Bread of Tears is at once engaging and unsettling. It’s not a “one read and done” collection. On my first pass through Nathaniel K. Rounds’ work, I found myself wondering just what had happened to Rounds to make him create such disjointed, almost crestfallen characters and imagery. It was like someone woke up Ezra Pound, made him read the collected works of Bukowski, and then dosed the guy with some serious depressants.
My first clue into Rounds’ motivations came with some research into the title. The phrase “bread of tears” is taken from Psalm 80. The verses around it say the following:
How long, Lord God Almighty, will your anger smolder against the prayers of your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have made them drink tears by the bowlful. You have made us an object of derision to our neighbors, and our enemies mock us.
It was then that I began to understand the subjects of Rounds’ poetry. They are not the subjects of love, objects of affection, or esteemed champions of victory. They are not even the hard-working, salt of the earth people whose praises are sung throughout the verses of Whitman and others like him. In a way, they are not subjects of anything. The poems are about people so defeated by life that they are never mentioned at all.
Understanding this, Rounds’ poems go from appearing disjointed and melancholy to pointed, unsettling, and often uncomfortable. From Dina the bloodied washerwoman to the overbearing Timothy Hay to the twins literally left to sea by their more accomplished brother, Rounds forces the reader to stare at the figures in the background of the painting and face the truth: the reason they are not in the foreground is that their lives are so ugly, downtrodden and meaningless that we as polite observers of art would rather ignore them.
I was desperate for a moral center in the work. There had to be a moment, however brief, where Rounds gave me the lens through which to view these poems and not feel entirely disconsolate. With a good deal of relief, I found it in the poem “Surreal Estate (Antic Loo, Antic Loo)”. In it, Rounds invites the reader to “Graciously barge through the/Sugar-coated throng/Of fair cousins speaking of the weather/To fair weather cousins/And punch holes/Through the local headlines”. In the end, he says, “All that remains/Is an empty pit/Coated with sugar”. So it is with the message of “Bread of Tears”.
The object of poetry, all too often, is to spread a coat of sugar over the world. It is not quite good enough to call a thing by its real name; some metaphoric replacement full of flowery adjectives must lie in its place on the page. Rounds is not afraid to call these things as they are; there is no hesitancy to deconstruct people, places and things to simply what they are. Trees stripped to their raw flesh, a Mossberg 12 gauge, a destroyed mud-caked piano – these are the sights to be seen.
“And the world is an upturned tree/Of repurposed copper coil and aluminum”, Rounds declares in The Garbage Tree. Seeing the world through the eyes of these cast-off people, one finds it hard to tell Rounds that he is wrong.
So what is there to say about “Bread of Tears”, in the end? It is stark, it is unsettling, and it is a place turned on its head by life itself. Yet somehow, as Rounds forces us to look at the rusted out corners of the world, we may just realize that these are the places unencumbered by congeniality, pleasantries, and all the other trite bullshit that makes our own lives often unbearable. Upon first glance at the people displayed within this collection, I felt sorry for their lots in life. Yet in the end, the one question I am left with is this: between them and me, who should really have my pity?
Patrick Stevens is an author, poet, and scriptwriter from New Jersey. His upcoming poetry collection, “Rebirth Under Dead Trees”, will be available from unboundCONTENT in the fall of 2012.