The Return of the NativeBy Kate Colby Ugly Duckling Presse
Reviewed by Kay Cosgrove
It is likely impossible to read Kate Colby’s The Return of the Native without hearing the echo of Thomas Hardy. But the poems in this collection transcend Hardy’s influence; they begin and engage in a dialogue all their own, a dialogue that is distinctly American. This American-centered dialogue is both familiar and disorienting, both urban and pastoral, so that the reader is never exactly certain where she is or what she is supposed to feel. Colby breeds this confusion throughout the book, making demands of her reader: “you are all going/to have to come/with me, please, scrape your soles/before entering” (“Perplexity Among Honest People”), because this is our return home, as Americans, and we have no choice but to “settle in for the winter/of our disconnect” (“Those Who Are Found Where There Is Said to Be Nobody”).
Though arguably some of the poems in this collection are examples of ars poetica (“Sharp Words Are Spoken and a Crisis Ensues” for example), what all the poems in The Return of the Native have in common is the use of shared language that is distinctly American. “Rough Coercion Is Employed” begins “cart has overtaken horse/and is now overturning/trot trot to trot trot”, while “The Custom of the Country” gives us a list of truly American stuff:
Sanka with sweetener,
the frangible gum
that comes with your trading cards.
When all is said, done, and DIY is not enough
This use of shared lingo, the all-too-familiar jargon, feigns comfort, pretending to give us what we know. But such ease does not last long in this collection. As soon as we think we are in territory we recognize, The Return of the Native quickly pulls the rug out from under our feet. “Home is where/the head is/taken” (“A Desperate Attempt at Persuasion”), not where the heart resides, not anymore. Colby’s use of borrowed language turned on its head forces the reader to question just how these idioms function, how language itself functions. At moments the speaker even admits that she too is trapped inside the bonds of American English, as in the opening couplet of “The Custom of the Country”:
An Indian giver of borrowed time
(would that I could undo the idiom)
Like the reader, the speaker is powerless in the face of inherited idioms. What can we do in our native land speaking our native tongue except acknowledge our shared helplessness? The feeling of entrapment via language is further exemplified in the collection by the use of repeated lines and images. The fact that it is winter is mentioned repeatedly in the collection, as are the “architectural moments” (“Through the Moonlight”) that work in tension with the “custom of the country” as settings for the poems. “If you lived here you’d be home right now” appears in brackets in both “Humanity Appears upon the Scene, Hand in Hand with Trouble” and in “A Face Which Time Makes But Little Impression.” The echo of this line further underscores the tension found in language as felt by this speaker and further disorientates the reader. Reading the line once is comforting; reading it twice is chilling.
Perhaps the most striking feature of The Return of the Native is the boldness of voice. This speaker commands our attention and, rather literally, orders her reader around. The imperative is a favorite construction of the collection, and, as with the shared language and repetition, the commands in this collection underscore the limits of language. This speaker tells us “You will eat what I put in front of you” (“Eustacia Dresses Herself on a Black Morning”) and “Always swim parallel to the shore” (“A Coalition Between Beauty and Oddness”) and “Just shut up and nobody gets hurt” (“Perplexity Among Honest People”). These commands have that strange quality characteristic of the imperative, as if the speaker can see into the future, can know just what will happen, finally, to all of us. “How will it end?/With neither a bang nor a whimper/but a weary,/insistent/banging” (An Old Move Inadvertently Repeated”).
If Hardy’s novel succeeds because of the land, Colby's succeeds (almost) in spite of it. The Return of the Native fuels a discussion of our 2013 America through insistence, repetition and myriad commands, but also through the poems themselves, as though the act of making will provide some answers to questions that have yet to be asked:
My tiny plot
I hoe and harrow
again and again
to see each time
what I might grow there.
(“An Old Move Inadvertently Repeated”)
Kate Colby grew up in Massachusetts and graduated from Wesleyan University. She got her MFA from California College of the Arts. She works in Providence, Rhode Island as an editor. Her work has appeared in Aufgabe, New American Writing, NO: a Journal of the Arts, and Parthenon West Review. Her collections of poetry include Fruitlands (2006), winner of the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award, Unbecoming Behavior (2008), and Beauport (2010).
Kay Cosgrove was awarded the John B. Santoianni Poetry Award from the Academy of American Poets in 2011 and won the 2013 Writers Under 30 contest from The Westchester Review. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in journals such as Barrow Street, Conduit and North American Review, among other journals. She is currently a doctoral student in the University of Houston's Creative Writing & Literature program.