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David Roderick


David Roderick
Dear Suburb,
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

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.

A Review of David Roderick's The Americans by Brian Simoneau, first published at The Rumpus

About eighteen months ago, we left Boston to make a new home in this Connecticut suburb. Many days, I am certain I hate it here. The near-silence of the neighborhood unnerves me. The sameness of the bakery-café chains where I often write unnerves me, as does the ease with which I sometimes disregard the disparity between the prosperity here and the urban blight less than a mile away. I can appreciate what others love about a suburban town like this, but the extent to which some of my neighbors love it here may be what unnerves me most. The process of settling here has spawned a combination of disgruntlement and guilt, but also a perverse fascination; at the least, I remain ambivalent about living here.

My feelings about David Roderick’s second collection, The Americans, are decidedly not ambivalent: I love this book. Yes, I read Roderick’s collection as if he’d written it for me. Yes, in poem after poem, I found myself coming closer and closer to understanding this strange place in which I have lost myself. But make no mistake: The Americans is no self-help book, no guide to suburban living. Rather, this compelling and beautifully crafted collection offers all of us a chance to examine the places we make our homes, to remember what these places might mean in the context of American history, and to consider how they might shape American culture.

The collection begins with one of six poems titled “Dear Suburb,” but whether these are love letters or a record of a break-up remains in doubt. Despite the speaker’s opening claim (“I’m not interested in sadness”) and initial praise (“I see how you exist, / O satellite town, your bright possibility) his suburb offers a version of landscape, a stripped down environment whose surfaces hide something more sinister:

     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.

The suburb may be a place for new beginnings, but it is also a place of destruction, a “dear untruth” we perpetuate by adopting its vision, or its blindness, as our own.

The next poem, “After de Toqueville,” sets up a comparison between history’s great explorers, those who set off to conquer new lands, and present-day suburbanites, those who are “happiest / when drinking and dancing and giving / our daughters away.” The poem asks of earlier pastoral visions (the virgin landscape sought throughout history, the vanished wilderness in our memory): “Did they ever exist?” Of course, the poem implies, they didn’t, not really. And if the suburb is the latest utopia, then its promised happiness will be illusory at best. To achieve suburban happiness would be to forget, or to ignore, the complicated history of violence that leads to such an American landscape.

Again and again, these poems refuse to set that history aside. The speaker in “On the Bullet Train from Hiroshima” enjoys the “privilege” of high-speed modern travel but “can’t shake” the memory of the atomic destruction that set this stage. “Love Field” and “Ambassador Hotel” invoke the hopefulness of the Kennedy era, but the history they recall is steeped in impending violence and the speaker’s unfulfilled longing for “someone now to save the body / politic, and a rag to mop up the blood.” In “Build Your Dream House Here,” the speaker’s suburban home seems a new beginning after years of terrorist attacks, war, and economic collapse, but eventually even the lilacs in his yard become reminders of violence and destruction. And the speaker of “In My Name” confesses his complicity in both the atomic bombing of Japan and the ongoing drone attacks in Pakistan, claiming such instances of violence as “the price I pay / for sleeping” in his suburban home with its pastoral-seeming surroundings.

Even when we attempt to turn away from history and current events to look for remaining instances of the pastoral, we are faced with reminders that there never has been a simpler time. In “Pastoral,” the speaker’s reflection on nature is broken by a memory:

Speaking of fields:

the Russians say

life is a walk across an open one

where mules are buried,

and men.

And where we might be tempted to say that even pastoral scenes contain evidence of the violence we inflict on one another, these poems continually suggest these scenes especially illustrate such violence at work: in our time, to create space (both physical and psychological) for the pastoral requires a clearing away of what originally occupied that space. No matter where we look (if we’re willing to look), we find violence and destruction, a history from which we cannot ever be completely freed—no matter how far away we try to move.

At every level, Roderick’s collection emphasizes these complex relationships between landscape and history, between the personal and the political. Roderick’s line breaks frequently surprise, frequently create space for ambiguity, as in the opening of “35 Miller Drive”: “My mother knew it was a fault to love / a place.” And the music of Roderick’s language is often beautiful, a subtle arrangement of sound and rhythm that sometimes reminds me of Anglo-Saxon verse, an alliterative music that sounds conversational at times but also builds to a higher register, as in the opening of the powerful “As When Drought Imagines Fire”:

Loot my point of view,

hove my heart

free from its hived booth

though I know your smoke,

its black blossom,

is a substance I’ll never become.

Moreover, The Americans is a collection to read from beginning to end, one whose poems seem meticulously arranged to inform one another—whether to advance a narrative line, to allow an idea to resonate more fully, or to further complicate the speaker’s perspective.

The back-to-back pairing of “Passionflower” and another “Dear Suburb” poem, for example, compresses hundreds of years of history. After considering the missionaries who initially appreciated the strange beauty of a new landscape but who ultimately “threw / themselves with great zeal / into converting the natives” in an effort to make the wild more familiar, the speaker asks the suburb, “What happened to the golden rule / among all / your shining objects”—the clever line break implicating the suburb itself for attempting to familiarize the wild in the same way as conquerors of the past. We are treated to many such moments, some subtle and some not, and the resulting echoes encourage us to reconsider the book’s questions about place and history, about the violent pasts that have shaped our present lives, about the deeply divided sense of self that begins to form when we look around us and demand explanations for what we see.

One of the best things about The Americans is that, no matter what lens they apply to our suburban American landscape, these poems are never polemical. They never engage in the sound-byte politics of the age. Instead, Roderick’s speaker—who professes in the book’s final poem to be “one for whom doubt is a clutched root”—consistently puts forth a personal consideration of what it is to live in an America given over to suburban development and big-box stores. Even the speaker’s declaration of love for the suburb’s “highways and lawns” (in the last “Dear Suburb” poem) comes as a confession, suggesting a felt complicity he cannot overcome. What finally emerges is a nuanced, deeply conflicted, and ultimately communal idea of what it means to be one of “The Americans”: to be happy in this landscape, in this cultural moment, we must “forget what fertilized / the flowers at our feet.”

Unable to forget the sweeping history of violence and destruction, these poems never feel certain of the happiness such a history promised. However, even as they preserve the compost from which our culture grows, reminding us at every turn where our communal experience comes from and where it will likely soon return, these poems do provide glimpses of what persists in spite of the violence, in spite of history: art, family, love, beauty, wildness. The brief “Eros and Dust” describes a man beside his sleeping wife; he “feels like a king / growing old inside his castle.” And the collection ends with a beautiful image of hope: the speaker unable to look away from a holy image, still reflecting on the possibility of new beginnings.

One of the three or four finest books I read in 2014, The Americans is an invaluable book for our time, one whose lines will echo in my head as I walk the ghostly quiet, haunted streets of my own suburban home and remember what brought me here even as I search for what might still be possible in such a place.



A review of The Americans at Coal Hill Review 



A review of The Americans at LA Review of Books


Poems - Bio - Reviews - Interviews - Reading

An Interview with David Roderick by Weston Cutter, first published at Fanzine

David Roderick’s the author of Blue Colonial, which won the APR/Honickman, and now The Americans, out recently from Pitt. You know those times in which you suddenly get sort of lasered by a poet’s work that came sort of out-of-nowhere—the poems hit, and hard, but you didn’t see them coming? That was for me how I received The Americans, knowing little of the book and then getting it, paging through it at the office and finding lines like: “What happened to the golden rule / among all / your shining objects—” (“Dear Suburb,”); and “It worked / for a while, their screened-in story, / where a half-deflated soccer ball / wedged the door. Drunk on lilac, / they cheered whenever a bee seemed / to veer off course.” (“Build Your Dream Home Here”). The lines of course give not the completest picture: in The Americans, Roderick language is incredibly somehow firm and flowing, and the sizzle offered has most to do with the big take-aways the reader gleans on reading eight or nine poems in a row (which is to say: it’s fine to quote the poems, but reading them all together offers a whole nother charge). It’s a great and humbling book, humane and serious without preachiness, earnest without feeling screed-y.

Mr Roderick was kind enough to answer some questions over email, the results of which are as follows.

Weston Cutter: In the most general/large-spirited way you want to address it, what are some of the things (baseball games, trains, taxi services, movies, poems, sounds) that’ve shaped you as a writer? This is very much the *influence* question, but spread it as broadly as you’re willing.

David Roderick: Wow, what a way to start! As a writer I want everything to be relevant, which means being receptive to the full spectrum of high and low culture, our culture. So: stand-up comedy, cell phones and apps, sports, cartoons, block parties and parades, parenting, graffiti art, shopping and advertising, book culture in all its forms, diners, pornography, cooking shows, U.F.O. sightings, the slow-food movement, blah blah blah—I could make an endless list. Walt Whitman’s large-spirited zest for life helped kindle these enthusiasms.

Traveling is also important to me because I feel more alive when I’m on the move. Way more alive than when I’m sitting at a desk hammering at poems.

If you’re interested in specifics, I can think of a number of things that probably influenced The Americans more directly: films by Errol Morris and Terrence Malick; The Wire; Italian Renaissance painting; championships won by the Boston Red Sox; the poetry of Anna Akhmatova; Louie; the 2008 Presidential campaign; early Bob Dylan; early Public Enemy. For a few years I was obsessed with the Kennedy family (especially RFK). I like art that borrows documentary techniques and strategies. (Can you tell I like making lists?) Finally, I don’t think it’s a secret that Robert Frank’s photographs inspired my new book.

WC: I’m really curious about The Americans: I’ve now read this one before having read your earlier work, and so I have this weird (to me) sort of dissociative sense of knowing that this is some other thing’s *after*, though I don’t know the earlier thing. I’ve ended up (unintentionally) thinking a good bit about this fact, how there’s precedent to The Americans that, eventually, I’ll discover is or isn’t remotely like what I’d imagined it to be (we all do this, of course; I remember the strangest feeling when I tore back through Joel Brouwer’s work after reading his most recent and thinking: huh, I would’ve seen this man’s stuff had I read these first). I guess I’m curious if or how or how much your thinking/feeling regarding your first book has changed with the release of this new one. Do you feel they’re markedly akin or wildly different? Maybe along those lines: just because you mentioned in an interview that (presumably) Dear Suburb was the original title of The Americans (or at least the at-one-point working title), and the first one’s also got architecture/abode stuff in the title, do you think of yourself as a domestic poet? That might be among the very lamest questions I’ve ever asked, and I’m sorry for it, but here we are.

DR: The earlier thing, I guess, is Blue Colonial, my first book. A lot of those early poems were inspired by historical research, especially material covering the colonial period in Massachusetts. I grew up in Plymouth, surrounded by all that history and myth. I wanted to write more to that mythology and eventually through it in order to figure out some things about myself and circumstance. I hope it’s a solid first effort.

In hindsight, I can see more clearly Blue Colonial’s narrow scope. First of all, almost all the poems take place in historical or contemporary Plymouth. But the limitations are also aesthetic: the tone, vision, and emotional range feel very small to me now.

So I wanted book #2 to break away from #1 in as many ways as possible. Obviously the newer book still has a very “American” feel to it. That’s intentional. But I hope that American quality isn’t provincial or domestic.

In an effort to work with a broader tonal palette, I wrote in modes and forms I’d never attempted before, like epistolary poems, love poems, ballads, prose poems, and poems with a political resonance. Those unfamiliar modes applied pressure to my language and made me hunt harder for threads of music that appealed to me. Ultimately those modes helped me write poems inflected with humor, anger, wonder, and disgust.

WC: I don’t know how well to ask this, but here goes: you have several moments of sort of taking stock or account of America’s past and misdeeds—there feel moments throughout when you’re like *claiming* or trying to take responsibility for some of the legacy (costs) of being American. Is that remotely accurate? If so: what led to that, for you? What led to this book being one that (seemingly) is maybe trying not only to ground itself in but *situate* the present moment in the past? I’m maybe mangling this a bit. Look: there’s “In My Name” which seems overtly about addressing what’s done in our names, as citizens, and there are enough “Dear Suburb” poems to make at least somewhat clear what those payments/deeds are trying to purchase for us. I’m sorry. Maybe this question’s impossible or getting away from me.

DR: You’re exactly right, I think, though I didn’t realize I was up to these things until I was most of the way through writing the poems for the book. A friend of mine, Alan Shapiro, suggested after reading The Americans that I’m trying to write from political feelings rather than political opinions. It’s a good read, and he says it better and more efficiently than I ever could.

Like Keats, I’m distrustful of poems that have too much of a design on their audience. I imagine my poems as mediations, not rants or diatribes. So even “In My Name,” which you mentioned, seems to me to have come out of nowhere. In early drafts I’m just pushing language around and trying to generate heat. That poem features a suburban character expressing anxiety about America’s foreign policy—specifically our use of drones in the Middle East—and is probably one of the book’s central poems. At first I wasn’t sure I should include “In My Name” in the book. Fortunately I’d already written other poems that support that poem by laying groundwork for it or cooling the energy in its wake.

It occurs to me now that some of my poems come from a great disappointment I have in myself—that I never protested the war in Iraq, never went out into the streets of San Francisco, when I lived there, to scream my lungs out against it. I wanted to, but I couldn’t muster the energy or courage. So there are poems in this book that have a penitential purpose, I suppose. Maybe this is pure Irish-Catholic guilt rising inside me, but I believe that in America we’re all culpable, in some small way, for a sagging economy, violent conflicts abroad, a gridlocked political situation, poverty, and a threatened natural world. Particularly those of us in power are responsible for these circumstances.

WC: Part of me wonders, re the q above, if the bigger this-is-what-citizenship-looks-like push has to do with fatherhood, which is [obv] something I’m more than a little preoccupied presently by.

DR: Fatherhood absolutely intensifies that feeling for me. In the past four years my wife gave birth to two daughters. They’re the stars of my life. I want to provide well for them and want them to grow up safe, with even more opportunities than I had. So living in my suburban neighborhood in Greensboro makes sense. I’m incredibly fortunate to live in such a beautiful community (and in America). I hope I never take it for granted.

WC: You might very well get to this in the influence q above, but, along with the historical-situational stuff of the previous mess of a Q, I’m curious about how The Americans seems to be almost taking up older poems themselves and twisting them open, redoing them. “New Directive”’s the most obvious, but (maybe this is just me) in “Love Field” it seems like you’re engaging (both with the structure of it and with the content) with Jorie Graham’s poem about the JFK assassination. Maybe that’s a hopelessly dupey reach. Who knows. Was that something you were going after, too? Sort of new-blooding some older poetry as well?

DR: Poetry is a vital, circulating bloodstream. I love the idea of blood-doping some Frost and Basho and Hart Crane and Anna Akhmatova. I think we poets are always engaged with poems from the past—constantly repurposing them, stealing from them, juicing them, challenging them. In the case of “New Directive,” I was probably doing that a little more deliberately than I had before, nodding to the influence rather than hiding it.

WC: I’m curious about place (re: you, sure, but everyone). Knowing, again, not thing 1 about Blue Colonial, I can Google+find with ease (and would’ve guessed similarly) that it’s set in the northeast. You also won a travelling scholarship, and you’ve (seemingly) bounced all over—San Francisco for the Stegner and beyond, North Carolina, etc. What’s home for you? Do you like the roving, or has it been a searching and you’re slowly, ongoingly nearing yr deep-down radar’s beep? Is there a difference—in/for you, personally—in writing in all these places? Maybe that’s absurd. I don’t know (I’m so hopelessly Midwest I just can’t do anything anywhere else).

DR: Home is always Massachusetts, that provincial, salty place—where my fellow Massholes will run you off the highway if you get all up in their space. However, I love to rove. New places = new inputs. The great Steve Earle, who I saw in concert two weeks ago, said he lives in New York because he finds that the older he gets, the more inputs he needs in order to be creative. That sounds just about right to me. I guess I’m a restless dude… that restlessness comes through in The Americans. I worry I’ll always be restless.

As for the writing, my habits adjust depending on circumstances. I can write anywhere as long as I have a space for my laptop, notebooks, and books. I tend to do most of my writing these days in coffee shops.

WC: Do you like doing the interviews you do on The Rumpus? That’s not what I mean: what about them do you like? Do you enjoy the give/take with other writers? It seems—maybe this is untrue—like a much more fun, freewheeling, informal setting for talking about poetry—poetry that doesn’t take itself super seriously. I don’t know. (I apologize for continually falling back on that sort of shruggy I-don’t-know; it’s the end of the school day, I slept 5 hours, and and and). I guess I’m mostly curious about how folks who do poetry get involved in poetry-ish things, stuff having to do with poetry, that isn’t Poetry Itself.

DR: I love doing The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show! Freewheeling, yes—the show’s objective is to introduce a broad audience to the real human beings behind the poems. I’ve spoken to Oliver de la Paz about his books but also his video game obsession. Katie Peterson chatted with me about siblinghood and competitive board games. With Danny Anderson I talked baseball, politics, and poetry. I enjoy that sort of casual give and take.

WC: What’s the view out your window?

DR: What seems to be a small, serene backyard. I know for a fact, however, there’s some fierce wildlife living in and around our lame-ass garden. Mosquitoes (including nasty little bastards called “no-see-ums”), rabbits, chipmunks, slugs and beetles and snails, cats, squirrels galore, semi-harmless-looking snakes, and lots of birds on the make. My kids are delighted by all of it. I’m glad they drag me out there to remind me how wild it actually is.


An audio interview with David Roderick


A reading by David Roderick at Bazaar Writers Salon
A reading by David Roderick at Peninsula Literary Series

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David Roderick

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