In his first book, Romey’s Order (2010), Atsuro Riley introduced his particular poetic territory, his corner of the South Carolina lowlands, through the experiences of a child, Romey, the son of a Vietnam veteran and the Japanese woman he brought home with him. In those poems, the boy’s discovery of his surroundings was as much linguistic as biographical: Romey put himself together as he put his language together, braiding southern dialect with Japanese, overheard speech with his own invented constructions. Riley’s superb second collection, Heard-Hoard, returns to this same topography, but with a new focus. The title, rhyming with Seamus Heaney’s great poem “North” and its instruction to the poet to “Lie down / in the word-hoard, burrow / the coil and gleam / of your furrowed brain,” may suggest that Riley has intensified his already highly tuned phrasing, has drawn his art more and more directly from the capacities of the language itself. True enough: unfolding by way of neo-Modernist condensation, juxtaposition, and ellipses, Riley’s heavily textured free verse is formally exquisite in Heard-Hoard—showing attention to the music of vowels and consonants, the etymological life beneath words, and the gestural drama in small inflections and intonations. And yet, again like Heaney, this poet’s focus includes a big subject—the often-opposed claims of the individual and the community. For all its lyric intensity, Heard-Hoard turns out to be a strangely and convincingly public book.
Riley centers the poems around his unsentimental but deeply sympathetic portrayal of rural people living on the edge, and in rendering them he has written a superb book about people attempting to make a life together in America.
To get a sense of how he balances lyric intensity with socio-historical reach, consider how he opens the collection. The first poem is “Crackler”:
What came to seem to him the core
(the pulsing core)
is wefted, warped: a lit
meat-mesh of heards
What tales he’d gnawed like seeds like sparks
live ember words
—red (gold) filaments sting and thrum
The image is of a lamp (“lucernal” means “lamp-like”) and this lamp itself casts images: a close-up on the woven wick leads to a vision of voices inside the poet, the source of those “live-ember words” that will burn through this collection. The poem remains situated in the interior, the “pulsing core,” of the third person “he,” and yet he’s seeking “what tales he’d gnawed,” an experience of language that’s personal, physical, but also communal; this core radiates outward.
Riley follows “Crackler” with a bold artistic statement: on the second page of the collection he has reproduced Walker Evans’s “Gourds for the Martins: Hale County, Alabama (Summer 1936).” The photo shows sticks and dried gourds fashioned into birdhouses for martins—desirable in farming communities because they eat insects. The picture was taken from below, so that the central pole supporting the birdhouses leans into cloudscape. A treetop on the right, its bottom half cropped out, just barely grounds the picture, though the photo nowhere shows the ground itself, so that the composition rides on the edge between the earthy and the aerial, the ordinary and the mythic, the patently real and the possibly imaginary, just as the birdhouses prove both functional and aesthetically exciting.
Reproducing this picture both sets a high bar for the poems and indicates what Riley values. Lincoln Kirstein once described Evans as “a kind of disembodied burrowing eye,” and Riley—as in his allusion to Heaney—is nothing if not a “burrowing” artist, a disembodied burrowing ear, capturing the big tableau of American life by tuning in to specific, local circumstances, scenes that resist the easy charms of local color. If Evans’s photographs manage to say, “we are not art,” and at the same time, “we are entirely art,” Riley shares that ability to merge the everyday and the extraordinary, such that those categories begin to seem spurious.
Heard-Hoard also echoes Evans’s makeshift aviary with its own swarm of voices, themselves struggling to maintain some home, some life together, however precarious. At times, the voices appear from right out of the air. Here, for example, in “Call,” Riley moves from an image of fire-glow, recalling “Crackler,” to a beguiling list of overheard sentences:
Tale-flicker from his crackling throat; blackening (kerosened) cattail held high:
—Some say what she’d gripped right then wadn’t vine but bullsnake.
—Hadn’t they clung tooth and claw to branch and bark.
—When the creekbed child got beat got hided fresh his mama broke her switch.
—Damned if dog-daisies beanstalks didn’t fank up in the spokes.
There’s a wonderful tonal play between the first line and the indented quotations that follow: the nearly sacerdotal, mythic figure of the tale-teller appears and then gives way to—ordinary gossip. And yet the original tone of ritual seriousness remains, like a pedal tone. After all, ordinary gossip, the everyday sharing of our own (and others’) stories, turns to extraordinary poetry in this work: never condescending toward his subjects, Riley catches how their speech shows resourcefulness, wit, innuendo, and metaphorical richness. He listens to their stories. He sees their struggles to make a life together, to extract sustenance and meaning from their environment, as archetypically human. And most important, their work resembles his own.
Such ars poetical twining of matter and manner creates immediacy: both the poet and his subjects are involved in acts of making, and their separate endeavors become consubstantial in this book—as much as, say, the tasks of farming and poetry do in Virgil’s Georgics. Take a section of the long poem, “Goldhound,” which introduces an important figure:
Under the last loved legs of this cinder-bridge the Boat Lady
(name of Zindi) floats and hoards. The original woodboat what
brung her evermore propagating here like spatterdock—new
boatlet-rooms as her need grows; slapdashed out of scrap;
lashed together another unto another. Don’t we all of us reckon
Zindi harbors one kind of everything on her hodgepodge
shelves. Be it seedpod or radicle or shark’s tooth; dry sloughskin
or chasmal ribcage or jaw. Come look—Do I look like I’m needin
your cash moneys. Be it barter (something) or browse.
The verb “hoards” at the end of the first sentence drops the hint: Zindi shares some traits with the poet. Her home, begun from a boat and spread out into “boat-rooms” “slapdashed from scrap” and her collection of “one kind of everything” resemble Riley’s own gathering up of language: the phrase “one kind of everything,” for instance, comes from Elizabeth Bishop’s “Crusoe in England.” Here and elsewhere, Riley shows us something about the language—shows us how well different registers (“chasmal” and “I’m needin,” “propagating” and “spatterdock”) can interact with one another. This lexical inclusion proves part and parcel of a remarkable, democratic breadth, incorporating literary references—to Bishop, and elsewhere to Whitman, Dickinson, Benjamin Disraeli, and others—right along with slang and dialect. The demotic and the literary, the arcane and the ordinary, the ancient and the invented give Riley’s work the range it needs to house his vision and his voices.
In fact, the building of a habitation becomes the central metaphor of the book. It appears most prominently in the poem “Element,” in which a group of boys brave the snake-infested “back-beyond” to find Johnny Pep, a recently returned war veteran who has set to weaving a dwelling from leaves and branches:
He knit us in:
he left us be. He let us watch he watched us try
(to climb to ape his crisscross weave)
to pitch to plait the roof.
Something like ‘Yall strayboys welcome to be welcome if you work.’
This make-believe-turned-real construction resembles the work of poetry: “weave” and “plait”— harkening back to the image in “Crackler” in which voices weave—enact the very thing they describe, so that form becomes content, and content form. What’s more, the poem reveals the aesthetic and ethical conviction behind such a process: “He knit us in: / he left us be…” suggests how the parts of an aesthetic whole might have their own vivacity even as they’re bound to the whole, just as an individual might balance personal freedom and eccentricity with the bonds of community.
But if there’s joy, there’s little nostalgia in Riley’s portrayal of childhood. In the world of these poems, violence, racism, and economic degradation are seldom far off. In “Sunder,” the young narrator watches from his home across the river as two runaway brothers are taken away in a truck. In “Stranger,” a woman who sells bait from her cart finds herself the target of cruel attacks by locals suspicious because she’s “foreign faced / Not natural: Not from here.” In “Origin” we learn of her harrowing youth in Japan, during which she gained the name Tetsu (iron).
It’s out of these conditions that people in Heard-Hoard seek to make sense and shape of their lives. The astonishing final poem of the collection, which seems to me one of the great lyrics of our time, “Thicket,” finds the speaker and others turning a clearing in the thorny woods into their own consecrated ground for improvised ritual. Here’s how the poem begins:
We come gnawed by need on hands and knees.
As a creature (nosing) grubble-seeks a spring.
As bendy-spined as bandy snakes through saltshrub yaupon needle brake.
For darkling green;
Dense with aural texture, these lines convey the feeling of the place they describe. They also reveal a strong desire for transformative ritual, as the repetitions affect the sound of invocation, or convocation—the poem is spoken on behalf of a “we” that includes the poet. Riley’s characteristic skill with tone shows in the way he strengthens that liturgical sound by tempering: “quaggy,” which means exactly what it sounds like, lowers the tone but maintains the thrust of the passage—this act of worship extends right down to the squishy dirt. Here’s how the poem ends:
Leafwhelmed in here
where Clary sets her cart-tongue down (and blinks, and craves).
In here where Tynan breathes.
We grasp to suck to taste what light.
Let loose the bale that bows us down.
This passage astonished me for being utterly original, modern devotional poetry, even before I read Riley’s notes and discovered that the final two lines are an adaptation of a passage in the Victorian-era prime minister and novelist Benjamin Disraeli’s Tancred Or, The New Crusade (1847). The book grows from Disraeli’s religious imagination, his attempt to reconcile Jewish and Christian aspects of his understanding and culture, and to envision a church that would do so. Here are the sentences Riley adapts, from a passage in which Disraeli’s protagonist, Lord Montacute, imagines the Holy Land and the Tomb of the Redeemer:
I, too, would kneel at that tomb; I, too, surrounded by the holy hills and sacred groves of Jerusalem, would relieve my spirit from the bale that bows it down; would lift up my voice to heaven, and ask, What is duty, and what is faith? What ought I to do, and what ought I to believe?
Riley, too, is a seeker poised on the edge of cultures and attempting to build and populate some heretofore imaginary space that will reconcile, or make something new from, a dual inheritance. In Riley’s case, that duality corresponds with the split between English and Japanese linguistic influences on the child, but also with the difference between the child raised in the Carolina river-country and the adult reading Disraeli. What’s so surprising about Heard-Hoard is how such a difference feels less a divide than a fluid relation—how, for example, the Victorian and contemporary American idioms combine in the conclusion of “Thicket.”
Despite his immersion in his speakers’ inner consciousness, and despite his rejection of rhetoric, Riley shows a lucid and firm authorial intelligence in Heard-Hoard, one that, while it offers no pat answers, doesn’t shy from Montacute’s questions, “What is duty, and what is faith? What ought I to do, and what ought I to believe?” What’s more, Riley asks these questions in the context of collective endeavor, asks them with a storyteller’s willingness to engage the messy, seemingly anti-poetic, and often violent world of modern people living on the edge. This book is crucial to contemporary American poetry right now because it shows a lyric poet of unique formal gifts doing something we’d usually expect from a great novelist—exploring and fully rendering our striving to give shape and meaning to our lives together—all while maintaining the force and subtlety of his lyric gift.