Allegheny, BC is Rodney DeCroo’s first published book of poetry. It follows a body of musical work that has received international acclaim. His albums—there have been six so far—have earned considerable respect from reviewers on several continents for the power of his lyrics and the haunting quality of his music.
The river that both his book and his poem “The Allegheny” are named for runs through DeCroo’s hometown of Pittsburgh. Though he has lived in Vancouver, BC, for most of his adult life, his mind has been swimming in that river since childhood. He writes about the filth from the steel mills and factories lining its banks, about the monstrous carp and catfish that people would catch but no one would eat, about how
Each summer it claimed a child
from the cancerous towns along its sides,
as if it were an angry, wounded god
While his poetry easily merits the same consideration as his music, I’m poorly positioned to provide it, being neither an artist nor an art critic. I do, however, know something about fish and why Christians used to draw them on catacomb walls, and that may be good enough to do the job. In the ancient world, water often symbolized primal, undifferentiated matter while fish commonly symbolized the human soul.
The soul, the epicenter of vulnerable subjectivity, swam through the material world, struggling against its currents, swallowing its pollution, and dying in predators’ jaws. In its infancy, when Christianity was a religion of the people at the absolute bottom of the imperial hierarchy, this image was as evocative as the cross. DeCroo’s poetry isn’t Christian but it expresses the same needs that led brutalized and broken people to inscribe fish upon stone.
Images of concrete and coal, ashes and violence recur throughout his poems. These are the touchstones of the violated working class he came from, the people abandoned within America’s spreading economic sacrifice zones. In the postwar period their centuries-long servitude was briefly illuminated by jobs that offered living wages, benefits, vacations, and hope.
For swelling legions that hope has vanished alongside the dignity it bestowed. An expanding social stratum is being hollowed out, the virtues of their lands, bodies, and spirits completely consumed by the machinery of capital. Their towns and cities are blighted by toxins and poverty, their ruined hearts by rage and addiction. In these places the biosphere has become a traumasphere, the waters of life soiled beyond recognition.
In The Song That Says, DeCroo writes about the howl of deepest abjection, the howl of raped children, mentally ill vagrants, and mutilated animals, a howl he calls
…the song we will not hear. The song
that says our pain is too ugly to look upon.
Impossibly, DeCroo’s work makes it possible to listen to the song, to behold the ugliness, however briefly. Poetry can’t heal or justify such suffering, but at its best it can transfigure suffering by profoundly humanizing the sufferers.
In the trauma there is the possibility of revelation. DeCroo’s poetry demonstrates that the disintegration of the social preconditions for sanity can allow glimpses of eternity, of the luminously darkened crown of Being beneath the surface of our lives. It can be seen in the fathers he writes about, men whose savagery often imparts a kind of wisdom that breaks the ego open and blinds the inner eye with lightning and fire.
It’s there in his poems about his early companions, boys whose prospects are cause for despair, but whose friendships radiate a tragic and sacred strength. Most of all, it’s found in every loss he recounts, losses whose terrible significance provides measures of the men and women that endure them.
Of course, DeCroo wouldn’t put it this way at all, because he’s a much better writer than I am. He wields poetry like a scalpel, slicing away superfluous language until only truth remains. That truth is the only one available to us, the one that says our lives matter: that regardless of how badly the river sickens us, we are each of us openings into infinite strangeness, infinite depth.
More than a few people have accused DeCroo’s poetry of being “dark”, and they’re right: compassion and beauty are things of darkness, they’re treasures whose value can only be discovered in the soul’s blackest nights. Encountering his work feels like a homecoming: his poetry leads the wearied heart to the source of its weariness, to the bankruptcy of its dreams and the emptiness once filled by the potentials it cherished, the people it loved. It reminds us of the uncanny holiness of the fish and river alike. As he writes in ,
You see you are the memory
the river becomes in you.
In this sense, his work is intensely political. While it advances no agendas, it offers an implicit indictment of the rapacity of the economic and political systems that devour our communities, leaving behind shattered caricatures of what we could have been. More than that, it reveals the terrible beauty of the human spirit, forcing us to acknowledge the gravity of the crimes inflicted upon it. He helps us to remember ourselves, and thereby rediscover our own strength even as the undertow drags us to our drowning.
I’m turned off by a lot of today’s poetry, which often suffers from a loss of nerve. Rather than aspiring to meaning, many poets indulge in acrobatic displays of semiotic irony, apparently valuing fleeting surfaces over enduring substance. Others simply can’t write very well. DeCroo’s poetry, in contrast, resonates with clarity, courage, and craftsmanship. His poems are infused with visionary power: the darkest catacombs would blaze with light from fish such as these.
Allegheny, BC is published by Nightwood Editions.