Book Review: THE AMERICANS by David Roderick
Poems by David Roderick
|University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
We can’t fence in wildness; we can’t fence out the world. It’s an old story of man’s interactions with nature and the global community. But in David Roderick’s The Americans, it’s seen through new, unflinching eyes. Here, Roderick’s strong voice and steady gaze interrogate suburbia, art, and American history to show us the myriad of ways humanity fails to manipulate its surroundings.
The goal is to sterilize, make safe. Roderick opens his collection with the first in a series of “Dear Suburb,” poems. He wastes no time in employing a pitch-perfect image that sets a tone for the rest of the book:
but after I mowed the lawn
and watched the 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…
This desire is called a sin “against the fly’s flyness” and is imbued with everything the suburbs have come to mean—control over nature, distance from danger, a uniform whiteness. Underneath this compulsive need to change appearances, something sinister bubbles. Roderick revisits the idea in a later poem, “Target”:
Did we know
we were the last
of the shorn beasts?
But dazed in traffic,
our streets’ by-and-by,
we failed to hear
that lion above saying,
You there, in the dark, you.
Job shaved his head,
but still the lice bit him.
We can change appearances all we want, but there’s no escape. Whatever it is we fear, it will always haunt us. In fact, it’s inside of us, as Roderick shows in “California Clouds.” The protagonist of this poem is a man who was “never young,” who meekly submits to “the rules of the coffee house // (only an hour in the socket).” When he hears from a barista about a coyote living in Bernal Hill, he wants “to know how it happened, howling // above some much domestic life, inside it.” This is a man who “never shunned safety,” who once tried saké and thought it “tasted / like oblivion.” By all accounts, the guy is a wimp:
He returned, deleted, returned. Bills
racked up. Women thought he was something
of a limp-fish. He never finished
his masterpiece titled “Self-Portrait
as a Crucible of Style.”
And yet, when this unlikely hero happens upon the coyote’s dead body “with two / holes in its side,” he cries “for its howling, / that creature, his low cortege of clouds.” This is what we get for defying our nature; we render ourselves impotent, mourning our losses and still surrounded by danger.
We’re all implicated. It’s built into the book’s title. But in case we missed it, Roderick has some reminders for us. The poem “In My Name” plays on the phrase’s double meaning: a house clear of mortgage payments is in my name, but so is something done in my stead. Beginning with Necessary Evil and Enola Gay—the B-29s used in the 1945 bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima—Roderick reminds us that “smoothly soldered rivets saved the men inside.” Meanwhile, the speaker exits this memory and falls asleep:
I lie in another state, placeless in the air,
with the sound of occasional sirens
or barking dogs. In a magazine
I read about Predators over Pakistan,
our drone with fifty eyes named Gorgon Stare.
The men at Langley, bombing by remote…
We are the men inside, bombing by remote. Separated by magazine pages from the reality of this destruction, we sleep soundly. Roderick is unafraid to indict us, indict himself:
When I signed my mortgage, I also signed
for the peonies and for the shield of my yard’s
…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.
This sentiment is echoed from an earlier poem, “Terra Incognita,” which reflects on American torture of foreign citizens. It happens in nameless places like warehouses, recalling the distance and mythology of Guantanamo Bay. The speaker thinks to himself, “While I drank like a lush / it happened. While I washed down // a pastry with a divine swipe of cheese inside.” Being an American, he thinks, “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.” Retaining the privilege of ignoring injustice supposedly crucial to maintaining our way of life—a necessary evil—that’s the dream. With murder as its foundation, the dream is a failure. Try as we might, we can’t stay separate from it.
But when did being an American come to mean this sort of ignorance? Roderick seems to tell us it was always the case. He invokes the Kennedys, visual artists, Spanish conquistadors, and Irish immigrants to show us a timeline of American history whose very bedrock is this sort of violence. We try so hard to quell our fears, to stay, as the husband in “Eros and Dust,” “safe within a moat / that can’t be crossed.” All we succeed in is destruction. Roderick presses us to examine this heritage, to sit with discomfort and at least admit culpability. There’s no solution offered—perhaps that will come in his next collection. But for now, we must listen to these timely words and remember the power of poetry to depict a society, to inspire change.