Monday, December 04, 2006

Dave Roderick's Blue Colonial

In David Roderick’s debut poetry collection, Blue Colonial (The American Poetry Review), language is literally a tool for digging into a past that is both personal and historical. In the opening poem, “Excavation of the John Alden House,” Roderick hands us the letters of the alphabet and sends us into the dirt:

We needed an alphabet to get our grid laid out.
Then we tore grass from the site and found
a pike-head, a spoon, a key with a hollow shank.
Voices behind us chipped into the ground,

Throughout the collection, Roderick continues to unearth treasures buried in two different places. The first is the historical landscape of New England and specifically the area around Plymouth, Massachusetts (Roderick’s childhood home).

In poems like “William Bradford Drafting Of Plimoth Plantation,” “John Billington’s Conversion,” and “Priscilla Alden’s Sickness,” the past is made personal. In “William Bradford Drafting Of Plymouth Plantation,” we are brought into William Bradford’s house as he writes. Through carefully balanced detail, Roderick slowly invites us closer until we see “breath/stream from his nostrils,” and “his lips quivering/like the flame that lights his page./Because this is the way history/ was written back then.” History is not just written on the page, it is first lived and then hidden away in the dirt.

Roderick does not limit himself to the writers of history; he inhabits the concerns of the women as they set foot in Massachusetts for the first time, bringing the artifacts we will later uncover.

A line of goodwives climbing the dune’s spine.
They have baskets or children
in their arms, iron pots, spools.
They walk toward hornpout and otter fat,
Toward the gleam of a minted name
but above them the sky
is spoiled cream, clabber from the bottom of a pail.

These are not idle concerns; food, family, and legacy speak to us all.

As Roderick mines the other important theme of this collection, the past is personal:

If I become her son, which I will,
if I become her last line,
which I will, if I grow
into her visible grief,
which I will, I will
she can push me into mulch
around mongrel trees
or bury me in the beach-stone square.

Roderick, digging into the intersections between his childhood in Plymouth (growing up in the blue colonial house of the title poem) and the historical heritage of New England, sees “as a mole sees: diaphanous/ bird calls, sounds to guide his blindness.” Here in the darkness of his own past, Roderick returns to language in a series of three “self-portraits” to give shape to an experience not often encountered in poetry: that of baby in womb.

But it would be remiss to portray Blue Colonial as completely dark. Roderick, after all, paints himself as “the tickler’s son,” and his work often ripples with his trademark wry, quirky humor. “The Makers of the American Language” lists various men of the new world: “Shit shovelers./ Seed-sowing hands when the crabapple buds/ grew as big of as the balls of a bull.”

Whether in the sheer loveliness of many of the sounds (“Strangers. Saints. Blazers of sphagnum and sap”) or his honest childhood exploits in the title poem, “Blue Colonial,” (I was bored until I began rigging catastrophes”), Roderick’s poetry is always a joy to read. It is perhaps for these reasons the book was chosen as the APR/Honickman First Book winner. Or it may be why Robert Pinsky wrote the introduction. But for whatever reason you pick up Roderick’s language tools and begin digging, you will not be disappointed by what treasures lay down deep.