I’m not interested in sadness,
just a yard as elder earth,
a library of sunflowers
battered by the night’s rain.
When sliced wide, halved at dawn,
I see how you exist,
O satellite town, your bright possibility
born again in drywall
and the diary with the trick lock.
For years I slept with
my window cracked open,
wanting screen-cut threads of rain.
Blind suburb, dear untruth,
you who already know what I mean
when I praise every spared copse,
you were my battery, my sad clue,
but after I mowed the lawn
and watched robins chesting
for seeds, I couldn’t resist
what hung in the tool shed
where, with a pair of garden shears,
I cut all the hair from my arms. That need,
that scared need to whiten
or clean a surface: plywood or lawn,
and the spywall behind which I stood,
stock-still, and sinned against
the fly’s flyness. 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.
In My Name
Like the Necessary Evil and Enola Gay,
in a sphere of air that’s calm and mildly cool,
I need some last grip of blue to trigger
my sleep. It was technically flawless,
that mission, as they’d dropped a few
dry-run pumpkins with a bird’s-eye scope.
When I close my eyes under the drone of a fan,
I see planes rattling in the aftermath.
Smoothly soldered rivets saved the men inside.
At a commemoration the captain said,
“I’m proud I started with nothing
and made it work as perfectly as it did.”
Then, when the press persisted, red flashing
his face: “Hey, I sleep clear every night.”
I lie in another state, placeless in the air,
with the sound of occasional sirens
or barking dogs. In a magazine
I read about Predators over Pakistan,
our drone with fifty eyes named Gorgon Stare.
The men at Langley, bombing by remote,
call a person who escapes their fire, who runs
from a car or burning hut, a squirter.
Night is sometimes an acid, sometimes a cure.
In other words, homo fabula: we’re part human,
part story, but our mouths pass on in silence.
I think of the men who brought that silence:
Mr. Harry S. Truman, Captain Paul Tibbets,
who painted his mother’s name on the nose
of the plane.
My dream house circles me.
Peonies thrive in beds I forget to water.
With pillows I lie. A white cotton sheet covers
my chest. I’ve been told to sleep in peace,
where the trees are crowned with plenty
and where birds float through wood-lawn,
broom, and shrubs. Where a found twig
can be golden or mundane. To orchestrate
my sleep I take a pill, and as I fade finally,
at the time of night when the birds believe
they’re leaves, I dream of a path in acacia
season where the air smells lemony
and my whole day seems to rest on the limbs
of the trees. Suddenly, a siren sound.
Wind ripping the valley after a flash…
In Plymouth, spring of ’45, while the Pacific
squadrons trained, my father was born
without cataracts in his eyes—David Roderick,
7 lbs., asleep on his mother’s white gown.
There must have been milk and a huge cloud
of necessity in which they breathed.
In August, before he could talk, neutrons
sheared from a core. I’ve read what they left behind:
shrines’ ashes, and the boy under his desk
who sang all day while his classmates
fell silent, one by one. Two concussions hit
the planes. They roared away from the light
they’d made, the rain.
At night, when I falter
again, and the pill dissolves in my veins,
I think of Langley’s coffee, its infrared eyes.
I think of the Enola Gay parked in the Smithsonian,
where a woman smashed a jar of blood on its wing.
When I signed my mortgage, I also signed
for the peonies and for the shield of my yard’s
tall trees. The birds daub nests of twigs
and human hair. My potting shed makes its
own black sense of heat. Here’s the price I pay
for sleeping: Reapers circling a far-off village,
my drones. To eyes at a distance, a screen
lies always between a failure and a dream.
In other words, homo fabula: we’re part story,
part human, but only if our names are known,
and only if our names, when spoken aloud,
are pronounced correctly, with proper inflection,
as when a mother addresses her son.
Letter to Shara in Amman
A tree of despair grows inside me, strengthens,
on days like today when I’m the worst
kind of lazybones and Olivia naps in my lap.
Outside, birds chip the air. I should be
raking leaves. While pushing the stroller
this morning I felt the welling of materials
around me—airbrushed cars, a half-caned chair
by the curb—and paused when I saw a blue jay
flattened on the street. I wondered how
you’d write about its colors splayed
faux-angelic, its runty raptored bones.
I’ve always envied how you chance upon
a scene and make a tiny biography of its things.
Soon you’ll lie near a desert shore and with your
new son look a long way up into the sky.
Where’s your city? Do the mosques admit you?
When I was young I saw everything
through a lens of faith. 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 final friends—the wren and thrush,
made solid print for me across dawn’s broken arc.
That communion, that awe—I crave it,
but all I can do is watch football and stroke
Olivia’s hair. Last fall, a few moments
after she was born, I cut the cord.
The scissors shook in my fingers. I didn’t
feel the surpassing power I’d expected.
Flowers arrived from nowhere. She slept.
I miss California where we drank good coffee
and always talked about grace. Now I stroll
over the painted moisture of the leaves.
There are too many days when we can’t be
done with anything, when we dwell,
but soon our children will grow and point
to things, and remind us that a rabbit’s child is
a bun, and a bird’s child is a chick, and a worm’s
child is two worms, and a sky can have as its child
a forest, and a river can have as its child a sea.
-from The Americans
BIO: David Roderick's first book, Blue Colonial, won the APR/Honickman Prize and was published jointly by the American Poetry Review and Copper Canyon Press in 2006.
The book led to fellowships at the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. Following the book’s publication, David was named the recipient of the 2007-2008 Amy Lowell Travelling Scholarship.
The Americans, David’s second collection, was published as part of the Pitt Poetry Series in 2014. Shenandoah awarded David its annual James Boatwright III Prize for a sequence of poems from the book. A larger sample of poems won the 2012 Campbell Corner Poetry Prize, selected by Phillis Levin, Vijay Seshadri, and Elizabeth Spires. Natasha Trethewey says of The Americans, “The poet asks: Must nostalgia/walk like a prince through all our rooms? This lovely collection shows us a way to confront that question within ourselves.”
Since completing his M.F.A. in poetry at the University of Massachusetts and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, David has taught creative writing and literature classes at Stanford, the University of San Francisco, San Francisco State University, and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He currently teaches in the MFA Writing Program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
David’s alter-ego hosts The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show. He lives in Greensboro with his wife, the poet Rachel Richardson, and their two daughters.
An Interview with David Roderick by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: “Blue Colonial” addresses displacement in a world designed (rather than destined) to repeat its mistakes— the subdivision constructed of “rowed colonials, each the same / because the mind of a developer planned them that way: / decks too small for barbeque, monotonous shingles and brick.” As a personal narrative, “Blue Colonial” is a beautifully composed address to that innate human longing to belong even when we recognize the aberrant nature of our surroundings.
Obviously, the act of looking back and of returning via the explorative lens of the poem can be a redemptive experience for the poet. What is it that you hope readers glean from this poem?
David Roderick: I confess that I find the verb “glean” perplexing, because when I wrote the poem, several years ago, I couldn’t predict that it would find a wide audience. Looking back, I can now see that it was very much a poem I wrote for myself, and its central questions were more along the lines of: How did I become a poet? Why? Did any of my childhood experiences point toward poetry?
Becoming a poet was not a natural or easy decision for me. I didn’t start writing poetry until my mid-twenties because it felt like an indulgence as well as an act of rebellion against my culture and upbringing… the suburban cookie-cutter lifestyle familiar to a lot of Americans. I suppose that when I wrote “Blue Colonial,” I was searching for some evidence that I was destined for poetry, that I should allow myself to pursue it. In this sense, it is redemptive, as you’ve astutely pointed out. Because the poem is such a personal manifesto, I didn’t and don’t expect my readers to glean anything from the poem, except, I hope, a modicum of pleasure.
AMK: Do you feel that you write for a reader, to a reader, or in some other way entirely?
DR: Most of the poems in Blue Colonial take place in my hometown, and I was cognizant that family, friends, and neighbors might find the poems interesting. I also wanted to avoid writing a book that was too regionalized. My hope was that a broader poetry-reading audience, people who had never been to Plymouth, Massachusetts, might be charmed by the work.
To answer your question more directly: I write for myself, but I hope I’m also addressing a reader.
AMK: Is the poem “Blue Colonial” the thematic foundation upon which Blue Colonial the book stands? Is this how title poems, in your experience, typically operate?
DR: I had the title in place long before I’d written most of the poems. It resonated through both the historical and the semi-autobiographical terrains of the book, evoking the unique colonial history of Plymouth, and also creating a backdrop and atmosphere for the semi-autobiographical poems, in which the speaker’s tone is meditative and somewhat somber.
AMK: “Self Portrait 1970” is the third of a series of four self-portraits. Like a painter sitting before a mirror with pallet in hand, do you see these poems as similarly constructed reflections upon that which composes the self?
Is this a sort of mode that allows you to see yourself as a child born of “another child,” a trick of the “rabbit’s foot,” a “low line / of election continuing?”
DR: Yes, I think so. With the exception of the title poem, the semi-autobiographical or self-portrait poems came very quickly (and late) in the project. I didn’t feel like a painter while writing those poems, yet I think they’re rather impressionistic… perhaps more so than the historical poems. The self-portraits to which you refer depict my birth and infancy, so I can obviously only imagine those parts of my life. From that angle it was easier to exaggerate tone, character, mood, and setting.
AMK: Some of these poems address a negative relationship with your father as a child. I’m wondering how you navigate the slippery slope of such autobiographical narratives.
Do you stick to the absolute truth, or are you comfortable with incorporating the imagined with the real?
DR: Yes, there’s a father figure, and a son, but they’re fictionalized, embellished, as all good poems must be. I’m comfortable with incorporating the imagined with the real. In fact, that’s where poem-making happens for me, in the liminal space between the two. I find that if I hold too closely to factual truth, the poem comes out flat. I might as well be writing a diary entry. But the images and rhythms I’m working with require me to fudge the facts, to embellish the past.
Think of Van Gogh’s riveting self-portraits, for example. It’s easy to see that every depiction is him and only him, but there are also wild distortions of color and form on the canvas. Without his unique manner of vision and style, they’d be pretty dull paintings. I suppose I’m trying to use correlating tactics in my so-called “self-portrait” poems.
The truth is that I have a very healthy relationship with my father, even though he frequently bruises my ego by whipping me in ping pong.
AMK: The first section of Blue Colonial consists of poems primarily dedicated to telling the story of the colonization of Plymouth, Massachusetts through the eyes of the settlers. The second section looks more inward, primarily composed of autobiographical poems. The result is a book that fuses the search for the self with an examination of America’s heritage.
Do you mind discussing how these two realms came to coexist?
DR: Sure. I wrote most of those historical poems first, thinking that they were fueled by my common experience in that landscape and my desire to debunk many of the myths associated with Plymouth: the landing on Plymouth Rock, the first Thanksgiving, harmony with the Native American tribes, etc. Much later, after that part of the project gathered some dust, I came to see that I was also associating, in some small way, with the historical figures about which I’d written. They were masks, disguises I’d used to write about some things I wasn’t comfortable writing about as myself.
Obviously I hadn’t suffered through the experiences of the Pilgrims. I’m too much of a sissy to have survived that harsh colonial lifestyle, but I found, through my studies, that the members of that community must have felt repressed. In order to survive, they all needed to be on the same page. Thinking about how an individual’s needs and desires are subordinated to those of a community motivated the semi-autobiographical poems. That element of personal repression resonated with me and finally emerged without the trope of dramatic monologue. Once I was able to take off those colonial costumes, the semi-autobiographical poems emerged.
AMK: Was the book built around its title poem or was the poem composed after you’d conceived of the book?
DR: The poem came first, and then I slowly built the book around it.
AMK: Considering that this book fuses biography, history, memory, and the imagination, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on poetry in general. Is poetry a form of fiction? Non-fiction? Creative non-fiction? Or is poetry in a category all its own, allowing it to move around within these various environments?
DR: I very much prefer your last definition, Andrew. Well-said.
AMK: Thank you.