I was predisposed to give Richard Robbins’ Other Americas two stars or one (on Goodreads) because the title sounds like a 90’s diversity-sensitivity manual, and the blurbs use phrases like “map the many privacies” and “the secret momentariness which is America’s human dream,” which I wouldn’t much like in poems let alone about them.
Then I opened the book, though—which I have to start doing without prejudice—and began reading things I love: New Mexico, sons and fathers, recurring characters with interesting first names, a color palette bled off of curled, square instamatic prints, the best 1950s roller derby poem I’ve seen. That one was followed by a longer poem set ten years later that let drop that the roller girl had never performed on the show because she was pregnant.
The book is a kind of shadow-history of America’s last few decades, at least in the west, at least in one network of family and others who cross each other’s paths. There are narrative threads connecting throughout the book, along with so many fine lines: a woman who left her husband “by moving into her loneliest day”, a worker who “eats the machine salad of noise to unseal heartbeats of quiet”, an immigrant who “went without imagined meals and cash, spoke Spanish to the oaks.”
There’s also this bracing argument with Walt Whitman: “It has come time to praise and curse the reach of your arms across minor hills and barren cities…How casual your call that we kiss the face of AIDS on the lips and wash the feet of the beaten…Walt Whitman, you have ruined the earth for us, praising oily lagoon and salt palace alike.” I’ve felt that discomfort reading Whitman, and I wish I knew what he would say in response to our more tired America living with so many consequences.
Finally, I was delighted by the sonnets scattered frequently through the book. Taken together, their construction makes its own fine American statement: We love our traditions and rules, but we’ll be damned if we’re gonna conform to them like you expect. These don’t rhyme consistently (though there are some great internal surprises) or follow strict metrical patterns (except that at mostly 10/line, these are essentially syllabics). However, the 14 lines (except for the 12, 15 and 16 liners), the octaves and sestets, and especially the turns in every line 9 (or so) are electrically traditional.
I read too quickly, and I’ll read this again (if only for the line 9s), but for a few hours today I loved the last 60 years of America—not proud, not ashamed, just these are my people, this is our multitudinous home.
Click here to buy Other Americas.