Saturday, March 29, 2008



Blue Colonial by of David Roderick
(The American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize, 2006)

Reading David Roderick’s Blue Colonial feels like a literary archeological dig. Through this book, we discover both the recent past and the past of several centuries ago, when the United States was first settled by European colonists. Many poems also reference the people already here when the colonists arrived, and several poems are so deeply rooted in the natural world that the reader catches a glimpse into the world before humans walked the planet.

The first poem in the book lets the reader understand the trip ahead, with a vision of a man moving through the late-autumn landscape. There are references to “a history that thrived / long before he had the legs to take him there” and a lost landscape beneath the world that is visible: “Under the vaults of creepers he moves, / and through a whole century of second growth / that shaped the land and everything beneath it:”.

Several of the poems talk about the excavations of historical sites. The second poem in the book, “Excavation of the John Alden House,” shows that the past is not that deeply buried. Workers pull out a catalogue of colonial tools and equipment: “We needed a new language to weigh each item: / a pintle and fork, the lock of a snap-hence gun?” They continue to work, “With cautious hands we pulled grist / from the past, turned space into negative space.” But do they learn much? The line that ends “a written history of clouds” suggests that much is lost, even though these items are remarkably preserved.

Many poems travel through a less-than-familiar colonial history, although the references to colonists are obvious from a reading of the table of contents, with poems that reference William Bradford, Priscilla Alden, Edward Winslow, and John Billington. Although Roderick does provide notes that give us some navigational tools for these historic poems, the fact that we don’t learn intimate details of these colonists in school helps to underscore one of the themes of this book, that the past is mostly gone and buried and lost to us, except in fragments and shards.

Roderick shows that none of us will be immune to this fate. His book includes several poems with “Self-Portrait” in the title, and each has a sense of doom. “Self-Portrait in 1969 (Fall)” mentions a radio announcing disasters, while the fetus grows, oblivious to the outside world. The fetus is called “Palimpset. Footnote. / Seed of a tired world.” “Self-Portrait in 1969 (Summer)” uses images of the garden beset by worms and insects to talk about pregnancy. “Self-Portrait in 1970” paints a picture of the night of the birth of this child as “so cold his [father's] dental fillings ache.” The poem ends with these two lines, which are more brutal than hopeful: “Sober frostbite. Felon wind. / The road heading off in two directions.”

Yet even with the knowledge that all life ends in dust, “The stones are grown over with moss, / canker-eaten, illegible even to the sun” (“Plot”), many poems vibrate with an appreciation for the beauty of our surroundings. Two poems about Thanksgiving (“Thanksgiving” and “Thanksgiving, 1621”) are the most obvious catalogues of gratitude. “Thanksgiving, 1621” ends with words of prayer:
“Thanks-be-to-God for the salted cod
                  In our storehouse, victuals and beer,
Jars of berries picked from marshes.
                  Thanks-be-to-God for these racks of deer,
The blessed gift of Massasoit, our friend.”

“Thanksgiving” offers stranger prayers of thanks: “. . . . Thank you for ducks that tuck patterns / into various codes, because in the absence / of sunlight, the yard spades to a saturate brown” and “Thank you for showing me how things grip inward: / choral frogs, sap that slows in its thermal sleeves.” This poem offers a wonderful definition of a poet (or philosopher or mystic): “Most of us hunker down for a while and sleep, / but some move around and listen for the hum / of a secondary life.”

“Thanksgiving” concludes by referencing the themes of so many of these poems: “ . . . I can hear it [the hum of a secondary life] today, even back / in my garage, where all the sills are filled with flies.” There’s the reference to death, the reference to a world beneath the world where we’ve built our current lives, the dimly recognized past. Roderick suggests that even language and literature, the comfort of many of us, may not provide permanence. In “Bait and Switch,” he says, “Maybe language will always be vestigial, a trail / of light in water. And rainfall an idiom.”

The last poem in the book continues this relentless theme, that nature will endure in some form, even as we disappear, like the hoofprints of a horse on wet sand. The poem revisits some of the physical places of the poems that have gone before. The speaker wishes “. . . to huddle down in the sinkhole / foundation of the Alden House,” and wishes to find “a charm to hang around my neck / and maybe thwart the hands of time.” Yet this poem (and indeed, this entire book) shows us that no one can thwart the hands of time. The poem notes, “The land has surrendered / to blueprints pinned to well-lit drafting tables,” which suggests that even the land is not immune to development and layers of history laid upon layers of disappearing history. But at least we have gorgeous poems like Roderick's to give us some consolation.


Kristin Berkey-Abbott earned a Ph.D. in British Literature from the University of South Carolina. She has published in many journals and was one of the top ten finalists in the National Looking Glass Poetry Chapbook Competition. Pudding House Publications published her chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard, in 2004. Currently, she teaches English and Creative Writing at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale, where she was recently promoted to Assistant Chair of the General Education department.

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