David Roderick's THE AMERICANS

Ben Jackson

In David Roderick’s second book, The Americans, a complicated national citizenry emerges, stirred by dreams and privileges, violence and regret, utterly insistent on borders, however blurred they may be, and intent on home as a pastoral heartland. The book is split in near-even halves: Section 1—18 poems, 31 pages; Section 2—19 poems, 34 pages. Both sections contain three “Dear Suburb” poems, each of the poems an intimate letter to suburbia exposing a vulnerable and conflicted speaker. The book’s design, favoring as it does a balancing of parts, achieves order amid the collection’s considerable thematic range.

In the book’s fourth poem, “Letter to Shara in Amman,” the speaker expresses the familiar grievances of an American male on an autumnal Sunday: “I should be raking the leaves”; “all I can do is watch football”; “There are too many days when we can’t be / done with anything.” This man, even if he is common, is not commonplace, for Roderick’s innovative imagery grants him fresh possibilities of feeling—“a tree of despair grows inside me”—and the man’s mind is mobilized by the way Roderick’s syntax rides the line:

but soon our children will grow and point
to things, and remind us that a rabbit’s child is
a bun, and a bird’s child is a chick, and a worm’s
child is two worms, and a sky can have as its child
a forest, and a river can have as its child a sea.

This final passage in the poem is proof of Roderick’s impeccable ear, tuned to the tension between line and syntax, each enjambment driving the reader’s gaze downward to the rolling syntactic and dictional repetitions, each item of the catalogue lending a fable’s aura as the speaker imaginatively insists on the ways children remind us of the many lives around us. These lines offer a fair representation of Roderick’s style throughout The Americans, his propulsive enjambments and his careful interlacing of syntactic and sonic patterns often yielding a gorgeous, polyphonic music.   

If the speaker in “Letter to Shara in Amman” struggles to overcome his lethargy and guilt, he too strives to feel seemingly unobtainable emotions, as when he cuts the umbilical cord after his daughter’s birth—“I didn’t feel the surpassing power I’d expected”—or when he meditates on religious faith: “that communion, that awe—I crave it.” Depth of feeling often eludes the speakers throughout this collection, as in “Dear Suburb, What happened to the golden rule,” when Roderick directly addresses a suburb:

                         […] I can thrive here so close

                                       to a city’s lost eminence,
              where you bring a golden stillness
                                                          to everything   

                         I touch, where I go whole years

                                        without suffering
                                                    so much as a splinter.

The privilege and burden of ownership—whether ownership of one’s emotions, actions, and heritage or ownership of one’s property—pervade the collection; for Roderick, the privilege of possessing a home where suffering is inconsequential collides with the burden of recognition that one is unable to experience a breed of hardship that assaults most human beings on the planet.

When the poems’ speakers travel through other countries, as in the poem “Terra Incognita,” that recognition of privilege and burden is heightened:

[…] I thought being an American 

isn’t like being from one of the old nations—
it’s not a gift exactly, but it’s also 

not something to take lightly or give away.

According to Roderick, as we suburban Americans seem to be spared of suffering, our country is responsible for grave acts of violence. We, too, are responsible for and nearly complicit in those acts. In “In My Name,” the speaker acknowledges, “Here’s the price I pay / for sleeping: Reapers circling a far-off village, / my drones.” In “On the Bullet Train from Hiroshima,” the speaker tries to relax in a luxurious train car after a visit to the “calm memorial” at Hiroshima, struggling to shake images both strange and harshly beautiful, such as this one: “A kimono’s pattern burned into a woman’s back.”

When Roderick turns his gaze back to violence in the homeland, he finds rich sources in history (“After de Tocqueville”), climate (“Pale Tornado”), and politics (“Love Field”). He has a deft way of capturing the edges of violence: the tornado “skirting” homes, the foreclosures after the towers fell, JFK freeze-framed before the bullet rattles his head. The poem “Love Field” is remarkable in large part due to its focus not on the actual assassination that November day in 1963, but to a perceived innocence that preceded it:  

                watch them pause there
              for a moment:
                             our champion, our grace, 

              in that high noon
                           that holds all
              the freshness of morning.

Roderick does not turn his gaze away from violent acts out of sheer neglect; he is simply more concerned with the ways we maintain a sense of peace and order on the periphery of tragic events, whether by popping pills, as in “In My Name,” or by outright ignoring the signs of tragedy and forgetting the past, as in “After de Tocqueville.” And yet Roderick glares at violent events as well, often from an original angle. In the persona poem “As When Drought Imagines Fire,” a drought speaks aloud, summoning fire: 

                                                                      Let’s glory
                          this roughened nap
              of landscape,
                                         this parched Arcadia,
              with one nude-struck match and a breeze.

This reference to Arcadia, to a romanticized landscape, is one of many instances in the collection in which Roderick wrestles with pastoral or idyllic thinking. Taking inventory of “raw lots,” agro-farms, and “great afflicted trees,” he scrapes aside environmental fantasies, the book reading as a dark and clear-eyed anthem on the widespread subjugation of the American wilderness.  

One of the many strengths of this book lies in Roderick’s skillful, understated handling of the “American dream,” often conveyed through home ownership, the poems featuring speakers who dwell beneath media blares and terror alerts in a zone of heartfelt ambivalence. In the private “Dear Suburb” poems, in the plaintive “Build Your Dream Home Here,” in the probing “In My Name,” and in the deeply personal poems about Roderick’s own homes from childhood (all captured with physical addresses), the dream home carries the values of promise, freedom, and responsibility as well as their opposites: failure, imprisonment, and neglect. The six “Dear Suburb” poems are perhaps the most intimate of the collection, with direct addresses to the suburbs ultimately revealing the speaker’s ambivalence about suburban living, leaning on the one hand toward outright rejection for its limitations—“the many things you fail to see” —and on the other toward acceptance of its mild sweetness: “I confess, / as if you give a damn, that I love / in fact your highways and lawns.” The confession to the suburb, this avowal of love, rings with hesitance (“as if you give a damn”), bringing to my mind this passage from “35 Miller Drive”: “My mother knew it as a fault to love / a place.” Such is Roderick’s America, a place his speakers are ashamed to love and perhaps, for that very reason, love even more wildly.

Ben Jackson's poems have appeared in New England Review, Hudson Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Prairie Schooner, The Journal, and elsewhere. He has received residency awards from Vermont Studio Center, Jentel Artist Residency Program, and Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts. He teaches English literature at the University of San Francisco.

The Americans
by David Roderick 
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014 
$15.95 (paperback); ISBN: 9780822963127
88 pp.