Allegheny, Pennsylvania, has meant many things to Rodney DeCroo through his life. The Midwestern coal-mining town was the crater of his brooding childhood, and has since become a dim muse for his idle thoughts; a place where the Vancouver-based author/musician seems to anchor many of his experiences. Though considering the abuse and unsavoriness DeCroo has endured in his lifetime, the town of Allegheny seems more like a launching pad for his reckless living and misadventure that pockmarked the decades after his departure as a child, when his early traumas quickly evolved into alcoholism of a category well beyond a casual affliction, and into the dangerous, waking-up-in-strange-places, territory.
Now firmly in his 40s it’s all just a part of his story, and the soot-toned town of DeCroo’s past has become an allegory for all of these things. So with Allegheny, BC, the place serves as a platform for redemption from a lifetime lived without much recourse. The book, published by Nightwood Editions, is a collection of 42 of DeCroo’s poems divided into four chapters that loosely trace the arch of the author’s life with simple and vivid strokes, following his journey from Pennsylvania to British Columbia. Its name even serves this purpose, by drawing together such disparate locations under the overarching themes that have followed DeCroo along the way. In this, the author’s voice is often as dour as the murky Allegheny River itself. But Allegheny, BC‘s melodramas are beautifully placed within a bubble of recollection, seeking out thin lines of beauty like golden piping.
Poems like “Oil Drum” and “On the Night of My First Breath,” are irresistible in their even-tempered tone, and serve as centerpieces in the utterly consuming album, Allegheny, released earlier this year by DeCroo and producer Robert Malowany. The work, a triumph of carefully laid textures, marries the spoken language of the author with morphing soundscapes of strings, synths, and otherworldly pulses that explode with unexpected richness, as DeCroo draws a line that stalks the spectres of his youth. Although, in his own words, the arc that’s explored here is, “not a story in a typically linear narrative sense, but more like a collage, that when pieced together gives the sense of something completed.”
Allegheny, BC works as a further exploration of the feeling captured on the Malowany album. Equally brutal, harrowing, and sweet, DeCroo’s workmanlike writing gives his honesty and they are imbued with confidence in their purpose as he seems to find solace in painting portraits of frozen slices of time.
A quiet moment hunting with his grandfather in “Cherry Valley, Pennsylvania,” a beating taken by a headmaster in “Mr. Steigel,” or seeing true beauty in the visage of his mother standing in the sunset, gripping a .22 as she stalks along a tractor path in “Mother (Northern British Columbia).” The angular prose of Allegheny, BC belies a world-weary stark realism, feeding gritty passages that read more like vignettes that form small islands of experiences in places as disparate as a Montréal tenement, a Northern BC trapline, or a boarding house in South Vancouver.
DeCroo is an indelible journeyman and Allegheny, BC is a love letter to a life lived; acceptance that the present moment is the manifestation the totality of past experiences. In this, it warmly embraces the present moment and serves as a penance paid to the past.
Even if he does state, “I can’t recall a single memory,” DeCroo’s re-envisioning his past seems much like a personal incantation, as he peels away the vice and torment that previously clouded his vision, and restructures it to be a bedrock for growth instead of fertile soil for desperation. Allegheny, BC is meant to be savored, and within its simple beauty lays a universal humanity.