I recently had the privilege of introducing my friend Atsuro Riley at the South Carolina Book Festival in Columbia, SC. As South Carolina’s Poet Laureate I was particularly pleased to be able to welcome him home. Atsuro lives in CA, but he was raised in the Lowcountry, which is readily apparent in his work. His mother seemed to always be in the kitchen baking biscuits or pickling okra – poem “Skin” Dawn is cracking, and Mama’s fingering flour in a bowl…..and his father was doing classic low country fatherly things, as in the poem “Map” Daddy goes./Trolling and trawling and crawfishing and crabbing and bass-boating …creek-shrimping and cooler- dragging and coon-chasing and dove dogging and so on…
The poems in his first collection Romey’s Order (just out with University of Chicago Press) are filled with black rivers, and all the creatures, plants and people that inhabit what he refers to as his “blood home.” The poem sequence told by a boy named Romey, is the most original collection of poems I have come across. Atsuro’s friend, US Poet Laureate said “When you put this book down, American poetry will be different than when you picked it up.”
There’s an epigraph by Seamus Heaney at the front of the collection, and there is much about this book that reminds me of Heaney’s work – the intense imagery and musical use of the vernacular that evoke a particular place, (Heaney’s Ireland, Riley’s Lowcountry – 2 very different places but each collection of poems equally and uniquely evocative of a place).
It is so rare that a poet is equally gifted in terms of imagery and musicality – almost unheard of actually. As Kay Ryan said – I don’t know how writing can be at the same time so visceral and so aesthetic. There is a density to these poems, a kind of clustering of objects and sounds so that the poems themselves seem like something pulled from the earth – like glitter filled rocks that have spent centuries being formed.
His work has appeared in Poetry, The Threepenny Review, and The McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets. He has been awarded the Pushcart Prize and the Wood Prize from Poetry magazine. He just won a 2010 Witter Bynner Fellowship.