Thursday, May 27, 2010

Drive, They Said Poems About Americans and Their Cars edited by Kurt Brown

Anthologies are always a tricky thing, but I love the mystery that goes into reading one. You never quite know what you're in for, even if you're familiar with some of the authors. A lot of times, it all adds up to luck, even if the book comes with the backing someone you trust.

Drive, They Said was recommended to me by a person I usually agree with in terms of poetry, but this time we're as far apart as a highway with a scenic divider. The theme of this collection is poetry about how Americans relate to their cars, and at least to me, it made for some pretty bland reading.

I probably am not the target audience for this. While I might ogle a classic car, it's the age of the item, not the item itself, that wows me. I can appreciate a fine corvette, but I have no desire to get behind the wheel, not even for a test drive.

I own a car, but it's strictly utilitarian. I don't tinker with it. I don't fret that it's got a few dings from parking lots. I would no sooner change its oil myself than I would volunteer to clean up Three Mile Island. Hell, I've never even washed it. In other words, I'm not in love with cars, just what they can do for me when I need it.

Thus, this was an odd choice but I tried it anyway. Unfortunately, it just didn't register for me at all.

The first problem is that from the get-go, we're separated into gender before we do anything else. I hate gender separation as a rule, and given the subject of cars, that just made matters worse.

So the men get poems that try hard to sound masculine, with references to speeding, drinking, and leaving people behind. The women leave bad men, worry about the danger of being alone, and of course, the safety of their children. There's nothing wrong with these poems, but it feels like Brown as editor tried hard to make sure he ticked off ever gender cliche when compiling his opening sections. That turned me off, and made for tough sledding the rest of the way.

The other sections feature exactly what you'd expect, with no surprises to be found. "Driving into Yourself," "Stopping by the Side of the Road," "Head On," "Driving as Metaphor," "On the Bus," and "Passing Through" all do what they need to do in a way that passes muster but doesn't stretch the reader's comfort zones in any way. It's as though every poem was tested in front of an easily-offended church group. Unlike a highway in the rain with traffic moving far too fast, these poems gave me no sense of danger or thrill.

The section "Driving as Metaphor" ended up feeling far too forced, with the editor choosing the most obvious examples available. The comparisons are forced more often than not, reading more like an exercise for a college class than something I would want to read. In their own context, they probably aren't bad. However, when you read tortured line after tortured line trying to fit in the idea of cars relating to other parts of our life, it just gets to be a bit too much.

Of these sections, only "Head On" features any poem that wasn't apparently given an "inoffensive test" before making it into the collection and even those are edgy only in comparison to what is around them. As a result, I enjoyed it the most, but not enough to make up for the banal nature of the poems I read in the other areas.

There are a few well-known names in here. Joyce Carol Oates has a few entries in the women's ghetto, Robert Bly appears, as does Charles Wright. Wright's poem is one of the best in the collection, using the idea of a road to discuss the various ways people interacted by going to different neighborhoods. ee cummings also makes an appearance in a clumsy poem comparing driving a car to a person new at sex. I admit I've read very little of cummings' work, but I'd like to think he's done better.

Overall, I took a chance on this one, and feel like I came up with a lemon. The theme isn't close enough to me to forgive some bad poetry and the desire to make sure that no one reading this would get upset at a blatant sexual reference or overtly foul language just killed it for me. I'd recommend cruising to a different poetry book, but if you have a car-loving reader in your family, preferably an older one, this book might just work better for them than it did for me.

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