Tucked between descriptions of the close combat occurring throughout major Ukrainian cities and the very real possibility of Russian nuclear engagement, the word “irredenta” might have appeared in your reading of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, and it might have been a word you glossed over in favor of trying to assess how this conflict will play out. But if you didn’t, the word would have no doubt described Putin’s irredentism, or his desire to occupy Ukraine because he considers it lost territory that needs to be returned to Russia. In no way does this word directly encapsulate Oscar Oswald’s debut poetry collection, Irredenta, but the essence of trying to connect with something that once was does surface on every page. Through a combination of fragmented and atmospheric lines, memorable images, and rhythmic insights that oscillate between being serious and lighthearted, Oswald explores what it means to comes to terms with an American history that can be as concrete as it is open for interpretation.
While Irredenta lacks a narrative quality, its kaleidoscopic associations nevertheless reveal a speaker who isn’t afraid to look at themselves more introspectively, especially as it concerns the idea and thoughts behind being American, as shown in “First Verse”:
the entire prospect
of interrogations lost
on me American
enveloper by nature
whether nature be
big sky uncitizens
steep man amends
or is entire
I moves empty
light or birthright
mine whatever drone
in settlement I
blow my reed
Upon first reading, it might be hard to decipher what the speaker is attempting to convey (given the sporadic line structure), but when we look closely, we see their internal struggle with what is perceived to be the inherent condition of taking what should be rightfully one’s to take. The interrogations are lost on this speaker (this American) because they have been conditioned to accept things the way they are without pulling back the veil that keeps institutions and people stuck in the status quo (think back to your history classes in high school and how the cultural narrative that the United States is the “greatest” country on earth was taught, not to mention the omission of nations and cultures that are always important and necessary to understand the world on a deeper level). The speaker realizes that they are an “enveloper by nature,” and yet, despite coming to terms with this, at least briefly, they know that their birthright allows them to move into any space where they can automatically “blow their reed,” or feel that they can do whatever they want. It’s somewhat difficult to see if there the tone in “First Verse” is ironic, since there are moments elsewhere that Oswald’s humor shines, but what we should take away from these lines is not necessarily the tone (at least not at first), but the fact that the language is telling and showing us something that is truthful to the speaker and many who carry this mentality in their day-to-day affairs.
This attitude is further elaborated in “The Travel Poem,” which, despite moments of rosiness and recognition of one’s place with nature, acknowledges the reality of their position of power:
sunray spiny daisy mind
my barren Democracy —
my deadly hand all things I touch rename
my o and o writ into aspen
same I share with atom and the nature back away
and goes the world away that knew the names I gave
One can’t help but see a more colonial mindset in the voice above, and perhaps even a God complex, since what we see is a speaker comfortable enough to start the process of owning things—anything really—simply because they had the privilege of naming them. But again, the honesty presented here is forthright, and it is only through such an approach that the internal struggles of the speaker paint a broader picture of the complexities no one is immune to. This comes in various forms in Irredenta, and most prominently we see it with religious contemplation and the recognition that the place one calls home is in every context an empire meant to be fully under its control.
There is no way that one can talk about the United States without speaking about religion, and there is no way to speak about religion without diving into the history of opposition to it in the public, educational, and governmental spheres. There are no doubt countless books that center on the topic, but with a poem like “Lycidas,” we do get a glimpse of the way in which one becomes aware of their insignificance with relation to God and the conditioning of thinking God will always provide a timely and just response:
And do I steer the wrath away,
ocotillo thorn thrust out the eye of god
ground crack open god no more
two million for million of my hair
I am one song from the resurrection
wish it true, ask god the question
and the form of god returns no subject
flare of copper stone his land hand unbend
bygone a room damp street the rain remade
for I am yet a child, and one song I sing
Jerusalem my lamp the catclaw powder
tamarisk a crowded house is god the same I hear
It’s not necessarily that the speaker has lost their faith, rather, they have seen the impracticality of relying on a higher power for answers and guidance, even though they have worked to “steer the wrath away” from everything they hold dear in their life. Additionally, the speaker is now experiencing the way in which some people’s “Gods” seem to favor one group of people over others. As the speaker acknowledges at the beginning of the poem, “There is no universe but ours / and theirs. Our common song is optional.” And it remains optional to the extent that one group favors privilege and exclusion (think of every televangelist and cult-like pastor who uses their position to promote a narrative that says the oppression some experience exists because they bring it upon themselves). Whereas certain people might be granted the blessing of “God’s voice,” others are left to wallow in the mysteriousness of God’s thoughts and actions, or lack thereof. At the end of the poem, the speaker becomes a “child” again, because when there are no more answers from what one builds their life around, they are left with mere prayer (“song”), traditional remedies (“catclaw powder”), or hope that they can ascribe meaning to something (“tamarisk”) that will in turn in be more favorable to them in the future (in Genesis 21:33, Abraham planted a tamarisk in Beersheba and called on God in order to honor Him).
You cannot underestimate the economic, political, and cultural influence that the United States maintains in the world, despite its waning authority over the past two decades. The U.S. is still the only world superpower, and while it might not mean much to most people living here, it does become much more profound when one has an awakening to the fact that they are living in a state that exerts as much power as it does. With the amount of control the U.S. has, it’s not far-fetched to see it as an empire, and the second half of the poem “Two Idylls” demonstrates the utter helplessness when one comes to accept this:
each person-making image of these states
is empire empire is sound
one sound circumference
is the bee that brings me honey where I
verdict and example of America
The speaker concludes that we are ultimately nothing but a “person-making image” of what the state wants us to be, and even though we have the opportunity to be rewarded in various ways (“bee that brings me honey”), we can at any time be both “verdict and example.” As quickly as one is built up, they can be torn down, and vice versa, and any sense of security they think they have is never enough—not in the current circumstances (an argument can be made that it has never been enough since this country’s founding).
On every page, Oswald has created moments for reflection, contemplation, and empathy for the ways in which the past and present play out in our everyday lives and actions. While Irredenta may carry the spirit and tradition of past American ecopoetics in its lyrical precision, its fragmentary lines and honest images render these poems beyond the mere pastoral, and by depicting and deconstructing myths in the geographical and political landscapes of America, we venture into new poetic and philosophical perspectives, ones that will lead readers to question their identity, ethics, and their role as everyday citizens.
About the Reviewer
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of the poetry collections Dusk & Dust, Crash Course, In Bloom, (Dis)placement, and The Valley. His poetry has appeared in Boulevard, Shenandoah, The Rumpus, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. He is the Interviews Editor for the EcoTheo Review, an assistant poetry editor for AGNI, and a regular reviews contributor for [PANK] and Heavy Feather Review. He lives in Austin, Texas.