The title of David Roderick's new collection, The Americans, points us to what he is up to here, a snapshot of the American psyche — a picture of a kind of rootless despair that pervades everything, but this despair feels both universal and personal, not necessarily "American."
Still, it's an arresting title, and the poem, "After de Tocqueville," in reference to the nineteenth century French sociologist/historian who famously analyzed American society and politics, reinforces the conceit. The epigraph, attributed to former French president Jacques Chirac, does too. "Nous sommes tous Américains." The phrase, an echo of JFK's "Ich bin ein Berliner," appeared in Le Monde two days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
So the whole world is American? Fair enough.
Indeed, there is a potent theme running throughout the collection of lives adrift in a material world, hoodwinked by a pervasive mythology that doesn't stand up to examination and actually blinds us to "reality." Five poems addressed to "Dear Suburb," punctuate the collection.
Though you live
inside me, though you laid eggs
in the moisture at the corners
of my eyes, I still dream about
your sinking empire twenty feet above
sea level, and the many things
you fail to see: beautiful bleached
gas can, tomato posts bent into art,
how half of a butterfly, cut crosswise,
still looks like a butterfly, etc.
The book title is also an homage to the photographer, Robert Frank, whose similarly titled collection of photographs earned him a comparison to de Tocqueville. Interestingly, Frank's book, ultimately published in the United States by Grove Press in 1959, was originally published in France with the title, Les Américains. The introduction to Frank's book was written by Jack Kerouac, and the poem, "After de Tocqueville," concludes with the lines:
Even in religious fervor, said our prince
Walt Whitman, there's a touch of animal heat.
Maybe only a truly great stranger can see it.
Said Kerouac to Robert Frank, You got eyes.
What are we seeing? What are we not seeing?
The poet asks in "After de Tocueville": "Must nostalgia//walk like a prince through all our rooms?" Must we be held hostage to a vision of "the good old days" that never actually happened? Roderick's poem, "New Directive," is a reply to Robert Frost's 1947 poem, "Directive," in which Frost mourns the loss of the simple joys of long ago. The epigraph is from Frost's poem — "First there's the children's house of make believe..." Frost's poem goes on: "Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,/The playthings in the playhouse of the children. Weep for/what little things could make them glad." Roderick writes:
Look for them
You'll never find their dishes,
their goblets or knives.
You gape at screens.
You're dreaming up places
where the real news is made.
Nostalgia: inventing the past. Poems like "On the Bullet Train from Hiroshima," "Love Field" and "Ambassador Hotel" point to other, sad, tragic versions of the American past. The latter two are about the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, and perhaps hint at "where America lost its way." If he is indeed making commentary here, note that Roderick was born in 1970, after these events took place.
But I don't want to quibble about "messages." Roderick's poems are frequently beautiful, eloquent, original expressions. Take that line, "Must nostalgia walk like a prince through all our rooms?" Wish I'd written that! Indeed, the collection is divided into two parts, and certainly the first part seems to be more about "the Americans," whereas the second part seems much more personal, to me, at least. There's a 5-part poem called "Green Fields" that partakes of Irish nostalgia, legends of the diaspora from the emerald isle, and Roderick also includes a couple of poems inspired by the Japanese Zuihitsu form, sort of stream-of-thought expressions without a form (the word means "follow the brush").
There's also a lot of noticing things in the world, the flora and the fauna, the stuff of the real world. As he writes in "Letter to Shara in Amman":
I can't explain what
I was looking for beyond the animals —
God, maybe. It had something to do with
my divided self. Crazy Hart Crane had it right:
My only friends — the wren and thrush,
Made solid print for me across dawn's broken arc.
It's as if these living things in nature — the Passionflower, the locusts — are the only "real," unmechanical manifestations of "reality."
The Americans is a collection of poems that gives pleasure from any of a variety of perspectives or intentions. Pick one.