Jim Schley's Essays

Romey's Order by Atsuro Riley (University of Chicago Press, 2010)

Originality is far easier to claim than achieve. In art, as in commerce, most of what's presented as fresh is a version, reflection, or outright imitation. In contemporary poetry even the so-called experimental rather often seems derivative and weighted down with conventions.

But when a book is published that's as different from precedents as Atsuro Riley's Romey's Order, readers are justified in taking special notice.

Set in the hot, riparian lowlands of South Carolina, poet Riley's first book has the unity of a story, though narrative continuity is less important to this author than a detailed sensory atmosphere, lit up in sudden episodes. For Riley, description is plot, and character is a cosmos.

This is the house (and jungle-strangled yard) I come from and carry.
The air out here is supper-singed (and bruise-tingeing) and close. From where I'm hid (a perfect Y-crotch perch of medicine-smelling sweet-gum), I can belly-worry this (welted) branch and watch for swells (and coming squalls) along our elbow curve of river, or I can hunker-turn and brace my trunk and limbs — and face my home.

The crammed density of this writing could be hard to withstand in lengthy prose, but compressed in the span of poems the plunge into sensations is exhilarating.

The book's most important character is the boy Romey, through whose eyes (and ears) we absorb all else. Romey is borne forth in the prologue poem "Flint-Chant," hollering into and then nesting in a big culvert: "Tight-curled as he had to get — like a cling-shrimp one day, a pill-bug, a bass-clef, a bison's eye; an abalone (ocean-ear!), antler-arc, Ark-ant, apostrophe, another —," which he gets reverberating like a gigantic bugle.

Romey, who seems to be about ten years old, is a prober of the world with sounds, like a dolphin echolating location.

His father is a Vietnam vet and tornado of appetites, who drinks and fishes, fishes and drinks, then explodes in fury. Romey's mother, who is Japanese, presumably came to the U.S. when her husband shipped back from Southeast Asia, and she works endlessly, cooking and canning her garden produce and trying to clean the family's collapsing house, where worn patches and damp rot multiply across the floor like the burns and bruises the child Romey sees as their visual kin: "pocked some and pitted, swollen in a few places and (mostly) off-pink as a leg."

Romey is watching always, and no one is watched separately from what surrounds. Here's the father (from the page-long, one-sentence poem "Map"):

Trolling and trawling and crawfishing and crabbing and bass-boating and trestle-jumping bare into rust-brackish water and cane-poling for bream and shallow-gigging too with a nail-pointy broomstick and creek-shrimping and cooler-dragging and coon-chasing and dove-dogging and duck-bagging and squirrel-tailing and tail-hankering and hard-cranking and ñshifting and backfiring like a gun in his tittie-tan El Camino . . .

And here's the mother, in the poem "Picture," in a rendering that simultaneously evokes the boy who's seeing:

See that funnel-blur of color in the red-gold glass? — Mama, mainly: boiling jelly. She's the apron-yellow (rickracked) plaid in there, and stove-coil coral; the quick silver blade-flash, plus the (magma-brimming) ladle-splash; that's her behind the bramble-berry purple, sieved and stored.

Every choice conveys the poet's sure intent. The table of contents, for instance, is a perfect entrÈe to Romey's world, a fish-stringer list of one-word titles and hyphenated noun-compounds that itself reads like a clustered poem: "Flint-Chant," "Picture," "Turn," "Strand," "Object," "Skin," "Map," "Drift-Raft." . . .

No word in Romey's Order can't be easily, quickly understood, yet in Riley's poems our regular language reappears strange and transmuted, proliferating in variations like incantations, and "scored" on the page with a wildly agitated surface: thick alliteration, hyphens and dashes, semi-colon clauses and parenthetical interjections, italicized quoted dialogue or inlaid capitals for labels and signs, and audacious with recurrences. The cringing, coiling, smelly, and nerve-stinging vivacity of that landscape is stirred into an English that's rank, grainy, warped, and springing.

The title of one extremely brief poem articulates the true nature of the child Romey's home: "Rage-Lodge." Unspeakable violence is pressed into images, like the burned linoleum or blistering-hot skillet that is both a "plaque of heated iron" on exposed skin and also a (benevolent) summoning bell, "willow-strung low and hanging. / Her heaving shovel hafts and oars to make it ring."

Romey is mesmerized by certain talismans, a "grown-woman doll" in a "glass-faced china cabinet" (in the poem "Object") or a book of Japanese prints (in "Scroll"), those finer things somehow saved from "Mama's cradle-place."

And there are others who pass through, for whom Romey feels fascination and gratitude, such as an eerie, one-eyed peddler named Clary, who hauls a cart "like a dugout canoe," arising then vanishing like a Homerian soothsayer, and neighbor-healer named Sylvia Bell, whom the boy seeks out when wounded.

What "happens" in this story? While there's no paraphrasable culmination, the sequence comes together with panoramic breadth in the poem "Chord," where multiple themes and tones and motifs coincide.

Romey's Order is "a heard-tell growing gold in the mind."

—A slightly different version of this review appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on August 15, 2010.