The influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins spreads out in a web across the face of the last century. Echoes of his stylistic experiments and quirks connect poets who, in style and substance, have no similarity other than an onus to the body of Hopkins' work. This goes beyond the parallel evolution of his sprung rhythms and the rise of free verse—or the similarity of his intense gaze and the inquisitive stare of the Modernist eye. What repeats more often than the ecclesiastical content or sonic qualities is the exhilaration of the exalted moment and the stereoscopic effect of individuality observed and the inscape—the self-ness—at its core bursting forth. Hopkins used this duality of beauty to capture transcendent moments when humanity and divinity sparked from friction; Atsuro Riley up-ends this by taking the constant exaltation of a young boy loose in the world and scraping it against the rough border of adult reality like a match head struck off concrete.
Riley’s first collection, 2010’s Romey’s Order, operates as a series of dramatic monologues from a young boy who, in detail, may seem an autobiographical surrogate for the poet except that he is so patient an observant cipher that he serves more like a lens than a character. Romey Hutto, half-Japanese in the American South, exists on the fringe of many worlds, left to spy on the adult world that laps at his shore, cracking the codes of his parents' wants and behaviors and the tidal forces of race, class, and culture that move these alien grown-ups. Romey’s reports on what he observes from a tree branch or the far end of a held adult hand is a mélange of hyphenated neologism and onomatopoetic alliteration that chases its own tail in splendid swirls of internal echo and portmanteau logic. In “Picture,” Riley shows the world from Romey’s perspective, hiding in the “perfect Y-crotch of medicine-smelling sweet-gum,” where he can observe the curve of the river his father will return from work on and then quickly “belly-worry” and “hunker-turn and brace” to watch his mother jarring jelly below. Detail builds on detail in a tumbling rush until it becomes difficult to separate insight into his mother’s internal life from raw sensory detail from imaginative extrapolation until all rise to the same pitch.
Out here, crickets are cricking their legs. Turtles are cringing in their
bunker-shells and burrows. Once-bedded night crawling worms are nerving
up through beanvine-roots (and moonvines), —and the dew-shining now, and
The world that Riley creates through Romey’s eyes is heightened to an emotional stained glass. At the height of the poem, his mother is abstracted to a “funnel-blur of color in the red-gold glass,” a flash of yellow plaid among the “stove-coil coral” behind the “bramble-berry purple, sieved and stored.” There is a precise, breathless confusion to that last line as it equates the fragmented view of his mother with her jarred preserves: safe, unspoiled, and vacuum-sealed.
In Hopkins’ work, the effect of this rising tumult of image and sound is to build to a transcendent moment of clarity and divinity; as the natural sound and logic of the language breaks down and twists on itself, abandoning set rhythm or even sentence structure, sometimes leaving the text literally gasping as it self-edits, the emotional truth is revealed at the center of the tangle. The reading of the poem becomes a microcosm of the moment of exhilaration describes within, the reader coxed to become as breathless at the penitent observer and speaker. Many poets influenced by Hopkins have embraced both the tools and sincerity of this effect. What separates Riley’s similar style is that these poems don’t rise to a moment of beautifully confused discordance and then fall back (as in Hopkins’ “The Windhover,” Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” or James Wright’s “The Blessing”), but instead maintain this heightened effect for entire poems. Whereas Hopkins’ poems offered split seconds of frenetic clarity born from contemplation, the child-mind of Romey lives at the precipice of insight.
There is a never-quite-clear narrative playing out through Romey’s Order, a growing tension between mother and father that Riley has Romey stare directly at and fight to process. “Skin” finds Romey at floor-level in a thicket of legs, finding confluence and being confused by the imperfections in the floor “dug by the hard rain / of hot dropped (or thrown) skillets,” blistered and bruised by misuse and violence with his mother’s own flesh. This is inter-cut with the contrasting gentle touch of his mother “palm-patting and –smoothing a belly-white…swole of / dough.” Other poems give mute witness to the mother’s growing awakening. “Drill” not only begins by announcing, in a rare moment of meta-awareness, that “Mama talks in this one” but ends with the image of her name scrawled in grease-pencil again and again on the same jelly jars that earlier symbolized her hermetically sealed life.
“Chord” takes this further by equating Romey’s father leaving, tires pealing through gravel, with the grind of his mother’s jaw in sleep and the crystal growth of “ire-salts quartzifying in the dark.” Enormous images move through this poem, battling against each other. The father’s departure may not be more than his daily work but it echoes against every surface in the world: the gonging echo of a fallen railroad tie, the “vowel-howling” of river workers, revival tents “hymning and balming,” and even further. And, as the sound of his departure grows, so does the mother’s crystalline resentment. Romey’s unique perspective offers its own commentary, undercutting both the agency of his parents in their growing discord with the image of the shore “perforated” by implacable generations of burrowing crabs and the erosive “gurgle and seethe” of the river. Romey may not understand the adult pressures driving his parents apart but he is the only one who sees the role the river plays.
Atsuro Riley constructs Romey almost entirely out of a vocabulary built of oddments, regionalisms, and oblique compounds that is masterful and unique. A description of a cast-iron skillet uses a synesthetic mesh rather than using sight at all, calling it “Born blackdamp, / Blood-iron” with “Trace-tastes of (blast furnace) harrow-smelt and pour. / Holds the heat hard. Rememories flavors: no warshing. / Carks and plaques itself in layers, like a pearl.” This simple, sullen object is bursting with chaotic history. While this makes it potent metaphor-fuel it also speaks loads about the complex mind which makes these leaps of association. In granting this remarkable observational faculty to Romey, Riley has unfortunately left an emotional hole at the center. Something in the warp of these poems hampers a reader’s empathetic response. Romey takes in so much and processes so little that some of the poems fail to cohere. Romey’s Order contains remarkable, perceptive, wildly phrased poetry that operates at a feverish intensity; however, that wild energy runs the risk of burning itself out.