I’ve heard Atsuro Riley read publicly only once, at AWP in 2016, as part of the lineup of Whiting Award winners. Before that, I had heard him read a single poem, “Sunder,” for a 2011 Poetry podcast. Riley’s voice, its Southern slant and cadence, brings an extra layer to the song of his poetry, but the song is the main event. The citation for his 2011 Kate Tufts Award explains: “Riley’s poems are saturated with the tastes and textures, the heft and drag and slippery joys of words-as-things.” The judges go on to say that Riley’s is “[l]anguage you can chew.” Indeed, his inclination toward earthy, single-syllable Anglo-Saxon words that are heavier on consonants than vowels, and his use of kenning to merge ideas, like “flint-chant” and “yesterdaddy,” result in words that not only sound palpable, but make the mouth that speaks them stop and take notice.
Like many who have reviewed his work, the Kate Tufts judges compare Riley to Gerard Manley Hopkins, calling Riley “a fabulous latter-day incarnation,” one “for whom the material world—everything that flies and creeps and burrows and shimmers—and the material world of words are the substance and occasion of unending praise.” Certainly, Romey’s Order, the book honored by this award, sparks with joy, especially as it is told through the point of view of a young boy who greets the natural world with awe. The speaker is a bit wary of his fellow humans, but his pre-coming-of-age point of view allows readers to see the world as wondrous, if not always worthy of “unending praise.” Praise, however, feels distant, if not absent, from Riley’s recent collection, Heard-Hoard. The books share a landscape and a timeline. Both take place in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, their environs populated with veterans who speak of “Nam time,” of hiding in and crawling out of holes. The inclusion of the poem “Clary” in both collections, about a woman who pushes a cart made of an old oak trunk, also suggests a linked cast of characters. Despite this overlap, Heard-Hoard seems to reflect a different time ecologically, socially, and politically. Riley may have always intended to create a diptych—light and dark views of the same place—or perhaps his second book reflects changes in the USA during the eleven years between publications. In Heard-Hoard, Riley’s word-wizardry continues, but tonally he departs from Hopkins-like love and moves toward clear-eyed cynicism.
Hopkins is the most obvious influence on Riley, but Seamus Heaney is a close second. Like Heaney, Riley favors Anglo-Saxon words over Latinate words. Riley’s poems are set in the South Carolina lowcountry, and he stays, like Heaney did with Ireland, immersed in the vernacular of place. The notes sections of Riley’s books contain definitions of things a non-Southern audience might not recognize, such as “Purlow . . . —a common cooked-rice dish, a mixture” and “Croodle—The low faint music of birds.” Both books also name in the notes some of Riley’s other influences, poets including Elizabeth Bishop, Amy Clampitt, Emily Dickinson, and Wallace Stevens, whose morphed lines occasionally flicker in Riley’s work.
As a person, Riley is private; he does not have public social media accounts, he has given few interviews, and even his bio on his books and website is brief. Once, after describing him to a student who wanted a poetry book recommendation, I realized I ’d created a fictional backstory for Riley—largely based on the titular Romey of Romey’s Order. Still, I am eager to introduce readers to Riley, so when people ask that impossible-to-answer question—“what is your favorite book of poetry?”—Romey’s Order remains my answer. I use a handful of poems from that collection every year with my high school juniors and seniors in their poetry, nonfiction, and fiction writing electives, pointing them toward language that feels both wondrous and precise, urging them to find the words that evoke fully textured places and finely shaded people. Each time I read Riley with them, they see something I had not seen before, a quirk of syntax, a conflict within a character.
There are poets of place, voice-driven poets, and poets who paint portraits. There are poetic sequences and novels-in-verse in which drama unfolds. There are poets, like Hopkins, who infuse the world with explosive music as in this line from “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”: “Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s / Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name.” But Atsuro Riley does it all: plot, place, people. In his first collection, a wonder-eyed child tells stories of a place that adult readers understand is laced with darkness. In his second book, adult voices pull back the curtain and show the ugly underbelly of that same place. In both, music is the fabric of being.
Many poets build worlds within individual poems, but in Romey’s Order, Riley creates a cohesive world that spans the entire collection. It is at once the South Carolina lowcountry and the magic-inflected world of Romey, whom the notes section tells us is the “eye and voice of this book.” Romey and his parents, U.S. military veteran Eugene Hutto and his Japanese-immigrant wife, Kazue Hutto, are the main characters. Various townspeople make appearances as foils and chorus. The collection catalogs people, places, and things, and Romey introduces the readers to his world, making an “order” of it. Readers know more than he does, and one of the pleasures of the text is the resulting dramatic irony. In its use of a child’s point of view with an adult’s wisdom behind it, the book is reminiscent of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson. Like the protagonists in Cisneros’s and Nelson’s collections, Romey is a racial minority in a white community, and he must navigate racism. However, while the former two books are character-centered and invested in identity exploration, Romey’s Order is place-centered and interested in full immersion. It is a love song to the flawed but luminous world of a child, the world that taught him to sing.
Romey’s Order opens with “Flint-Chant,” a stage- and tone-setting preface poem, one of a few pieces to cast Romey in third person. Formatted as two prose stanzas, the poem looks and opens like a fairy tale with the words “Once upon a time.” Quickly, Riley complicates the idea of knights and castles; the magical happening here is that “a ditchpipe got left behind behind Azalea Industrial, back in the woods backing on to the Ashley, where old pitch-pines and loblollies grow wild.” One of Riley’s tools of world building is specificity; place clues like “Azalea Industrial’’ and “the Ashley” make this a landmark that could be mapped. The flora, “pitch-pines” and “loblollies,” give both color and atmosphere. And yes, the music. If the satisfying slant rhyme of the title “Flint-Chant” were not enough of an indication of the music to come, this first line, with its rhyming “ditch” and “pitch,” its repetitive “behind behind” and “back” / “backing,” and the gorgeous wobble of “o” and “l” in “loblollies grow wild” show us we are in for some serious song.
Romey, at this point called “the boy,” is also full of music. We find him “humming” and “knuckle-drum[ming] a line along his leg.” He calls into the pipe, “hoo-hoo! hey-O!” and:
What the boy called inside-oku called him back. He was hooked right quick on the well-bottom peace of the pumicey concrete and how sounds sounded in there, and re-sounded.
The ditchpipe is a chamber of music, a place where sounds resound (“re-sound”), a lovely double entendre. We see the boy inside, despite some discomfort: “Tight-curled as he had to get—like a cling-shrimp one day, a pill-bug, a bass-clef, a bison’s eye.” We see the outside world through the aperture: “Hanging in a green-pine O outside were sun-heat and smaze and BB-fire and Mosquito Abatement.” Riley ends the line on the flat, clunky “Mosquito Abatement,” rather than on the more musical “sun-heat” and “smaze,” so that it stands in contrast to the feeling inside the pipe, where sight and sound merge. “Inside there were water-limber words (and a picture-noisy nave), shades of shade.” The pipe at once becomes a place for flow (“water-limber words’’), a movie theater (“picture-noisy”), a holy place (“nave”), and Plato’s cave (“shades of shade”). It also captures the thematic bent of this collection—a child might find magic in a ditchpipe. Look around, reader, Riley reminds. Your music surrounds you.
The first poem in which Romey speaks, “Picture,” starts with place: “This is the house (and jungle-strangled yard) I come from and carry.” Embedded in the setting are the home’s inhabitants, Mama in the kitchen “boiling jelly,” and Daddy, who appears later, separate from the industry in the house. He “will river-drift down to the (falling-down) dock.” These cameos give us a taste for the two poles of Romey’s upbringing: busy Mama and layabout Daddy. The setting is imbued with both beauty and threat; the door is described as “kick-scarred and splintering. The hinges of it rust-cry and -rasp in time with every Tailspin-wind, and jamb-slap (and after-slap), and shudder.” The alliteration of “rust” and “rasp,” “slap” and “shudder” and the assonance of “Tailspin” and “wind” bump up against sharp cacophony in “kick” and “splinter.” All these words for place and motion are tinged with hurt. Even the baby turtles in the yard “are cringing in their bunker-shells and burrows.” Yet Romey does not seem fazed by whatever lurks. The tree he occupies gives him refuge from “tree-rats,” “tides,” and “lava-spit”—the latter two being imagined threats. He “will hunt for after-scraps (and -sparks) and eat them all,” finding the nourishment and beauty and consuming it.
Clues about Daddy emerge in the next few poems—he’s allegiant to alcohol and segregation (“Jim Beam & Jim Crow drive him through, like Jesus does some others”); he’s handy, building a hutch (“I reckon your rabbit could use her a cabin or someplace”); he teaches his son masculinity through shame (“My quail-call was too sissy-high by half but strong as his”). Most importantly, he’s absent. “Strand,” a loose abecedarian, describes Daddy as “Leaving. Left” and as “Yesterdaddy,” identified by the townspeople “hunching like a stray, Sunday last—underneath the Upriver Overpass.” Like a foundered whale, “he ’d porch-beach finally.” The speaker’s tone is descriptive and even admiring, though surely these episodes might bring pain or shame to a boy. Perhaps the only moment in which Romey’s emotional response can be seen is “One time I kerosened an ancient oak to lure him home,” which feels at once like acting out pain and an act of worshipful summoning—a grand gesture to “lure” a mythic creature.
Daddy truly comes into focus in “Map,” a two-sentence poem in which Romey traces Daddy’s movements in a succession of gerunds. The first sentence, “Daddy goes,” spills into the page-long succession of Daddy’s misdeeds, including “creek-shrimping and cooler-dragging and coon-chasing and dove-dogging and duck-bagging and squirrel-tailing and tail-hankering.” Riley demonstrates the distance between speaker and author in this litany. While Riley uses “coon-chasing” and “tail-hankering” as nods to Daddy’s racism and womanizing, Romey’s placement of these terms within a list of hunting and fishing activities indicate that the boy may be naive about Daddy’s inclinations. Further, when Romey lists the places Daddy’s car appears, “The House of Ham and Dawn’s Busy Hands and Betty’s pink house and Mrs. Sweatman’s brick house and Linda’s dock-facing double-wide and spine-leaning Vicki against her WIDE-GLIDE Pontiac and pumping for pay at Ray Wade’s Esso,” the litany of paramours is once again made more innocent by its bookends: a restaurant, “House of Ham,” and gas station, “Ray’s Esso.” Even the Pontiac, whose model name morphs from “Wide Track” (which debuted in 1959) to the more suggestive “WIDE-GLIDE” seems innocent coming from Romey and a winking reference to sex coming from Riley. Romey physically enters the poem near the end with Daddy “blank-blinking quick back at me and whose young are you no-how.” Despite Daddy’s rebuke, Romey again seems full of admiration.
Mama, known as Kazue or Kay, contains her own kind of violence, but hers is a battle of hard work. The poem “Skin” takes place in the kitchen, where the floor is described as “pink as a leg,” a place where “blisters cluster” due to “floor-slope and pipe-seep and spring-steady trickling.” Mama stands at the center, the industrious engine in the heart of the home “working the lard in—and dribbling clabber from a jug.” (Meanwhile, Daddy lies in a hammock just outside the picture window.) The “skin” of the title signifies both the scarred surfaces in the room, marked by “dropped (or, thrown) skillets,” as well as the skin of the home’s inhabitants—Daddy’s tattoos, Romey’s “pink mostly” marks, and Mama’s scars. “See those plum-dark marks, leading stepladder-style from her wrist-bones to her elbows?” Based on the portrait of Daddy and the previous mention of “thrown” skillets, readers might expect that these scars are evidence of domestic violence, but instead we learn that Mama calls them her “kitchen-tattoos,” treating each with a butter salve in the evening. Romey names “every burn-mark and blemish” on the kitchen floor: “Africa, amoeba, mole-mound, quail.” Similarly, Mama’s scars have names: “oven-mouth, biscuit-pan, chicken-grease spatter; pressure-cooker, pot-lid, pickle-rack, steam.” Mama is clearly master of the kitchen, but the juxtaposition of her arms and the kitchen floor, each with their battle wounds, makes her part of the landscape she inhabits. Just as Riley immerses us in place, he immerses his characters.
Mama’s pluck shines through in “Drill,” where she drives with “a fresh-forged license” and a “Kool-tip” in her mouth, at breakneck speed to the county fair where she will show her homemade goods. She’s got a “freight of gem-flame jelly-jars” and a “payload of pressure-torqued pickle-jars.” The poem opens with a single sentence: “Mama talks in this one,” and her confident words come at the end:
Do you reckon tomorrow they’ll put my picture in the paper
Will somebody do a write-up when I win?
With her use of “reckon” and her prize-winning jellies and pickles, Mama appears to meld seamlessly into the South, but as a Japanese woman, she is marked an outsider. “Act American!” yells Daddy when he’s “high” and catches Kazue eating with chopsticks, a thing she must do “Behind backs. Night-kitchened.” Later, “Scroll,” a poem written in sections, depicts Romey mooning over a book of woodblock pictures of Mount Fuji, which he “traced and craved.” Mama shares scraps of story from her childhood:
Once upon a summer-quilt, a girl-child. Kazue.
A chestnut-glossy ribbon. Kazue-chan—as parcel—trussed and passed.
Handed—more so as hot hibachi-coal—from cord-mother to (hired) milk-mother to skin-folks, foot of Fuji.
Delicacy and femininity shown in the “quilt” and “ribbon” soon give way to burden; Kazue becomes the “hot hibachi-coal” passed from person to person, likely because she grew up during World War II, a time of strife and poverty. Romey extracts physical keepsakes in a closet—“dish as koi (in fin-chipped china); koi as dish” and “sandal-shoes, wooden and stilted”—alongside evidence of his mother’s trauma. Her family lived in a bomb shelter or “bokugo” that they dug for themselves. Romey, who thinks in music, captures it: “Shhhh is the center-sound—and her shelter-hole—in Hi ro shi ma mushroom.” Despite this emphasis on loss and silence, Riley’s complex portrait of Kazue keeps her from being the subservient war-bride. Before learning about her childhood in Japan, we see her as the fighter in the kitchen, the proud prize winner at the fair. She, like Daddy, commands admiration.
The collection does not reveal how Eugene and Kazue met or married, and most poems depict them in their separate worlds. However, a few moments in Romey’s Order depict family love and togetherness—one is a portrait of the trio inside a restaurant. “Tablet” does not start with a focus on family; rather it starts as an “epitaph” for “Viaduct Meat and Three.” The speaker instructs the reader to create the restaurant with crayons and crepe, as if it is a diorama memorializing the place. In a sonically stunning line, the speaker asks that the listener “cut-shape and mucilage a crepe (and crimple-paper) back-drape.” The spotlight comes to rest on the family at the center:
Draw us family-style—and lightsome—drawn inside.
Upright Daddy, payday-spruce (and dry today) as daddies;
blossom Mama, peach as mothers;
Not only is this an ideal family moment—Daddy both “spruce” and “dry,” Mama “blossom” and “peach,” and child as “larklet”—but the listener is asked earnestly by a child to create it, so we become complicit in representing the family at their best.
Part of what makes these portraits compelling is the distance in them. Though Romey is at the center of this collection, he is not developing as a character or on a coming-of-age journey. He is merely the guide, and his access to nature and language make him an ideal translator of this lowcountry landscape. He has many reasons for grief, shame, and even joy, but Romey does not seek empathy or sympathy, which keeps us as readers in an observational, rather than relational, space. Even then, his observations skew toward awe due to the exuberance of his musical language. Often this is reminiscent of the effect in Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz.” In it, an alcoholic and possibly abusive father dances with his young child, and we hear about the dance from the child’s perspective. “You beat time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt, / Then waltzed me off to bed / Still clinging to your shirt.” The poem’s compelling music makes it feel positive, rapturous, even as the story speaks of something more difficult.
Because he observes without judgment, how much Romey recognizes the ugliness of mankind remains in question. In “Diorama,” Romey’s family attends the “Blue Hole Summer Fair,” and he is surrounded by the racism of his county-mates and his own father. At the end of a prose stanza about one side of the fair—the side containing “4-H” and “girl-beauties” who “try for queen”—he details:
And (pursed) gaggles and clutches of feather-white
neighbor-women, eyeballing us like we’re pigs’ feet in a jar.
I wonder does her boy talk Chinese?
You ever seen that kind of black-heded?
Blue shine all in it like a crow.
The white “neighbor-women” are mocked by the metaphor that makes them a “gaggle” of geese or a “clutch” of chicks. Still, they have the power of numbers. There are many of them, and few of “us”—only Mama and Romey. The two are mistaken for Chinese, compared to crows, and observed like “pigs’ feet in a jar.” To those who do not eat pickled pigs’ feet, the simile may seem designed to convey disgust. However, pigs’ feet are eaten in both Japan and the U.S. South, so in this context, the image seems more about objectification than about vilification. Romey and his mother are observed like specimens. Though Riley is clearly offering a critique, Romey appears unfazed, sneaking off to the other side of the fair, where carnival games including “Rebel Yell” and “Shoot the Gook Down” are housed. Again, Romey names what he sees, including anti-Asian slurs, but offers no commentary. The poem ends with Romey witnessing white, racist masculinity:
Also: circles of white tobacco-smoke, and bleacher-rows of (cooncalling) men who know my daddy.
—And there he is, up in front with some tall man, iron-arming two black-chested boys toward the ring.
“White tobacco-smoke” evokes the “feather-white” women earlier, marking the race of the men. Again, there is a crowd—enough to fill “bleacher rows.” The men are “cooncalling” and not only is Daddy a member of the white mob, he, in a scene straight out of Ellison’s Invisible Man, is forcing (“iron-arming”) Black people to a fight. Romey refers to the would-be fighters as “black-chested boys,” and it is unclear if they really are boys, in contrast to Daddy and “some tall man,” or if he is echoing the racism around him and calling Black men “boys.” Riley the author is clearly calling attention to the racism in the scene and Daddy’s complicity. As for Romey, Riley shows how a child absorbs and normalizes these moments—even when he is the object of them—because they are deeply woven into the fabric of his upbringing. And though Riley’s language remains tightly tuned, the tone of these descriptions lacks the exuberance of earlier descriptions. Romey does seem invigorated by the number of men “who know my daddy,” but otherwise his language around racism remains observational, rather than worshipful. While I can accept through Riley the little bit of heaven in a ditchpipe, I am glad not to be asked to see glimmers of beauty in racism, to have awe for the awful.
Riley renders beauty in so much that is mundane; I leave Romey’s Order with a particular love for a poem called “Skillet.” With words as heavy as the cast-iron piece, in a poem that is somewhat skillet shaped, starting with a narrow handle and dripping down into the round pan, Riley tells of the skillet’s origins: “Was mine-drawn / Was pig-iron; / —Is a cast-heft / Fact.” He transitions into the skillet’s midlife and then lands on its present, a spoken tribute from one who uses it:
Holds the heat hard. Rememories flavors: no warshing.
Carks and plaques itself in layers, like a pearl.
The skillet “rememories” all that has passed over it. Its “carks and plaques”—worries and layers—which should be flaws, render it lovely. In this, it is an apt metaphor for all the heavy darknesses Riley presents, those which gleam like pearls.
Heard-Hoard, released in 2021, returns us to the same world as Romey’s Order, but the perspective has changed. Riley populates this book with new voices—individuals, animals, collectives—and as readers familiar with the first book, our task is to explore the polyphony. The poems feel more compressed in the second collection, a distilled version of the first. Like his first collection, the endnotes are complete with definitions, and the table of contents comprises single-word titles, with the exception of five poems whose titles include the word “Chorus,” as in “Chorus: Lobe.” The mention of a chorus in the table of contents sets the stage for the varied voices.
The poems are bookended by two photographs, both taken by photojournalists. The first is taken by James Agee, famous for writing the text in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book of photos and texts chronicling life in the South, commissioned by FDR during the New Deal. The last is a photo taken by Jun Fujita, famous for being the first Japanese American poet, actor, and photojournalist. As journalists, each man recorded life as it is, not life as art. Riley’s inclusion of these two men, one a storyteller of the South and one a key figure in Japanese American history, nods to his desire to record a truth, one that is particular to his point of view.
Like Romey’s Order, Heard-Hoard starts with an introductory poem. “Crackler,” written in italics from an omniscient point of view, speaks about “him” searching for “the core // (the pulsing core)” and deciding it
is wefted, warped: a lit
meat-mesh of heards
What tales he ’d gnawed like seeds like sparks
Like the opening of Romey’s Order, Riley invokes the spirit of the book—in this case, not music, but stories. Readers of Romey’s Order may recall Romey also eating “sparks” in “Picture”; they seem essential to Riley’s symbology. The “meat-mesh of heards” is both grotesque and apt. “Meat” and “heard,” a homophone of “herd,” bring cattle and ground beef to mind: “meat-mesh” as carcasses whose meat has intertwined. But in the context of the book, the line seems to reference a community of fleshy sound-makers, be they human, avian, or other. The “tales he ’d gnawed” are both “seeds” (life giving) and “sparks” (light bringing) and those “live ember words” are the pith, the heart of the book. The language has the density we expect from Riley, but the lines are looser, admit more air. There is even a rhyme of “heards” and “words” that creates a kind of symmetry of the poem, which opens and closes with two one-line stanzas and encloses two two-line, rhymed stanzas in the center. While Romey’s Order tended toward prose poems and blocky stanzas, this book’s poems allow more space in which the weight of what’s just been said can settle. Many of the poems contain an opening and closing repetition, making them feel like prayers, incantations, or boxes that click shut.
If “Crackler” is like “Flint-Chant,” then the first poem after the preface, “Call,” is like “Picture.” Just as Romey introduced the reader to the place and people in the book, a “story-man” lures the crowd with his stories, waving a blackened cattail like a conductor’s wand. As readers, we become part of the collective “us,” bound “by lard-torch and ditty” and we catch snippets of stories.
Tale-flicker from his crackling throat; blackening (kerosened) cattail held high:
—Some say what she ’d gripped right then wadn’t vine but bullsnake.
—Hadn’t they clung tooth and claw to branch and bark.
—When the creekbend child got beat got hided fresh his mama broke her switch.
The stories share foreboding, threat, and violence. While Romey carried awe for the beauty in his surroundings, the speakers in Heard-Hoard tell stories bereft of beauty. Many read more like warnings or records of woe. Unlike Romey’s Order, where violence always seemed about to happen, this is violence that has happened—the bullsnake gripped in a panic, the branch and bark that no longer hold those clinging desperately, the switch broken on a flayed child. The crowd listens, enraptured, as the story man “lamps our night. / (Our dirt.).” Not only does he bring the crowd together in a festival of illumination, but he speaks the ugly truths, the “dirt” they carry.
While the child Romey seemed immune to misfortune beyond backyard scrapes, children in Heard-Hoard are not spared violence. “Sunder” sets up the story of two wild boys spending time by a river until a man in a truck comes and “Dieseled those boys off / away.” They resist—the line “Hadn’t they clung tooth and claw to branch and bark,” which appears in the story man’s “Call,” is from their story. This reinforces the idea that we are the listeners in the lamped night, hearing “our dirt.” When the boys return under their own power, “No body not them knows / just how they humped and grubbled home.” They’ve been broken:
Came safe home sure but blank as houses.
Came safe home. —as him. —and him.
—as (evermore) not them.
With a twist of Bishop’s line “safe as houses” from “The Moose” and a nod to Poe’s “nevermore” from “The Raven,” Riley creates a modern horror story. No one knows what has happened to these blank boys, lost to themselves. The entire poem is formatted in right-justified stanzas, emphasizing the endings, rather than the beginnings of lines. The italicized dialogue—presumably what the people have to say—is followed by the unitalicized proclamation of the omniscient narrator, showing that this story is not just rumor, but fact.
More boys go missing in “Striplings,” where a “passel (a poke) of wilding boys” gets picked up by a truck and taken to work in fields. The first section of this poem reads like a duet, the speaker telling the story in left-justified lines, and the boys, in right-justified italicized first-person plural, responding. Both the boys and the narrator establish the boys’ youth: “loosed from mothers // Farmed out for scratch by mamas.” They are too young to make decisions for themselves. The poem is not just an investigation of the expendability of youth, but also an investigation of race. I found the boys’ first line off-putting, “We call ourselves (our pack) the pickup-slaves.” Though I know children often like to dramatize having to work as “slavery,” I balked at this comparison to actual enslaved people. But when two lines later the speaker establishes the boys’ whiteness (or at least their non-Blackness), describing them as a “Pale (pink-backed) tobacco crew,” I knew Riley was opening a deliberate commentary, and I stayed curious. The boys are whipped: “Bossed by peeled-stick (breakback) donkey-switch” and though they are fed, they are abused: “The broad back-skin on the tallest boy / —a (ripening) welt-weave, a lattice.” The third section of the poem suggests sexual abuse:
Where the boss of us bore down
on us our rank of bedrolls on the floorboards one
and one and one eleven of us ranked sack-beds
on floorboards boots of black breath of the boss
The boss’s “boots,” a synecdoche for the menace of his body, is walking through the bedrolls. But what is his “black breath,” a more intense synecdoche, doing in the bedrolls? The first verb in the stanza tells us that he “bore down.” Terror builds through the count, “one / and one and one”—no child is safe. Riley’s language is not dense here; instead, he uses suggestion and whitespace to build intensity. The reader fills the silences with imagination, creating a sense of terrible complicity. This carries into the fourth section of the poem “[after-road],” where the tale concludes, not with boys “blank as houses,” but boys discarded. The poem ends with two stanzas:
And so the (heaving) boys got yoked and dragged
toward CANDY’S STOP
up Hwy. 52 one night
Taken together it reads, if not like many generations of race-based slavery (“yoked and dragged”), like modern-day trafficking and abuse that may even end in murder. The boys are “heaving,” suggesting they are alive enough to struggle, but the across-stanza rhyme of “STOP” and “dumped” reinforces the sense of finality. The boys end here.
Women are also vulnerable in this world. Given that Kazue in Romey’s Order mostly has her story told for her, it feels significant that Candy, of CANDY’S STOP, and Tetsu, a mother who boils seawater and sells salt, get to tell their own stories. In “Moth,” Candy speaks of leaving home because “To her who my mama was I was / pure millstone, cumbrance.” After a few stops in her journey, “This gristly man he came he buttered me.”
No I ’d never sound what brunts he called me what he done
had I a hundred mouths.
How his mouth. Repeats
on me down the years. Everlastingly
riveled-looking, like rotfruit.
Though Candy makes her escape and eventually makes her own life, saying that “I mothed / my self. I cleaved apart”—“mothed” being a not-quite version of “mothered,” and “cleaving” a brutal version of metamorphosis—the description of her life with the “gristly man” is a story of PTSD. The incomplete sentence of “How his mouth” speaks of the unspeakable. It is joined by “Repeats,” a word that does double work—completing the line it is on and beginning the sentence that follows. This suggests that his mouth—as a vessel for verbal and sexual abuse—continues to haunt her “down the years.” “Everlastingly” also becomes both a re-emphasis of the power of his mouth, and the descriptor of its horrid shape and smell: “riveled-looking, like rotfruit.” Though Riley’s language is already precise and powerful, he uses enjambment to further amplify the tension in the scene.
Tetsu also left home; in her case, “I been brought from cross the water far— / every bone a alien never not.” Like Candy she was not mothered; “My flint mama was no lamp to me,” which results in her lack of maternal inclinations: “What some got natural mothery / know-to-do unborn in me.” She was also abused: “On me mongst moss and spruce the uncles / and the sofu took their turns.” She instructs her son about his absent father, “Yes once you heard him down the / telephone (some breaths) the line broke off—” Without parents, without husband, without an inclination to mother her son, without a connection to this place “(No soil no roots yall clinch so hard / for home gon’ be my home),” she is yet another rootless person and lost soul. Unlike Kazue in Romey’s Order, she has not made her way in the South Carolina lowcountry; her story, like the others in Heard-Hoard, is one of loneliness and despair.
Tetsu’s story follows one told about a mob attacking another immigrant woman, someone said to be “some flotsam / from that load of ‘those’ what floated here by boat.” Given that there is a Vietnam P.O.W. later in the book, it is likely that this woman “floated here” from Vietnam. This poem, entitled “Stranger,” highlights the compounded peril of being a woman and a racial outsider. It is possible to map some of “Stranger” onto Tetsu’s experience of life in the lowcountry. Told by an omniscient speaker in one- and two-line stanzas separated by ornaments, “Stranger” unfolds its horror in tiny chapters. A leering “they” “congregate . . . In the dirt-lot of the First Baptist / or along by that abattoir off the backcreek.” Fittingly they are as comfortable at the church as at the slaughterhouse. From their perch they observe “her,” a woman selling bait from her cart. “Marrowwise what she was to them was / foreign-faced Not natural : Not from here.” They treat her both like “their snack” and like a danger: “they ’d pincer-snatch their change like she was hot.” They fantasize about her body, asking, “Have you smelled the hair on her. Have you / bagged a feel of leg.” They fantasize about abducting her: “You could always put a bag on her.” In the end the mob acts like a mob, unable to imagine extending human kindness to an outsider. Their fetishization and repulsion morph into an attack:
Possessed by slingstone fireball-bags of shit they torched her yard.
(Wouldn’t they congregate
By time and ire her rent-house formed a skin of dunt and char.
The end-rhyme of “yard,” “regular,” and “char” closes the poem down in lines that suggest the persistence and naturalness of hate. The mob is not responsible for its actions, as they have been “possessed.” They persist in congregating. The house persists, still holding a shape. However, its “skin,” a metonym for the woman, is cracked and burnt, if not demolished, at least ruined.
Heard-Hoard seeps with darkness. Even the animals cannot escape violence. Only the allusion to Emily Dickinson’s poem “Split the Lark” indicates that Riley’s “Craw,” which begins “Split the boy— his thorax, throat” may be about a bird and not about a murdered boy. And yet, the ambiguity remains. Poems read as prayers, and yet they are not prayers of gratitude, but prayers not to be beaten. Violence spans generations, as in “Rhythm,” where poverty and pain are passed along:
The time she bent to eat our dirt
The cane-pole threshed her spine.
Times I was made to bend to eat red mud (our dirt) her cane-pole threshed my spine.
Even the glimmer of hope in the closing poem, “Thicket,” is ambiguous. It opens like a pilgrimage narrative: “We come gnawed by need on hands and knees.” It bends toward some overt beauty in nature, but each time relief is offered in a line, the next line takes it back, as in: “For darkling green; / for thorn-surround.” The speakers seek “To try to know / some (soursharp) something about something.” The low and muddled stakes of their quest suggest they are near defeat and that truth, even “soursharp,” is enough. The piece ends with the laying down of burdens:
We grasp to suck to taste what light.
Let loose the bale that bows us down.
In another book, this would feel like an unambiguous moment of freedom and release, bowing down to nature. However, Heard-Hoard has presented so many images of those who are bowed down to the dirt, only to eat it, only to be “threshed,” that in the command to “Bow down,” lurks the question of whether the pilgrim will find peace.
Both Heard-Hoard and Romey’s Order immerse the reader in the South Carolina lowcountry, in a community filled with character, story, and landscape. However, in the second book, it is a tired and broken place. Romey’s world, if not actively inviting, at least feels exciting, gorgeous in its terror. In both collections, the beauty in Riley’s language is undeniable. It chatters with exuberance and discovery in Romey’s Order; in Heard-Hoard it moans like a blues. Both books present abuse, racism, and displacement, one through the eyes of a child, the other through the eyes of victims and scarred survivors. Perhaps these books pair like innocence and experience, or perhaps they pair like the individual and the collective. Either way they show a poet perpetually at the top of his craft, balancing music and silence to create power.
Like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Riley’s South Carolina lowcountry is surely part reality, part fiction, and one hundred percent truth. And in those truthful particulars, I realized that I see myself, my own home of the Rio Grande Valley in rural south Texas. I grew up also in a place alive with bugs and birds and wild growth, where the landscape hums louder than the noises created by man. I grew up also steeped in a particular vernacular, its phrases a mix of one country and another, sung in two strong, conflicting accents, word mergers like “fixin’ to” and “watchale.” I grew up also in a family that was ethnically mixed—unusual, remarkable at the time. I grew up in a place that was removed from technology, from cosmopolitanism, a place prone to certain violences and hatreds, a place rife with beauty. I have seen that world through different sets of eyes—jaded and fresh. Its music lives within me.
But didn’t we all grow up in a particular place, with a particular group of people, who spoke a particular language, where we were at once insiders and outsiders? Riley’s ability to activate particularity through song, to make a place so immersive that it must, somehow, be our own, is what compels. Or perhaps it is his love for words, their textures and tricks, the way he cracks them open like geodes and turns them sidewise until they gleam, that makes me like a child greedy for treasure, return.
*An essay-review of Atsuro Riley’s Romey’s Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 64 pp. $14.00) and Heard-Hoard (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021. 96 pp. $20.00).