University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL, 2010. 54 pages. $14.00.
Atsuro Riley’s debut collection draws its energy from the collision of an outsider’s strangeness with the deep slang of an insider. His language is a dark mirror of the regional and the compressed. The poems depict the rural South Carolina of Romey, the interracial son of a white father and Japanese mother. An ex-soldier who brought his wife back from the war, Romey’s father works in a gas station. Romey’s sensations assault the reader through Riley’s disorienting syntax and sound. In describing the smell of Romey’s father’s shirt, Riley gives us “Gas-smell’s the main meat. Grass-sweat. Gnat lotion, neckwise.” Part of this is the familiar work of metaphor. By using “meat” in its familiar capacity to mean “main substance” but synesthetically joining it to smell, Riley’s description of the shirt becomes intensely visceral. The dead metaphor is revived, and the smell of the shirt becomes its taste. In describing a science experiment: “Salts and sugars slow-crust (and sharp-gemify) along meat-string in science-glass” (32). The images are clear, but the syntax is so unorthodox and condensed that the observations are keenly felt. Riley’s syntax defamiliarizes the images, bringing them back to the reader with alarming freshness and immediacy. Still, almost every word that seems puzzlingly colloquial throughout the collection—“loblolly” “okry” “rickrack”—can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary. Riley writes an English that is simultaneously intelligible and uncanny.
Riley’s major prosodic innovation is his use of word order and hyphenation. Riley constantly moves nouns ahead of verbs, disrupting the expected syntactic flow of English: subject-verb-object; subject-copula-complement. Riley forces nouns to act as modifiers: “I’m home-headed” (10). This is not unfamiliar. “Hand-sewn” or “Oven-baked” are perfectly familiar phrases. The eccentric syntax is immediately recognizable because it’s common usage, but only in handful of clichés. Riley reinvests this structure with new life. Twigs are “ax-hacked”; an awkward perch is “knee-teetering.” Inspecting the floor in the kitchen: “Sometimes I nerve-hover hand-sized square to square, nick-naming (and mind-mapping) every burn-mark and blemish” (17). At times, these collisions are not denser than conventional usage. “Mapping” is roughly equivalent to “mind-mapping”—and yet the urgency of the memorization is clear from “mind-mapping.” And “hand-sized” has an urgency “hand sized” wouldn’t. The hyphen forces a linguistic fender-bender. The second part of Riley’s prosody is using the dash to extend the adjectival quality of these modifiers across multiple spaces: “The house with the nick- and snigger-name”; “notch- (and nipple-) peaked.” This feels fresh and new, and yet it’s Homeric. It’s how epithets are typically translated in the Iliad and the Odyssey: “Wine-dark sea.” “Grey-eyed Athena.” “Rosy-fingered dawn.”
Riley’s poems are primarily landscapes and character sketches. Romey, his mother, and his father emerge as clearly defined and well developed characters. But with all the prosodic pyrotechnics, there doesn’t seem room for much else. Violence, decay, and loss haunt the book, but they hover just outside the frame, their aftermath marking the bodies and the setting. The danger of race hangs over the book. At the Blue Hole Summer fair, tucked into the carnival games is “Shoot the Gook Down.” The neighbors unkindly gawking at the “Blue shine” of Romey’s hair are eventually distracted by a boxing match between two black boys, Romey’s father among the men “iron-arming” them into the ring. There is more menace than danger, more fear than consequence. The physical discomfort and looming threats are accompanied by a kind of aural masochism, with snatches of language like “the well-bottom peace of the pumicey concrete” pulling the reader in. The experience of reading these poems is also the experience of re-reading, the Hopkins-esque sound play pulling backward while pushing forward—though ultimately the play with sound and syntax take precedence over narrative and character.