Under the pressure to meet someone’s definition of the hip or the relevant, much contemporary poetry can seem skittish, ungrounded, neither here nor there, dullingly thin. Mere, you might say. And such work often abandons what we could call the Old and the Deep, because such notions—ideas of wisdom, narrative, description, the poetries of steady light and useful knowledge—too often come to be associated, in a militantly suspicious and superficial and atomized culture, with the forces of reaction. With the backward and the bumpkin. The tragedy in such a situation is that not only does the baby get thrown out with the bathwater, but what we get instead seems neither living nor potable. What we get instead, as often as not, seems shifty and formless, unable to commit to any particular urgency or depth because all forms of commitment have long ago been deconstructed or debunked.
Enter Atsuro Riley.
Here is a poet who takes us so deep into anything he’s writing that Kay Ryan once said, “You don’t so much read Atsuro Riley’s poems as find your muscles acting them out. There’s no way to untangle emotions from smells, or tastes from hopes; no way to unbraid what is felt with the body from what is feared by the mind.” This is poetry as manna, meat not mere, the sort that will change you for good.
Riley’s newest book, then, may be the essential collection of our moment—what we’ve needed most without knowing it.
Heard-Hoard is the book’s title. It’s only his second collection. Riley works slowly, but like Elizabeth Bishop or Gerard Manley Hopkins, every poem he publishes is a keeper. There is no fluff here, not an iota of stuffing or half-bake. That’s a feat, especially in a time in which many are bent on producing what’s cynically called “content.” Over a decade ago we got his debut—Romey’s Order—and some of us have been waiting for this next collection ever since. Romey’s Order, a constellation of poems that paint a picture of a lonely mixed-race boy surviving in the wreckage of his parents’ lives and the poverty that engulfs them, began with a line from Heaney, a little prayer for meaning and stability: “An order,” goes the epigraph, “where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.” One way to look at the poet’s oeuvre so far is to say that Romey’s Order addresses the first half of Heaney’s line, which is to say it enacts the urgent hopeful construction of some kind of an “order” for the book’s central figure. Heard-Hoard, on the other hand, addresses, or draws upon, the second portion of Heaney’s notion. Here is the book of “that which we stored up as we grew”: the stories and bits of stories and bits of bits of stories—the “heards”—that make the soul of any human being. Of course there’s order here too, organic and ravishing as the earlier book taught us to expect—so maybe a better way to understand the new book is simply to think of it in terms of an ur-place, an ur-community. This newest is a book with a “we” in it, songs of many voices, many perspectives, coming to us from some place—some real place of the spirit—that looks a little like the South Carolina Lowcountry Riley comes from, but could well be anywhere. We hear from Johnny Pep, a former P.O.W. home from war, from “Candy,” the lost little girl, from a mighty and scraggly oak tree on a riverbank, from two brothers rent asunder, from a gang of boys kidnapped and exploited and savaged by their boss, from a girl who’s lost her father, and even, in “Creekthroat,” from a voice that sure sounds like the voice of a drybone gasping creek.
This is a book rooted in the syllable: each one weighed and, in the writing of it, waited upon until it pointed the way. Says the voice that may or may not be the voice of a creek: “I learned to lie in want / for succor-food; for forms; I gaped I gulped for what I got.” Every dash and semicolon and space scrupulously chosen; the punctuation like detailed notation in a musical score. And though there are only a few end rhymes here, Riley’s lines are richly bound by internal rhyme, every vowel and phoneme seemingly chosen for its audible and promiscuous relationship with its neighbors down the line. Like the people and beings and things given voice, the sounds harmonize in lamentations that bear just the slightest undersong of hope—if you listen closely. The score in this book, in any case, is a symphony. “Goldhound,” the name of the book’s long poem, means to catch hold of a few “marvels.” Down the line, truly, because sometimes Riley’s lines run long, sailing out. When that happens, each line often gets separated by significant space above and below it, so that each single strand floats, strong and feather-light. It can come to look like a ladder on the page. Which is actually the name of one poem, “Ladder,” lines sung by Johnny Pep, telling us how he survived war, how he ascended even as the poem and his visceral memories descend hell-wards. The lines draw, I think, a moving and powerful figure for the movement of this powerful book:
When stench would stain the mind the mind would branch—
When I got stripped & roped to stand for sleep I reined my hoss—
When cane-straps flogged us ’cross the field we’d call a tune—
(When rows of welts (still) grave the mind the mind will climb.)
JESSE NATHAN: One of the striking things about Heard-Hoard is the way it melds music and narrative. The way it refuses to choose between lyric poetry and the vibrancy of storytelling. But—what exactly is a “heard”? Is a “heard-hoard” somehow akin to “word-hoard”? And where do you imagine these poems taking place? I mean, you seem interested not so much in the stories per se, but more so in the traces the stories leave behind in our souls. The way we live among the many stories we accumulate in our lives, the way they live in us.
ATSURO RILEY: Well, you had me at melding. Meld being such a great verb! And the melding (melting? welding?) of music and narrative sure sounds like a perfectly good step in the right direction. Though it does give me a pang to know that even a decent-enough melding or blending falls short of what every cell in my body tells me is true: that “music” and “narrative” (or “lyric” and “story,” all imperfect inexact names for these potent primal forces) are in fact indivisible, utterly intervolved; one in lockstitch with the other, one begetting the other. At root-level, not separate forces at all—but one. I’m still hungry to bring this naturally occurring one-ness forth in a poem.
You’re quite right to sense word-hoard thrumming there behind Heard-Hoard, the book’s title. I seem to have “ingested” early (as the ghost of Ben Jonson might put it) the ancient image of a rich hoard of language, a living-brimming trove of the crucial word-stuff. The deep-rooted strongbox to be drawn from, full of “nubbed treasures” (Heaney). The unkillable under-source, all the way back before Beowulf: ore-loaded and locked but standing ready.
So what got these poems going, I think, was my own dream-notion, long-held, of a heard-hoard: the lockbox where words live, for sure—but also where all the originary forms and rudimental shapes must be lodged: the accretion of tales and phrases and verses and held-notes and songs; the heard-tells or tendrils of backwater village-talk and rumor; the exhalations; the silences; all of the piquancies or indelibles or syllables I might’ve ever heard or read or otherwise internalized, and (with luck) their in-lit rhythms, their musical traces, the designs they’ve carved (are carving) into our—well, souls. Anyhow, that was the dream I fell for some years ago. I’ve tried to be open to it and tune myself to its frequencies.
I don’t think I have anything useful to say about the where of these poems. I’m always much more in thrall to the lexical-creaturely-musical lifeblood of a given poem. What I could say is: Everywhere there is has everything there is to look at (B. Mayer). More helpfully, though, what I might tentatively say is that any filament drawn from my own particular-personal heard-hoard is—by natural dint of the familial-communal surround I come from—always going to smell strongly of the American soil and seedbed: right Southern most probably, immigrantly inflected, a patchworked home-ground of a many-grained English—its feet in the dirt, jerry-rigged, of a coons-and-snakes concreteness, with isolate flecks of tunefulness, purpose-spliced and raw-wired according to need. That’s the radicle we and our underneath these poems—America in tooth and claw, I reckon.