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Weekly Poem: David Roderick ponders the strangeness of the suburbs

David Roderick spent a year traveling abroad, in search of poetic inspiration. In Japan, he wrote prose poems, a form he hadn’t previously explored. In Ireland, he became “enamored” with composing ballads, and in Italy, he used art as inspiration for his verse.

The recipient of the 2007-2008 Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship wasn’t allowed to return stateside until the year was completed, stretching his comfort zone.

“I was trying to live more at the ends of my nerves and trying to experience the sensations of different flavors and textures and rhythms of traffic and customs,” Roderick told Art Beat.

His adventures — both geographical and compositional — laid the groundwork for his new collection, “The Americans,” even though much of his work from that time didn’t make it into the book.

It turned out that traveling around the world helped hone his perception of more familiar territory: the suburbs.

“They didn’t seem humdrum or dull any more, they seemed more strange, and even on the one hand, almost magical, because they are so calm and peaceful and beautiful and green,” said Roderick. “And on the other hand, a little strangely dull or almost sleepy, like there wasn’t enough action, there wasn’t enough life for me.”

Roderick grew up in the suburbs, but left for college and then moved to San Francisco. His later transition back to suburban life as an adult “sparked memories of my own personal past, but it’s also stimulated new feelings about my sense of self, my sense of neighborhood and community, my sense of the country, too.”

It also inspired his latest book, which meditates on some of those dichotomies: urban and suburban, being American but trying to view it from the outside.

The title comes from another famous creative journey that benefited from an outsider’s perspective. Swiss photographer Robert Frank traveled across the United States with his family for two years in the late 1950s. He distilled 28,000 photographs into an 83-image exhibition and subsequent book called “The Americans.”

Roderick features other outsiders who have tried to define American culture, like Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political scientist known for his text, “Democracy in America.” He also writes about significant, recent American events, like the 2008 and 2012 political campaigns, as well as national political gridlock. In particular, Roderick contemplates repercussions of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

“Probably like a lot of us, I’m still sort of in a daze about the last 14 years and where that event has taken us…For me, a lot of what happens in this book comes out of 9/11 and certainly a poem like “Build Your Dream Home Here” is trying to speak to that historical moment and the aftermath in a fairly compressed amount of space.”

Listen to David Roderick read “Build Your Dream Home Here” from his newest book, “The Americans.”

Build Your Dream Home Here

                                       First the towers
fell, then the Dow. A few years later,
while she was still recovering
from the blind fumbling accounts
of people crushed to dust—
her nights chocked with emergencies,
smoke, the newsfeed, the taped
and sniffed envelopes, the falling—
that’s when they’d built the place,
a roomy number bricked back
from the corner. A bank offered
low interest, veterans no down.
In every closet they’d make love.
They’d space out bushes, lay toast
and coffee on the porch.
                                                   It worked
for a while, their screened-in story,
where a half-deflated soccer ball
wedged the door. Drunk on lilac,
they cheered whenever a bee seemed
to veer off course.
                                       Now boxes packed
with their belongings cover the lawn.
She checks the buttons on her blouse
and worries about her husband’s
smoking. Will the lilacs survive?
Will their mild, wilting odor still lure
the bees? In some parts of the world,
the wood of the lilac is carved
into knife handles or flutes. Līlek
from the Arabic, meaning “slightly blue.”

The poem connects an idyllic vision of the American dream to a real global tragedy. He says when you are in the suburbs, “it’s hard to feel connected to events that are happening halfway across the country or halfway across the world.” But trying to feel connected while he was abroad gave him the distance to write new clarity.

“Growing up here inside of it, you tend to take it for granted and assume circumstances are similar elsewhere. So the travel is important to shake yourself out of that certainty, especially or an artist or a writer.”

“Build Your Dream Home Here” from “The Americans,” by David Roderick, © 2014. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.