Social History: Poems (Review Series)
Making Meaning from the Past
Social History: Poems by Bobby C. Rogers
“We were there to visit the ruins, the shabby places my father had lived during the Depression,” writes Bobby C. Rogers in the title poem of his collection, Social History. The speaker is six at the time of the visit. Only later in life does it seem odd: his father, a sharecropper’s son, fondly talking with the landlord of the farm where his family spent years “tenanting and deeply in debt.” Did his father aim “to gild the past with a shine like the sweet glaze on a fruit pie fresh from the fryer grease”? This question of what to do with the past—whether and how to make use of it, to find beauty in it—is the rich drone note in these poems, over which Rogers plays his long melody lines. All the poems here, in fact, are written in long lines—25 or 30 words long, looking almost like couplets as they spill over into their indented second halves. It’s a languorous form, well suited to Rogers, whose detailed landscapes flow easily into reflection and well-earned insights: “nothing’s ever beautiful that’s not in some measure caught unawares.” But when we curate scenes and moments into poems, he seems to ask, are we revealing the meaning and beauty in them, or superimposing it? In “William Eggleston,” Rogers critiques that photographer’s work: “it’s always seemed like slumming to me, those lovely color photographs”—“all manner of sun-scoured refuse” tarted up into “process prints as lurid as circus posters.” And of himself, Rogers says: “I would be a long time learning to paper my thin meanings / onto every porous wall, seams tight and pattern unbroken.” Yes, perhaps. Yes, sometimes. Yes, this is the temptation of all artists; of all humans. But Rogers also knows that artmaking-from-memory can also be the most praiseworthy kind of salvaging. As he writes in “Salvage Yard in Mississippi,” “Pull the part you need from a long ago used up day, rebuild it, and the hour you’re sitting in might finally crank and shudder to life.”
—Reviewed by Jen Hinst-White
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