by the brief end-stopped sentences of the penultimate line that closes this poem suggests that there are subjects that are taboo, inexplicable, or altogether unforgiveable.
In other poems, the relationship portrayed between the self and “America” feels more like that of someone in the terrible throes of love. In a third “Dear Suburb” poem, this an epistolary poem made up of fourteen couplets, the speaker writes to the suburb:
I want to hug you from behind
the way a friend
surprises a friend.
Awake beneath my bedspread,
the stars’ crooked branches,
I also need the calm
of a child’s boxed beach
Said another way:
there’s something fraught
about this night
that knows our whereabouts
its weight pressing down on us,
Wake up, wake up.
The content here seems accessible enough, though not simple. What makes this poem successful is the way Roderick uses the couplet form to suggest fragmentariness against the yet-again repeated need for the contours “of a child’s boxed beach.” The tension brings to mind and complicates that memorable poem by George Oppen, “Birthplace: New Rochelle.”
The second half of The Americans transitions into a search for the apocryphal, a myth that subverts the strange emptiness and historylessness that seems to surround the American experience. The final poem of the book, “Faithful See Virgin Mary in Office Window,” situates the Virgin Mary into the everyday mundaneness of urban life, which is ultimately materially ungraspable to the speaker, but graspable in the sense of the urban landscape’s fleeting pastorality:
In flowerbeds we crowd, some praying,
some bowing as the world, minute as it is,
stays in motion: box stores doing business,
fast-food joints, and above us a crow,
secular bird, lighting on a lamppost
while we take pictures or cry as if we could
live forever in this gloried surround,
gazing up at the window holding her bleared
hair, her mouth a frenzy of trapped
pollen or dust, eyes like smooth shells
that make us forget what fertilized
the flowers at our feet, bulbs fortified
with potash or bone meal, dried blood,
which reminds me of the Annunziata
I saw in Italy, painted by those who thought
color itself was divine: crushed shell
coral and ash, pigments mixed with egg
in a man’s mouth, and I worry about
standing too close to the believers, I who
rubberneck and lie, do I stand too close
to the woman at least six months along
with her own child, waving a sonogram
with a faint infant shape inside, the image
scratched by waves: light squandered here,
dilated there, compressed oil and dust
as every body contains its atlas of salt,
kiss-worn, and always some bud dreams
in springtime, and though I’m a yarner
and one for whom doubt is a clutched root,
I can’t yet walk to my car, standing here
wondering if after His birth the virgin girl
saw the rest of her life would be nothing
but a way to talk about that morning:
gold nearly blinding, herdsmen and kings,
and with its broad warm tongue
a cow licking the afterbirth from the hay.
Although this final poem isn’t one of my favorites (and there is more than one poem that doesn’t suit my particular tastes), it seems an essential conclusion to Roderick’s book, which seeks to understand a collective “way to talk about that morning,” which is myth, and that story, however it might be constructed, requires as many materials as can be found.
The Americans, by David Roderick. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press. 88 pages. $15.95, paper.
Sarah Katz writes poetry, book reviews, and short fiction. She studies poetry in the MFA program at American University in Washington, D.C., reads poetry for Folio and works as Publications Assistant for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Her work has been published in Ploughshares, jmww, Deaf Lit Extravaganza, and others. She lives in Fairfax, Virginia, with her husband, Jonathan.