Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

The Americans; The Tribute Horse

By David Roderick; Brandon Som

Reviewed By Andrew Allport

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To whom do we owe allegiance? This question shadows these two new collections like an eagle or an unmanned drone. The Americans, David Roderick’s second book, continues to examine the connection between personal and national history first conceived in his debut collection, Blue Colonial. There, with visionary fire, Roderick set the suburban Massachusetts of his childhood against the early years of Plymouth, making the violence and destructiveness of colonization an implicit part of growing up American. In his latest collection, the poet still lives in the suburbs, but he is less visionary than Everyman, beset by a mortgage, a family, and the guilty burden of his country’s endless wars.

The collection is tied together by a series of poems titled “Dear Suburb,” which provide a familiar catalogue of tidy lawns, porches, kids, bicycles, toolsheds, dog walkers, and complacency bordering on boredom:

where you bring a golden stillness
to everything
I touch, where I go whole years

    without suffering
so much as a splinter.

The life of comfort and its discontents is familiar territory, to be sure—but don’t assume we’re in the territory of American Beauty just yet. Roderick’s nuanced exploration of this life is pointedly not about the lurking repressed desires of suburban consumer life, where the lack of action on the surface cloaks a seething world of carnality and petty intrigue. Instead, Roderick’s project in this book is to ponder the price of wars upon a population that has largely not been asked to pay for them in life or treasure. What are we paying in moral capital, Roderick wants to know, for an easy life in the suburbs? And most troubling, what if we have—or he has—willingly exchanged morality for comfort?

The central poem of the collection, “In My Name,” makes this exchange explicit: “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.” You won’t find many poets willing to own up to this cost, but it’s the American way, Roderick observes, linking the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the tranquil birth of his father:

In Plymouth, spring of ’45, while the Pacific
squadrons trained, my father was born
without cataracts in his eyes—David Roderick,
7lbs, asleep on his mother’s white gown.
There must have been milk and a huge cloud
of necessity in which they breathed.
In August, before he could talk, neutrons
sheared from a core. I’ve read what they left behind:
shrines’ ashes, and the boy under his desk
who sang all day while his classmates
fell silent, one by one.

Clouds of necessity, clouds of atomic blasts: they’re codependent in Roderick’s equation. The flags of our fathers are also the ruins of their wars. And though there is certainly empathy here for the villagers and the schoolchildren at the mercy of our bombs, the tone of this poem is surprisingly neutral, more observation than lamentation. The book’s neutrality, in fact, is its most singular aspect—there cannot be another poet who writes about American imperialism and hubris with the kind of ambivalence as Roderick does in the poem “Terra Incognita”:

Counting scars of gum on the stairs down
from the Dome I briefly felt joy

even though I’d just read, in the World or Times,
that some of my fellow citizens

led men to warehouses or sites lost
in chalk republics, where they asked questions

in English and then, when they couldn’t grasp
the answers, zapped skin, brain, and bones

to kingdom come. While I drank like a lush
it happened.

What Roderick is expressing here are the deeply difficult and contradictory emotions of national identity and the kind of influence one’s nationality could or should have upon individual life—particularly when one’s country is acting unethically. The hard truth of the poem is not, after all, the failure of morals by his “fellow citizens” or politicians, but the individual’s moment of joy concurrent with these atrocities. Cleverly, the poem’s title refers to both the foreign country and the disorienting sense of estrangement from his own country, not milked for anger, but expressed sincerely:

Spooning soup and eyeing
the news, I thought being an American

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.

This give and take, as it were, is at the center of the book’s conception of national identity (and in these lines you see Roderick’s subtle wit at work in the way that “take lightly” and “give away” balance in an unexpected combination). Rather than pushing for change, Roderick is more interested in how our internal divisions—as people and as a country—might be symptomatic of identity; how we might be proud and ashamed of ourselves at the same time.

This kind of ambivalence is difficult in poetry, since it’s much easier to find music in the heightened tenor of rage. It’s tempting to think of Robert Lowell in comparison, another Bostonian weighing the moral cost of his country’s distant wars; Lowell, too, wrote about a society whose comfort was underwritten by abstract deaths in Korea and Vietnam. Of course there’s less ambivalence in Lowell—though more music, as in the gloriously bleak blessing of “Waking Early Sunday Morning”:

peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war—until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.

Unlike Lowell, who was jailed as a conscientious objector, Roderick doesn’t have a strong sense of outrage toward his country, but the lack of anger makes this book feel more honest, if a bit less exciting (though who could possibly match Lowell for excitement, on and off the page?). After all, Roderick admits in his last apostrophe to suburbia, we can only love what we love. And if the truth is dull sometimes, so be it; music must be made from the materials at hand:

                              I confess,
as if you give a damn, that I love
in fact your highways and lawns, these raw
lots developers bought for a song.

If The Americans represents one version of American identity inherited from Lowell—white, east coast, burdened with the crimes of his fathers and grandfathers going all the way back to Plymouth—Brandon Som reminds us of another in The Tribute Horse, his first full-length collection. Som’s examination of American identity, like Roderick’s, is based on personal and familial narratives, but any connection to national narratives remain implicit. Som isn’t burdened by the deeds of Harry Truman or the Pilgrims; his debt is to his grandfather, a Chinese immigrant in America, whose story is told in the book’s prologue poem, “Elegy”:

A Chinese immigrant, on his Pacific-crossing, carried coaching papers for the memorizing. Approaching the island station, these pages were tossed to sea. A moon’s light in a ship’s wake might make a similar papertrail. My grandfather, aboard at twelve, practiced a paper-name. What ensued was a debt of sound.

This “debt of sound” is the book’s central trope; Som’s poems are held together by sonic associations as much as grammar. In “Coaching Papers,” a sequence describing his grandfather’s journey at sea, sections comprised of eight lines are simultaneously dense with alliteration and surrounded by white space on the page:

A paper-name ensures a debt
of sound. A paper wake, a ream

ripsawed by utter-breath, feathers
—tract to vane—my throat. I tamp,

binder (minding catchword order)
pages of crest-to-trough cursive,

a moon’s sentence, a bow’s hull-lap
beneath a farm boy’s footstep.

A bit of background may be necessary to understand Som’s project here: the poem’s title refers to the cheat sheets carried by Chinese immigrants in preparation for interrogation at Angel Island, where they would be asked insanely detailed questions about their family and villages in order to confirm their stated identity (and thus allow them to immigrate): how many steps to your house? How far away was the forest from your town? Since many of the immigrants were indeed “paper sons,” it was necessary to memorize a new identity before the interrogation. Coaching papers were small cards carried discretely, and like any cheat sheet, were densely packed with potentially useful facts. Though he doesn’t say as much, my hunch is that the form of the sequence is meant to mimic this kind of limitation in its recursive, eight syllable and eight line sections. You also can get the sense of Som’s associative style here, where words are knotted together to make musical nests of near synonyms, as though to enact the process of repeating the answers on the coaching papers.

In fact, one of the most exciting aspects of this collection is its attention to form—specifically, the question of how to invent free verse forms that reinforce their subject. In a later sequence titled “Bows & Resonators,” the lines are broken and unmetered; it takes place in the Angel Island barracks and quotes graffiti carved into the wood there:

‘The inmates,’

the poem in the wall
continues,

      ‘often sigh.’

This sequence weaves together the poetry of the immigrants with allusions and quotations from Stevens, Pound, Aristotle, Thoreau, and a number of texts on the music of crickets (thus the title); multiple voices float through the historical narrative, as though overheard in the opposite room:

‘Island’ interrogators had translators,
interpreters
who knew dialects

& listened to catch

men quoting other men’s lives
for their papers.

        ‘Sounds passing

through sudden rightnesses,’
voices sustain

spaces of resonance—

    ‘Sadly, I listen
to the sounds of insects

& angry surf.

Som renders all of these voices not as self-contained fragments, but as contingent, interdependent clues to the mystery of identity and language. The “debt of sound” Som owes is not only the sound of English, but of translation and misprision, misstatement and error. The individual voices here combine into a chorus of irresolvable music; Som portrays them as patterns amid cacophony. Identity, after all, is who we say we are. And what we say depends upon who’s listening.

The recursions and euphonic associations of The Tribute Horse push to the limit of intelligibility and beyond, but Som isn’t testing limits for the sake of invention alone. Rather, his approach here comes from his desire to represent a relationship to English that began with his grandfather, who would have heard sound—rhythms, phonetic patterns, half-familiar words—before meaning. Som reminds us that such a relationship can be fruitful. Moreover, he reminds us that the makers of American poetry contain a multitudinous relationship to language; a poet’s exploration of self must involve an investigation of this relationship. Som himself is attentive to a vast range of registers, and the poems in this collection move effortlessly, sometimes dizzyingly, between them, as in the homophonic translations of Li Po, cleverly titled “Oulipo.” The gesture here is brilliant, simultaneously fulfilling and subverting our expectations of a Chinese-American poet:

Dressed in tight ass funds
He sure street fought some
Shut out wrong men here
All told buckles song

Locket syrinx in a palm
Procure mahjongg songs
Judo bygone rift rafts
Echoes pseudo song

These are hilarious, and they dare you into political incorrectness—I for one keep reading them with what must be an offensive accent—but as in the best Oulipo texts, the conceit makes the poems richer and more meaningful. Underlying the euphony is a story about Chinese stereotypes, encoded in the way we (mis)hear. That is to say, the poetry is “translated,” as it were, into stock cultural references: “street fought,” “mahjongg,” “Judo,” etc., as though these are all we do hear.

Since Whitman, American poets have been trying to balance the voice of the collective with the feeling of the individual. And since Whitman, we’ve run into a familiar problem: how do we express the intimations of nationality, if the cornerstone of national identity is the celebration of the individual? Thus we get poems that are at once self-centered and communal: a “Song of Myself” which encompasses opera singers, carpenters, pilots, duck-shooters and deacons. Contemporary poetry is grappling with similar questions, but largely without belief in shared national traits, and with an added caution about “speaking for the other,” as we say in graduate workshops. Like Roderick, Som is investigating the origins of his American identity; Som perceives a kind of arbitrariness to nationality (and even his name) that undermines any sense of collective identity, or, as in Roderick, collective guilt. It’s tempting to call upon certain distinctions to describe this difference (outward/inward, insider/outsider, majority/minority), but surely it’s more constructive to use Whitman’s description of American poetry: “Land of ensemble, bards of ensemble!”

Published 2/24/15

Andrew Allport is the author of two collections: the body of space in the shape of a human (New Issues, 2012), and The Ice Ship & Other Vessels (Proem Press, 2009). His poetry and reviews have appeared in numerous national journals, including the Antioch Review, Blackbird, Denver Quarterly and Boston Review; his work can be found online at www.poetryfoundation.org. He lives in Durango, Colorado.