Poet Riley's debut dazzles with originality

"Romey's Order," by Atsuro Riley. University of Chicago Press, $14.

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Originality is easier said than done. Most works of art, like most consumer goods, are versions or outright imitations. In contemporary poetry, even the so-called experimental often seems derivative and weighted with conventions.

But when a new book of poems is as different from precedents as Atsuro Riley's "Romey's Order," readers should take special notice.

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

That crammed density could be hard to endure in lengthy prose, but compressed in 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 that he gets reverberating like a gigantic bugle:

"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 - ..."

Romey, who seems to be about 10, probes the world with sounds, like a dolphin echolocating his location.

His father is a Vietnam vet and tornado of appetites, who drinks and fishes, then explodes in fury. His mother, who is Japanese, works endlessly, cooking and canning her garden produce and trying to clean the family's collapsing house.

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 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.

No word in "Romey's Order" can't be easily, quickly understood, yet in Mr. 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."

What "happens" in this story? While there's no way to paraphrase it, 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."

Jim Schley is managing editor of Tupelo Press, and author of "As When, In Season" (Marick, 2008). He lives in Vermont.


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