Boy from the Low Country

It is not often that you run across a style as distinctive and memorable as Atsuro Riley’s.  To say that something is unique is not necessarily to praise it–James Merrill, when asked to writer a blurb for a poet he didn’t like, supposedly said “No-one but X could have written this book.”  (I personally always think in this connection of Tom Waits, whose wino-at-the-circus shtick puts him in a class by himself, where one hopes he will remain.)   

In Riley’s case, though, the idiosyncratic diction and syntax are an achievement, and they, more than anything, make the lowland Carolina childhood world of ‘Romey’ (the speaker of his poems) worth inhabiting.  Here is Riley reading “Picture”:

(I wish he would go a bit faster, but it’s his poem, I guess he gets to read it the way he likes.)

And here is a linguistic tribute to his father, a shameless dive into sonic texture (read it aloud, of course–you might have to do it twice to get the rhythm just right):

Map

You will not, I think, have trouble recognizing the next Atsuro Riley poem you see.  That said, he is also a writer who wears his influences on his sleeve; even if he didn’t quote them, I would have had no difficulty identifying an affinity with Seamus Heaney and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  Here is Heaney’s digging, which has a good deal thematically in commong with “Picture” as well as sharing the feel for the “squelch and slap” of language:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/gcsebitesize/english_literature/poetheaney/diggingrev1.shtml

And at one more remove we can hear Hopkins, the poet whose influenced almost overwhelmed the young Heaney.  The way he throws stressed syllables together, along with the various kind of sound-repetition, seem to me especially Rileyesque, as in the opening of  “The Windhover”:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

[….]

(I recommend reading with a Carolina accent to get the full effect.)

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One Response to Boy from the Low Country

  1. Pingback: Some Books of 2012, Poetry and Non-Fiction | lippenheimer

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