This deft, revelatory collection opens with a poem about the poet’s mother, in which Richard Greene speaks of shapes of memory from which she can / never turn away. Integral to his own “shapes of memory” is familial love, and Greene, who has written a brilliant critical biography of Edith Sitwell (herself no stranger to this most consuming of themes), does full justice to the subject in a range of poems that are at once carefully crafted and finely observed. They are also narrative: Each tells a distinct story, though, together, they log a rover’s homecoming, which is why the title is so nicely chosen.
In “Kitchens,” Greene describes meeting families while canvassing door-to-door, which drills into him the sacrificial exactions of parental love.
The wife’s head turns; she follows a sound
into another room, leads out a girl
of 25, bent far forward, holding
her arm as guide. “Our daughter was born blind
and deaf. It is different from other conditions.” . . .
I ask how things are for her but wonder
all the while at no light and no words.
“There is not much for her to do really,”
says her mother, “we look out for her.”
Then, again, in the same poem, he encounters another married couple.
This time, a fellow not quite my age
sits me down and signs the form—I ask what
worries him? He says he has a daughter,
and I can see some part of the story
rigged at the head of the stairs—a chairlift.
His business is rescuing stalled trucks
on the highway . . .
Here, as in many of the poems, one can see the extent to which Greene has taken up and renovated Robert Lowell’s testimonial art, where so much seems a snapshot, / lurid, rapid, garish, grouped, / heightened from life, / yet paralyzed by fact, though even Greene’s bleakest “facts” never leave us with a sense of paralysis. On the contrary, the empathy he shows his subjects reaffirms their volatile dignity.
Although a professor of English at the University of Toronto, Greene has none of the delight in abstraction dear to the academic tribe. Instead, he puts himself to school to the actual, the restlessly human, an image of which he finds in Haiti when he notices Everywhere the trade in worn tires, salvaged / from cars that have crept to their millionth / mile and died. This solicitude for the actual is doubtless why he paints such a memorable portrait of a fellow rover, whom he encounters in Paris while dining at Les Deux Magots, where the saints of the / existential put out their cigarettes.
and a lifetime on the streets make him old
who might be fifty-five. I think he has
exercised his share in the rights of man
by saying no to a social worker. He stirs
in August sunlight, stretches, stands. He wears
just a t-shirt and boxer shorts gone grey.
Long thin legs proclaim he is poorly fed
though not quite starved. He yawns and walks towards
a tree at the pavement’s edge, gazes up
into leaves, tugs at elastic, and pees.
The roving behind so many of the poems produces a keen sense of place. In St. John’s, Newfoundland, on Christmas Eve, the newly married poet goes grocery shopping, only to encounter an epitome of unreturning bachelorhood: Among the meats I watched him, admired / the overcoat that cost him a bundle / at Tip Top, The London, or The Model Shop. / Guessed him thirty-five and unspoused. As L. P. Hartley has taught us, the past is a foreign country, and in that unforgettable land, Greene’s lyricism takes elegant flight.
And so it is, I am again a month shy of sixteen,
the school-year ending, and everything else
beginning. We circle the clover leafs,
learn to shoulder check and to change lanes
without risk of pile-up. Waiting my turn