- Blue Colonial
In the final lines of David Roderick's Blue Colonial, winner of the APR/Honickman First Book Prize (judged by Robert Pinsky), we see Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag Indians who is credited with saving the Plymouth colony from starvation, "standing in the hilltop twilight." Then the author stages his own departure:
Once I am through with my vanishing and he has blinked for a moment and stared, he will walk back to the river of the Great Time Before, before my mind came and tried to arrange all the things that were already together.
Roderick's own minor vanishing here is self-consciously weighed against the more portentous vanishings that he has tried to reimagine throughout Blue Colonial. It is this difficult balance between a past that is irrevocably past, and the past that is a stage for our own arrangements and projections, that Roderick makes available in all of its fraught beauty.
Roderick works as an incisive material and mental archivist. He moves deftly from early-American history and landscape to intimate yet coolly rendered self-portraiture. This balance of the historical with the personal is the dominant thread throughout the book; yet crucially, given the colonial setting of many of these poems, Roderick expertly dilutes what Charles Olson once called the imperial ego. Freighted with the weight of history, Roderick blends poignant landscape with a tempered interiority so that his lyric "I" seems to speak not for, or alongside, but within history.
Such an ambitious project comes with its own set of problems. How does one enter history? How to begin? In "Into the Empty Woods," the introductory poem that serves as the blueprint for what follows, the use of the third-person pronoun "he" invokes the distance that the poet would like to insert between self and subject. But in this move to avoid an overly presumptuous "I," Roderick's attempt at objectivity serves instead to rarefy the speaker in the opposite manner, [End Page 184] so that lines such as, "he walks back into a history that thrived / long before he had the legs to take him there," feel staged and overly directive. Yet this self-distancing is a crucial first move for Roderick: something to help the author enter the past, and something to help the reader distinguish between the numerous personal lyrics and the intimate subjective presence in the dramatic lyrics that Roderick superbly voices and embodies.
This brings us to a second, less obvious, albeit pervasive, thread arising out of Roderick's careful attention to who is speaking. From Massasoit's inability to form the l sound in his mouth, to the appeal that begins "Excavation of the John Alden House" ("We needed an alphabet to get our grid laid out"), language, articulation and communication are all concerns that undergird these poems. Meanwhile, the presence of hymnbooks, ink jars, quills and parchment makes the world of Blue Colonial more tangible while also declaring each poem's drive for legibility.
Indeed, every thing included in these poems can be read as a sign—from the memento mori that is "a wasp nest inside a skull," to cordwood to rabbit pelts to beans. Even throwaway objects are imbued with significance; each carries a secret world of its own. The broader historical renderings, along with a fine attention to minute particulars, give this book a quiet luminosity caught in the undertow of a eulogized past. If, as Roderick writes, "We need a new language to weigh each item," each object and fact of history, this book takes us a good deal of the way.