About eighteen months ago, we left Boston to make a new home in this Connecticut suburb. Many days, I am certain I hate it here. The near-silence of the neighborhood unnerves me. The sameness of the bakery-café chains where I often write unnerves me, as does the ease with which I sometimes disregard the disparity between the prosperity here and the urban blight less than a mile away. I can appreciate what others love about a suburban town like this, but the extent to which some of my neighbors love it here may be what unnerves me most. The process of settling here has spawned a combination of disgruntlement and guilt, but also a perverse fascination; at the least, I remain ambivalent about living here.
My feelings about David Roderick’s second collection, The Americans, are decidedly not ambivalent: I love this book. Yes, I read Roderick’s collection as if he’d written it for me. Yes, in poem after poem, I found myself coming closer and closer to understanding this strange place in which I have lost myself. But make no mistake: The Americans is no self-help book, no guide to suburban living. Rather, this compelling and beautifully crafted collection offers all of us a chance to examine the places we make our homes, to remember what these places might mean in the context of American history, and to consider how they might shape American culture.
The collection begins with one of six poems titled “Dear Suburb,” but whether these are love letters or a record of a break-up remains in doubt. Despite the speaker’s opening claim (“I’m not interested in sadness”) and initial praise (“I see how you exist, / O satellite town, your bright possibility”), his suburb offers a sad version of landscape, a stripped down environment whose surfaces hide something more sinister:
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.
The suburb may be a place for new beginnings, but it is also a place of destruction, a “dear untruth” we perpetuate by adopting its vision, or its blindness, as our own.
The next poem, “After de Toqueville,” sets up a comparison between history’s great explorers, those who set off to conquer new lands, and present-day suburbanites, those who are “happiest / when drinking and dancing and giving / our daughters away.” The poem asks of earlier pastoral visions (the virgin landscape sought throughout history, the vanished wilderness in our memory): “Did they ever exist?” Of course, the poem implies, they didn’t, not really. And if the suburb is the latest utopia, then its promised happiness will be illusory at best. To achieve suburban happiness would be to forget, or to ignore, the complicated history of violence that leads to such an American landscape.
Again and again, these poems refuse to set that history aside. The speaker in “On the Bullet Train from Hiroshima” enjoys the “privilege” of high-speed modern travel but “can’t shake” the memory of the atomic destruction that set this stage. “Love Field” and “Ambassador Hotel” invoke the hopefulness of the Kennedy era, but the history they recall is steeped in impending violence and the speaker’s unfulfilled longing for “someone now to save the body / politic, and a rag to mop up the blood.” In “Build Your Dream House Here,” the speaker’s suburban home seems a new beginning after years of terrorist attacks, war, and economic collapse, but eventually even the lilacs in his yard become reminders of violence and destruction. And the speaker of “In My Name” confesses his complicity in both the atomic bombing of Japan and the ongoing drone attacks in Pakistan, claiming such instances of violence as “the price I pay / for sleeping” in his suburban home with its pastoral-seeming surroundings.
Even when we attempt to turn away from history and current events to look for remaining instances of the pastoral, we are faced with reminders that there never has been a simpler time. In “Pastoral,” the speaker’s reflection on nature is broken by a memory:
Speaking of fields:
the Russians say
life is a walk across an open one
where mules are buried,
And where we might be tempted to say that even pastoral scenes contain evidence of the violence we inflict on one another, these poems continually suggest these scenes especially illustrate such violence at work: in our time, to create space (both physical and psychological) for the pastoral requires a clearing away of what originally occupied that space. No matter where we look (if we’re willing to look), we find violence and destruction, a history from which we cannot ever be completely freed—no matter how far away we try to move.
At every level, Roderick’s collection emphasizes these complex relationships between landscape and history, between the personal and the political. Roderick’s line breaks frequently surprise, frequently create space for ambiguity, as in the opening of “35 Miller Drive”: “My mother knew it was a fault to love / a place.” And the music of Roderick’s language is often beautiful, a subtle arrangement of sound and rhythm that sometimes reminds me of Anglo-Saxon verse, an alliterative music that sounds conversational at times but also builds to a higher register, as in the opening of the powerful “As When Drought Imagines Fire”:
Loot my point of view,
hove my heart
free from its hived booth
though I know your smoke,
its black blossom,
is a substance I’ll never become.
Moreover, The Americans is a collection to read from beginning to end, one whose poems seem meticulously arranged to inform one another—whether to advance a narrative line, to allow an idea to resonate more fully, or to further complicate the speaker’s perspective.
The back-to-back pairing of “Passionflower” and another “Dear Suburb” poem, for example, compresses hundreds of years of history. After considering the missionaries who initially appreciated the strange beauty of a new landscape but who ultimately “threw / themselves with great zeal / into converting the natives” in an effort to make the wild more familiar, the speaker asks the suburb, “What happened to the golden rule / among all / your shining objects”—the clever line break implicating the suburb itself for attempting to familiarize the wild in the same way as conquerors of the past. We are treated to many such moments, some subtle and some not, and the resulting echoes encourage us to reconsider the book’s questions about place and history, about the violent pasts that have shaped our present lives, about the deeply divided sense of self that begins to form when we look around us and demand explanations for what we see.
One of the best things about The Americans is that, no matter what lens they apply to our suburban American landscape, these poems are never polemical. They never engage in the sound-byte politics of the age. Instead, Roderick’s speaker—who professes in the book’s final poem to be “one for whom doubt is a clutched root”—consistently puts forth a personal consideration of what it is to live in an America given over to suburban development and big-box stores. Even the speaker’s declaration of love for the suburb’s “highways and lawns” (in the last “Dear Suburb” poem) comes as a confession, suggesting a felt complicity he cannot overcome. What finally emerges is a nuanced, deeply conflicted, and ultimately communal idea of what it means to be one of “The Americans”: to be happy in this landscape, in this cultural moment, we must “forget what fertilized / the flowers at our feet.”
Unable to forget the sweeping history of violence and destruction, these poems never feel certain of the happiness such a history promised. However, even as they preserve the compost from which our culture grows, reminding us at every turn where our communal experience comes from and where it will likely soon return, these poems do provide glimpses of what persists in spite of the violence, in spite of history: art, family, love, beauty, wildness. The brief “Eros and Dust” describes a man beside his sleeping wife; he “feels like a king / growing old inside his castle.” And the collection ends with a beautiful image of hope: the speaker unable to look away from a holy image, still reflecting on the possibility of new beginnings.
One of the three or four finest books I read in 2014, The Americans is an invaluable book for our time, one whose lines will echo in my head as I walk the ghostly quiet, haunted streets of my own suburban home and remember what brought me here even as I search for what might still be possible in such a place.