The Believer Poetry Award
The Inaugural—Hereby Presented To
Romey’s Order by Atsuro Riley
Romey’s Order—Atsuro Riley’s indelible first-book masterpiece—opens with “Once upon a time,” and thereafter an entire world emerges. Set in the backwoods of South Carolina, the book is narrated by Romey, a young Japanese American boy. Through his unusually attuned eyes (and often with a fair amount of imagination thrown in), Romey’s Order presents a world teeming with mystery, natural wonder, childhood discovery, and—everywhere under the surface—the secret, almost magical power of language. Throughout the book, Riley’s evocative abilities are flat-out astonishing. A local county fair is “whiffs of pluff-mud stink and live gnat-pack poison, carnie-cots and -trailers camped on ooze.” His descriptions of nature, too, are exceptional: “Out here, crickets are cricking their legs. Turtlets are cringing in their bunker-shells and burrows. Once-bedded nightcrawling worms are nerving up through beanvine-roots (and moonvines), —and dew-shining now, and cursive.” (How a worm could “nerve,” and why it’s a perfect word here, we don’t have a clue.)
The collection also contains some of the most finely rendered characters in contemporary poetry. In particular, Romey’s heavy-on-the-bottle father is powerfully, and often movingly, drawn. The poem “Strand,” for instance, ends: “Time was —or truer, nights were— he’d porch-beach finally, or suddenly yard-founder, from nowhere. // One time I kerosened an ancient oak to lure him home.”
The handcrafted poems of Romey’s Order bear the mark of a fully developed, highly idiosyncratic sensibility—a sensibility that lends a from-out-of-nowhere quality to this collection, and that results in poems that are a pure delight to read. Riley’s debut is a blast of fresh air for poetry, leaving one with the almost unsettling question: what would happen if his next collection outdid this one?
“FLINT-CHANT,” A POEM FROM ROMEY’S ORDER
Once upon a time a ditchpipe got left behind behind Azalea Industrial, back in the woods backing on to the Ashley, where old pitch-pines and loblollies grow wild. A mild pesticide-mist was falling and mingling with paper-mill smell and creosote oil the morning he found it. The boy shook and sheltered in its mouth awhile —hoo-hoo! hey-O!— and bent and went on in. It was like a cave but clean. He C-curved his spine against one wall to fit, and humming something, sucked his shirttail. He tuned his eyes to what low light there was and knuckle-drummed a line along his legs.
What the boy called inside-oku called him back. He was hooked right quick on the well-bottom peace of the pumicey concrete and how sounds sounded in there, and re-sounded. Tight-curled as he had to get —like a cling-shrimp one day, a pill-bug, a bass-clef, a bison’s eye; an abalone (ocean-ear!), antler-arc, Ark-ant, apostrophe another— sure as clocks a cool clear under-creek would rise, and rinse him through, and runnel free. Hanging in a green-pine O outside were sun-heat and smaze and BB-fire and Mosquito Abatement. Inside there were water-limber words (and a picture-noisy nave), shades of shade.
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