Atsuro Riley’s Romey’s Order

Central question: What does the South Carolina Lowcountry sound like?

Atsuro Riley’s Romey’s Order

Dominic Luxford
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In December of 2001, Atsuro Riley stepped onto the poetry scene, seemingly from out of nowhere, with a nearly perfected style. These were poems you would expect at the height of a poet’s career, poems in which previous efforts were transcended and everything mysteriously came together. Almost ten years later, Riley has released one of the most exciting and distinctive debut collections in years.

The main themes in Romey’s Order revolve around the essentials: family, food, birthplace, ethnicity, childhood exploration, and the natural world. Our guide is Romey, who, like Riley, is from the South Carolina Low­country, and who, also like Riley, is of mixed descent. Romey’s mother is Japanese and his father—usually shown with a bottle near at hand (and at one point seen “hound­­dog-­digging buried half-pints from the woods”)—is Caucasian ­American. Romey is a sensitive, imaginative, sometimes scampish young boy. He observes, considers, and explores, and these experiences seem to “make sense” to the extent that they find articulation—especially articulation through the sounds and rhythms of language (more on that in a moment).

A book of perceptions, ­Romey’s Order is almost purely descriptive, the poems almost completely grounded in the sensory, the material. “Our (in-warped) wooden porch-door is kick-scarred and splintering,” Riley writes. “The hinges of it rust-cry and -rasp in time with every Tailspin-wind, and jamb-slap (and after-slap), and shudder.” The relation of object to locale to cadence to mood—the relation of language to the actual experience of perception—is 100 percent pitch-perfect here. Over and over again, Riley simply nails it. And this uncanny ability to convey the sensory experience, the feeling-tone, of objects and phenomena extends outward into the entire physical environment. If a landscape or region could be onomatopoeic—if it could speak, had its own idiolect—the South Carolina Low­country might very well sound like these poems.

What makes Riley’s talent sui generis among contemporary poets (and what happens to be the chi of poetry generally) is sound. Consider: “Drupes of / (dapple-­clinkling) bottle-glass in trees”—a line that’s viscerally impressionistic, but where the medium, instead of color, is the sonic quality of language. In this case, the second line’s five \l\ sounds aurally enact the clinking of the glass. In virtually every line of this collection, sound and meaning interpenetrate. And Riley’s evocative range is enormous. Compare, for instance, the radically different material presence of the following two sections: “Comes Clary by here now // Body bent past bent.    Intent upon horizon and carry.” And then, against those stuttering, hard-edged lines, the following, a tangle of \k\ phonemes giving way to a series of rolling, resonant, om-like sounds: “an echo-tolling cast-iron skillet like a gong; // downrivering gone (gone) gone (gone).

Romey’s Order opens with an epigraph from one of Riley’s most evident influences, Seamus Heaney: “An order where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.” Riley echoes the line a couple pages later, at the beginning of “Picture”: “This is the house (and jungle-strangled yard) I come from and carry.” It’s a line that—because of Riley’s deft ability to convey the world he comes from, now an inner landscape, a sensibility—feels immortal by the end of the collection.

—Dominic Luxford

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