Atsuro Riley was raised in the South Carolina low country, the child of an American serviceman father, and a Japanese mother (brought home from abroad). His first book, Romey's Order , has just been published by University of Chicago Press.
I first discovered Riley's work in Poetry (Chicago) Magazine. I've not been either a subscriber to, or a reader of Poetry for decades, but I happened upon a stray issue a year or so ago, and was intrigued that so unusual a writer should have been seriously taken up by what has become a very conservative and timid publication indeed, since the demise of its former editor Henry Rago (Editor-in-chief 1955-1969, ending with his death). In the decades since, the magazine has foundered about, not really finding an identity as such, or perhaps merely being content not to have any clear editorial policy at all. I mention this to emphasize the degree of my surprise at finding such work there in the first place, let alone being featured.
The most overtly unusual characteristic of Riley's poetry is its insistent, perhaps even dogged, use of alliteration and compound adjectival descriptives. These are employed in the service of a kind of synthetic-nativist, rural-local coloristic paintbrush, to evoke the sensual, potent flavors and odors of the humid, decaying South--the sweet-sour lush-rot of the Gothic post-bellum bog, the alluvial swirl and muck of back-country habitation, rustic isolation and grisly gnarl. Riley now lives in California, so (one suspects) the re-creation of this dense, inspiring context is conducted from memory, at a safe, discreet aesthetic distance.
The poems appearing in magazines over the last few years have all been presented as lyrically discrete instances. But in order to give the book some unity, one suspects--and to objectify the experience to which the poems, as a group, refer--he's adopted a persona, Romey, as the voice of the poems, a biographical conceit not likely to do much to strengthen a commitment to directness of address. Romey is, without doubt, close enough to Riley's identity--his own experience--to make such distancing unnecessary, at least insofar as the content of the poems matters. And, I would offer, it matters very much.
Riley's poems are easy to quote, because they have a consistency of sound and feeling about them, which is unmistakable.
The heard-tell how her baby'd burned downrivering and rippling.
Rill and wave of chicken/prayer/purlow murmuring back.
Brackwater cove-woods by her marsh-yard oak-creaking and -crying.
Mourn-cranes and cave-crow and crape-blinded windows keening black.
The grieve-mother Malindy Jean porch-planking brunt and planging.
Breasting river (crossing-over) songs with cast-iron inside'em.
The live heft-fact scorch-skillet willow-strung low and hanging.
Her having shovel-hafts and oats to make it ring.
A technical approach as doggedly monotonous as this entirely typical example is, may seem to try one's patience. There's an echo here of Hopkins's sprung-i-ness, Vachel Lindsay's chant, the auctioneer's stutter, an attempt to capture the faux-slangy, snake-slippery music of rural vernacular jargon, informal and lazy-sweet. As a performance-piece, it's tantalizingly clever, but as a repetitious style, it lacks variety. What's hopeful, at least for me, is the innocent delight and herbal pungency of it, which I find most effective in short spoon-fuls:
Some nights, blank nothing.
The ice-box, milk purling in the kitchen.
The eye-of-pine floorboards ticking, clicking, planking themselves cool.
This is an honest poem, without any additional echolalia, any descriptive superfluity. I think Oppen, or Williams, would have appreciated its directness, the simplicity of its invention, grounded in a lived experience.
One thing I should mention which is slightly troubling in this book, typographically. Publishers are often in the peculiar habit of using double-spaced leading for poetry--even, on occasion, for prose--believing, perhaps, that giving this extra space allows the work to "breathe" or "stretch out" beyond the confining parameters of single-leading. But a problem arises, when the work may have been conceived, precisely, in double-leaded format. Reading Riley's book, true separation between lines and individual stanzas becomes indeterminate, since everything starts with double-leading, and stanzas are separated by what looks like triple-leading. Should there really be this much air between the words? I question this design, since it ambiguates the structure of his lines. For a poet whose work is so sensitive and expressive in its sounds, shouldn't its spacing and layout be equally sensitive and deliberate?
The best poems here incorporate a narrational flow, which gives the irrepressible word-conjuring a propulsive purpose, as here, from--
Mama talks in this one.
Here's us, backing down our driveway's maze of red-dirt dog-legs, her at the wheel (with fresh-forged license) , me turned around navigating, the yard black-dark but flushed now (and now) and now with brake-lights, her Kool-tip flaring on every hard in-breath, river-reek and oil-scorch and marsh-gas mingling, our under-chassis (and rear axle, eyeteeth) chuttering due to roots and rain-ruts, our rust-crusting Rambler swerving and fishtailing and near-missing trees.
At the mailbox, gears knock, gnaw, grind, find Forward eventually: we're missile-heading straight (more or less) for the LowCountry fairgrounds; here's us, late, loud, breaknecking her blue-ribbon hoard to the Fair.
Everything is home-made.
...etc. (Note: I took out the double-spacing in this piece, and printed it as straight prose without line-breaks, which I think is how Riley must originally have typed it.) One wants to know more about these people, if for no other reason than to place them more accurately within the context they inhabit, to locate them socially and culturally inside the matrix of their relations, both familial and within larger structures.
This work reminds one of Faulkner territory--perhaps Caldwell, Crews, Welty. None of them poets. Or might one suggest Charles Wright, or perhaps Penn Warren--who, come to think of it, was himself known to fall into an occasional alliterative rut now and again, or at least to coin earthy slang constructions as a kind of affectation. The best things about Atsuro Riley's verse are 1) its willingness to entertain all kinds of exotic, vivid textures and sensations, in a descriptive style that's a bit juiced-up with free word-play, but, importantly, fore-grounded from some direct experience, and 2) its attempt to make out of the qualities of a rural American childhood a poetic tapestry which is 9/10ths feeling and sensation, and only 1/10th moralizing and rationalizing. At the least, it doesn't make poems designed to convince you of something through their ponderous arguments and tedious reasoning. To portray and to describe to a reader, is nearly always better than to badger and harangue.
The example of Yeats demonstrates how a poet can combine historical and folkloric material with personal implication, through a use of traditional lyric elements. The use of personae, along these lines, used to establish rich emotional contexts for the development of character and situation, can be one way to achieve this. If Riley's strengths as a poet are to grow, he should consider carefully the implications of putting fictional place-holders between himself and his material, since doing so implies a certain distancing--a made-up quality which I find unnecessary, and slightly distracting here, a premature step for him to at this point in his development as a writer, but with potential value further down the road. The use of personae, along these lines, might spur a richer emotional context for the development of character and situation, though a poetry of direct address, at this point in his career, would appear best to serve Riley's range of proclivities.
The possibility of a strong regional, nativistic poetry, home-grown, rooted in its connection to the land and the people whose settled habitation has mouldered and festered and mutated into original etymologies of behavior and grammar, has been systematically thwarted over the last century and a half, by what some refer to as the so-called "official (verse) culture". Contrarily, the potential fruits of a deliberate cultivation might resemble something as impressive as Basil Bunting's Briggflatts, or Pound's The Seafarer, or as some of the work of Yeats--wherein an evocation of faux-historic expression spurs linguistic inventiveness and daring experiment. Riley's work hints at this, but hesitates just at the edge. That this possibility appears to be open to him, at this early stage, is reason enough for celebration.
A poet who begins in naive lyricism, rather than with exercises in formal pyrotechnics, may have a better chance of self-realization and fulfillment. Of all of human genius, a native lyricism, like a skill with mathematics, or virtuosic mastery of an instrument, may be a simple gift. These poems of Riley's seem less about strategy, and more about the deep song of common people living lives close to the ground, among the the matter and music of indigenous consciousness--a refreshing exception to so much that passes for sophomoric ambition these days.
Is it too much to imagine that a writer of Riley's skills might evolve, in due course, into a figure as compelling as Ransom or Peale Bishop? The best thing about Riley's poems is their promise--what they might become, with a little seasoning, with a little less persiflage and gratuitous word-play, with a little more careful listening and intuitive patience.
Atsuro Riley's work will bear watching.