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Dana JenningsEven read silently, Mr. Riley's delicious words roll and roil in the mouth.
—The New York Times
Romey's Order is an indelible sequence of poems voiced by an invented (and inventive) boy-speaker called Romey, set alongside a river in the South Carolina lowcountry.
As the word-furious eye and voice of these poems, Romey urgently records--and tries to order--the objects, inscape, injuries, and idiom of his "blood-home" and childhood world. Sounding out the nerves and nodes of language to transform "every burn-mark and blemish," to “bind our river-wrack and leavings," Romey seeks to forge finally (if even for a moment) a chord in which he might live. Intently visceral, aural, oral, Atsuro Riley's poems bristle with musical and imaginative pleasures, with story-telling and picture-making of a new and wholly unexpected kind.
— Jim Schley
— David Barker
— Dana Jennings
— David Mason
— Dominic Luxford
"Originality is easier said than done. Most works of art, like most consumer goods, are versions or outright imitations. In contemporary poetry, even the so-called experimental often seems derivative and weighted with conventions. But when a new book of poems is as different from precedents as Atsuro Riley's Romey's Order, readers should take special notice."
Once upon a time 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. A mild pesticide-mist was falling and mingling with paper-mill smell and creosote oil the morning he found it. The boy shook and sheltered in its mouth awhile —hoo-hoo! hey-O!— and bent and went on in. It was like a cave but clean. He C-curved his spine against one wall to fit, and humming something, sucked his shirttail. He tuned his eyes to what low light there was and knuckle-drummed a line along his legs.
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. Tight-curled as he had to get —like a cling-shrimp one day, a pill-bug, a bass-clef, a bison's eye; an abalone (ocean-ear!), antler-arc, Ark-ant, apostrophe another— sure as clocks a cool clear under-creek would rise, and rinse him through, and runnel free. Hanging in a green-pine O outside were sun-heat and smaze and BB-fire and Mosquito Abatement. Inside there were water-limber words (and a picture-noisy nave), shades of shade.
This is the house (and jungle-strangled yard) I come from and carry.
The air out here is supper-singed (and bruise-tingeing) and close. From where I'm hid (a perfect Y-crotch perch of medicine-smelling sweet-gum), I can belly-worry this (welted) branch and watch for swells (and coming squalls) along our elbow-curve of river, or I can hunker-turn and brace my trunk and limbs —and face my home.
Our roof is crimp-ribbed (and buckling) tin, and tar.
Our (in-warped) wooden porch-door is 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.
Our steps are slabs of cinder-crush and -temper, tamped and cooled.
See that funnel-blur of color in the red-gold glass? —Mama, mainly: boiling jelly. She's the apron-yellow (rickracked) plaid in there, and stove-coil coral; the quick silver blade-flash, plus the (magma-brimming) ladle-splash; that's her behind the bramble-berry purple, sieved and stored.
Out here, crickets are cricking their legs. Turtlets are cringing in their bunker-shells and burrows. Once-bedded nightcrawling worms are nerving up through beanvine-roots (and moonvines), —and dew-shining now, and cursive:
Mama will pressure-cook and scald and pan-scorch and frizzle.
Daddy will river-drift down to the (falling-down) dock.
I myself will monkey-shinny so high no bark-burns (or tree-rats, or tides) or lava-spit can reach me.
I will hunt for after-scraps (and -sparks) and eat them all.
A bright-hot morning; me and Daddy; a fever-cloud of glassy-eyed iridescent flies. Up ahead, invisible heat-devils waver over our (brownbottle) boomerang of river; our rank-pink curves of bait-bucket chicken-neck marinate, and jellify, and stew.
We are walking the oyster-shell zig-path from my blood-home to the water, three hundred and eleven crunch-steps from back door to dock. This is Daddy's day off, our day for blue-crabbing. That neon hum you're hearing? —The colored jinks of flies.
They're all here today, every local-grown species, every flying insect with a taste for something spoiled: heavy-hipped houseflies and hairy-chested horseflies, bloated bluebottles, glossy greenbottles, dirtspeck-tiny screen-huggers too high-strung to swat. One minute back, they were hovering hairnet- (and halo-) style above my bald-headed daddy; now they are down-diving, and landing, in dark clots and clusters, on his eyebrows, neck-bones, knees.
Along in here, our switchback crumbles down to shell-shards and powder.
His breath comes out vinegary when he turns.
Now he's the stagger-leggèd man, sun-squinting facing me so his eyes draw tight and Japanese like Mama's. He is fishing through the fly-fog for my name.
Romey-boy ... he tries saying, slow-slurring it long, long, until the word-sound goes strange in the air and bends back on itself, like a shell-road or a river.
The sand-bar has shown up (and shone) and I'm home-headed; that's my crab-net, and my lunch-bag, and my yellow fly-blown bucket, dragging there behind me like a ruined foot.
Alphabet, sluice the porch.
Bind (and try to braid) our river-wrack and leavings.
Used to, it was cackle-berries and cat-heads with him when he dry-docked home.
Daddy: Mama, don't cook all the running out them yellows!
Me: And raise them biscuits big, for sopping!
Other egg-names of ours I've kept are hen-drops, and coop-mines (and -moons), and chicken-lights, and dumpties.
Here is the fillingstation-shirt he got from when he pump-monkeyed for money. The name-eggs (red-stitched and patched to where his chest would go) say Eugene on one side and Esso on the other. Happy Motoring! is tiger-tailed in script across its back.
Gas-smell's the main meat. Grass-sweat. Gnat lotion, neckwise. Ghost-whiffs of GOOP for gunky hands.
His hands (and mine, hammering) made this hutch. I reckon your rabbit could use her a cabin or someplace. Chicken-wire's right airy, and cleans. Let's drive some stilt-legs down to set her up, so dogs don't help theirself to supper.
(Instinct —they can't hardly help it— makes them try.)
Jim Beam & Jim Crow drive him through, like Jesus does some others.
Sure I'm evergreen for Wallace but I'm not no KKK.
Leaf. Leave. Leaves. Leaving. Left.
Have I said yet how mudworms (and flickery mind-minnows) live off leaf-chaff and blown bark-slough and home-grounds and gravel? Son, rearing you some is easy: they durn nearabout feed theirselves!
Time was —or truer, nights were— he'd porch-beach finally, or suddenly yard-founder, from nowhere.
One time I kerosened an ancient oak to lure him home.
The charcoal-stump of it.
The rain-pond, ringed with turpentiney-smelling pines (and understory-birds) and stinging vines.
My quail-call was too sissy-high by half but strong as his.
But his (El Camino, Evinrude) rooster-tail was taller.
—Across to the Sand-Bar, right regular. L. J.'s, up by Eight-Mile. The Dock (On Tuesdays, 2 for 1). Smokey's Darts & Gristle.
There was the trestle that carried the train that trusted the trestle that bridged the river that cooled the fish that fed the boy that watched the trestle that slow-cankered and -rusted and fell.
Wadn't that your deddy we seen —hunching like a stray, Sunday last— underneath the Upriver Overpass?
'Daddy' Eugene Hutto = verb.
(Plus, how to hammer, wire, and jerry homely words.)
Ex-anchored, for example.
Her hair is double-dyed the same blackberry-shine as Mama's.
Her face is egg-sized, and white as White Lily flour.
If she was a baby-type doll, the kind that talks and whimpers, I would pull on her speech-string until it was frayed good and gray-greasy. I would bend down and press my ear against the speaker-holes in her body's (probably) pink plastic, the way a doctor would check your chest for heart-sounds, the way a landlocked child might listen for live ocean in a shell.
But she is a grown-woman doll.
Her hands are all but hidden in the wide wings of her kimono; a wide stiff sash —clabber-colored and freshly sewn (and bowed in back) by Mama— binds her hip-bones, belly, rib-cage, spine. She's not quite one foot tall. And since she's kept up there, on the highest shelf of our glass-faced china cabinet (shiny cabinet), I'm knee-teetering close on a corn-yellow kitchen stool, pen-lighting her parts in the knick-knack darkness, candling them like farmers scan their eggs.
Her feet are sure tiny. The one that shows could be a peony-petal come loose and fallen from the hem of her costume, where a peony-pattern —hand-embroidered, yard-accurate, nearabout microscopic— rises up off the fabric like braille.
The blade-pointed lines, of course, are leaves. And those spongy-looking thread-clusters stand for prize-winning blooms three years running, big as biscuits in real life and pale-colored like milk or mother-of-pearl. And those fine-stitched silk knots, scattered all over like bird-seed (or, bird-shot)? —They mean to say there are ball-buds everywhere. And how tight-sealed they are. And how the pinch-jointed ants are sometimes seen going slowly frantic over them in the side-yard, crawling over and over each hard-glazed casing, pacing and praying for some surface-craze or opening, feeler-tapping for some way inside the skins ...
Our kitchen-floor linoleum is pocked some and pitted, swollen in a few places and (mostly) off-pink as a leg.
Dawn is cracking, and Mama's fingering flour in a bowl.
Blisters cluster over there by the sink, owing to floor-slope and pipe-seep and spring-steady trickling: a mildew-map will sprout, and spread, and blacken there by noon.
Now she's working the lard in —and dribbling clabber from a jug.
Down here up close, I can study where gouges have been dug by the hard rain of hot dropped (or, thrown) skillets: that one's a raggedy rabbit's foot same as Florida, this fresh one could be a tepee (or Fuji, seething) or a neat-cut wedge of pie.
Heat is rising, knocking and popping in the stove.
Sometimes I nerve-hover hand-sized square to square, nick-naming (and mind-mapping) every burn-mark and blemish: starfish, Utah, Pee Dee River; Africa, amoeba, mole-mound, quail.
Mama's palm-patting and -smoothing a belly-white (Bobwhite!) swole of dough.
See those plum-dark marks, leading stepladder-style from her wrist-bones to her elbows? —She calls them her kitchen-tattoos. Come bedtime, she'll bleach-steep (and breath-dry, and flap-dry) and daub each one with a cold cube of yellow butter: oven-mouth, biscuit-pan, chicken-grease spatter; pressure-cooker, pot-lid, pickle-rack, steam.
My daddy's hammock-slung (sleeping) in that picture-frame, (plexi) glass-shielded from coffee-fumes and the cabinet-door slamming. He carries tattoos, too: his (the ones showing) are inked-on anchors and bird's heads, bluegreen as blood-veins.
Mine are pink mostly, brownish-purple, some red.
Trolling and trawling and crawfishing and crabbing and bass-boating and trestle-jumping bare into rust-brackish water and cane-poling for bream and shallow-gigging too with a nail-pointy broomstick and creek-shrimping and cooler-dragging and coon-chasing and dove-dogging and duck-bagging and squirrel-tailing and tail-hankering and hard-cranking and -shifting and backfiring like a gun in his tittie-tan El Camino and parking it at 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 and snuff-dipping and plug-sucking and tar-weeping pore-wise and LuckyStrike-smoking and Kool only sometimes and penny-pitching and dog-racing and bet-losing cocksuckmotherfuck and pool-shooting and bottle-shooting over behind Tas-T-O's Donuts and shootin' the shit and chewin' the fat and just jawin' who asked you and blank-blinking quick back at me and whose young are you no-how and hounddog-digging buried half-pints from the woods.
Some nights, blank nothing:
The ice-box, milk-purling in the kitchen.
The eye-of-pine floorboards ticking, clicking, planking themselves cool.
That in this moment there is life and food —Wordsworth
Epitaph the Viaduct Meat and Three.
Crayon down how it supper-called —glow-belling, gloam-knelling for appetites—butterish-gold.
Cut-shape and mucilage a crepe (and crimple-paper) back-drape: of overpass-overhang, splinch- and sunder-ditch of feeder-creek, its oaks.
Pedestal coax-cakes in window-glass. Hillock fry-bird, golden-crusted.
We cook Good most every night! Everlasting Rolls cost extra.
Draw us family-style —and lightsome— drawn inside.
Upright Daddy, payday-spruce (and dry today) as daddies; blossom Mama, peach as mothers; larklet me.
Keen-pipit Snap-Beans, Pot-Beans, Sweet-Potato-Shoes; Collard-Bills (in Hock-Stock), Hoppin' John —and Okry Stew. Cabbage Pie, Cymbling Fry, Crowder-Peas in Cream; Cornbread (Tea-Glassed, Buttermilked), Streak-of-Lean & Creasy Greens!
These twigs stand for clothesline-pines. First thing back when our lot was new, Mama ax-hacked them naked of their lower limbs and switches. This scratch-piece of (variegated) yarn's in here for how she Cat's Cradle-rigged our trees with wire.
One hairy sprig of this packing twine could count for cracklings, queasy-carried. —I mean pigs' rinds, threaded on my neck like beads. Mama crystal-cut (and fried crisp through the night) and fine-needled at them like a jewel-kindler would, or a spider.
Q: —What did you learn at the Superette?
A: —A fret-worked choker draws a crowd.
Okra does, too. These dry-rattle BB-seeds are seeds of the time when her okra-crop grew giant. She'd pounded fish-heads into fertilizer-cups (and carved complicated water-grooves) and flooded us like a paddy. Dark groves rose like Vietnam bamboo. Cars came by to see her camouflage-green stalks going high as the house, and how the bristly-pointed finger-pods were not like food but human.
People pointed at all she'd raised. And long wood-sided neighbor-wagons idled and lingered. And one man leaned his whole self out, and white-flashed and -popped, and tossed his melting flash-cube. And Mama lifted up this skirt to hide her eyes.
The one time we saw local snow I laid some by for later. Owl, here is what I make with what I saved:
A yard same as mine but White white, Vines and house and sweet-gums Smothered.
A paper-doll hedge of Snow-selves, all Bald of ears and eyes.
Mama favors this closet for a cellar-hole because of the oceanwater-dark in here, and cool.
I know it like the shape of my head.
The brine-grained ham-body —hanging, for long-keeping, where the shirts should go— tastes of pinkwhelk-shells or brain-coral (pocket-squirreled by me and sucked for salt), or crying. Her boulder-bellied hoard-sacks of flour for biscuits (White Lily), cornmeal (Red Leghorn), and rice (The Rose of Carolina) offer cradle-coves and -crannies on the floor.
Pacifying moves in waves. Black blank as graves for the longest time can color-bloom and -school of a sudden, like a shelf-reef lured to mind (flush with jelly-lamps (Ripe-N-Tite), and pink-naked fish let loose) or pastures; calm green-grazing live-looking seahorses hovering can turn-tide to skittish (reared, and scattering) —or ash.
The shank-hooked heavy ham-shape is crustifying like a barnacled whale. The hall-clock's (black-cooped, but yellow) balsa-bird is claw-scritching tock tock snick, tock tock snick the latch and minute-wheels, recounting:
—What was boy was ham was humpback was bowhead.
—Is beluga, smooth as milk-glass.
—Is breaching clear to blue so he can breathe.
Mama talks in this one.
Here's us, backing down our driveway's maze of red-dirt dog-legs, her at the wheel (with a fresh-forged license), me turned around navigating, the yard black-dark but flushed now (and now) and now with brake-lights, her Kool-tip flaring on every hard in-breath, river-reek and oil-scorch and marsh-gas mingling, our under-chassis (and rear axle, eyeteeth) chuttering due to roots and rain-ruts, our rust-crusting Rambler swerving and fishtailing and near-missing trees.
At the mailbox, gears knock, gnaw, grind, find Forward eventually: we're missile-heading straight (more or less) for the LowCountry fairgrounds; here's us, late, loud, breaknecking her blue-ribbon hoard to the Fair.
Everything is home-made.
Excerpted from Romey's Order by ATSURO RILEY Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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