I don't get to write often to this blog, and when I do, it's too frequently a rush job. I meant to write about a book of poetry I was reading during National Poetry Month, but by time I looked up, April had whizzed past and we were well into May. This says something about the pace of my life -- and so many of our lives -- in these faster-than-pentium fast times. As it happens, this is an appropriate way to lead into a quick post about the book I planned to write about last month: Expressway, by Sina Queyras.
Queyras, who has lived all over Canada, it seems -- Alberta, British Columbia, and, currently, Montreal, Quebec -- has also lived in the U.S., most recently in the NYC area. She taught for several semesters at Rutgers University, where I was fortunate to meet her. Although I believe she did most of her commuting from New York to New Brunswick by train, she clearly spent enough time traversing the NJ Turnpike to make it a recognizable setting in her poetry about expressways. Because I live in the shadow of the Turnpike myself (which exit?, you ask? 14C!), this immediately endeared the book to me. But you needn't be a familiar of the Turnpike crawl to enjoy this book. It speaks of expressways in general, expressways as symbol, expressways as metonym for our fast-paced society.
I got to hear Queyras read from the book at the last AWP conference, in Chicago, and I found many lines printed indelibly on my memory. One of the poems I looked up and read straightaway, after I bought the book, because I had so many of its lines and ideas stuck in my brain, is called "Progress." I want to provide a long-ish quote from it, because, as you'll see, this poem turns on repetition and accumulation, so you need a good chunk to get a sense of what she's doing:
What citizens of A lack in political options they make up for in pastry choices, in supermarket items, in numbers, in health-insurance packages, in phone plans, in ways to choose because:
Freedom is to confuse.
Freedom is to make a buck.
Freedom is to charge a fee.
Information is available for those who can acquire it.
After all, this is A.
After all, freedom.
So, that is A.
Fees are A.
The expressway is A.
All along the strip malls fees are charged, or not. There is a choice.
Everyone has a choice.
Freedom has a choice.
Freedom is a commodity.
Freedom is not a commodity you need to own.
Freedom is a choice.
Freedom has conditions.
Freedom is exportable.
Freedom is a fee.
Freedom is available for import.
Freedom is as freedom does.
What does Freedom see when she closes her eyes?
I read those lines and think, of course, about the wars and other trouble the U.S. of "A" has stirred up in the last several decades in the name of "democracy" (aka "freedom"). Among the things people are not free to do (at least, not peacefully) is to choose very different systems of economy or government than those operating in the U.S. Queyras turns the word "freedom" over and over, looking at it from different angles, until we can see the sunlight through the holes in the concept. What does "freedom" mean when you can't choose not to have it?
And what does this have to do with the expressway?, you may be asking. "The expressway is A," Queyras has written -- and those of us who do the turnpikes in NJ, PA, OH, FL, and elsewhere know that the expressway means tolls. You can't take this handy-dandy highway with the extra lanes and the high speed limit unless you have the coin of the realm (cash or EZPass) with which to pay the entrance fee. There's a reason the book is not called "freeways."
Even the "free" highways exact a cost, and that cost is paid by all of us, whether we drive on them or not. The environmental implications of our driving culture are part of the thematics of this book. Here (in the opening stanzas of part 4 of "Endless Inter-states") the speaker reflects on the good old days when we could (supposedly) have our nature-cake and consume it, too:
Abandoned mine shafts on either side, those
Tight curves between Kaslo and New Denver,
Hairpin at glacial creek, splash of red
Bellies muscling, streaming up, we see them
From the open window. Or once did. Even here?
Salmon stocks diminish, mammals dying off.
No, he said, not in your lifetime. Vertical;
Traces where the charge went off,
Ruggedness is your only defense, he
Said, be difficult to cultivate, navigate. Offer
No hint of paradise, no whiff of
Golf course. Uninhabitability your only
Not in the speaker's lifetime, meaning our own, was "nature" still "untouched" -- and the impact of our societies upon the planet has much deeper roots than the lifetime of anyone living today. For instance, Queyras textures the eco-poetic impulse of her poem by bringing the Wordsworths (William and Dorothy) into it, along with their Romantic, Industrial Revolution-era anxieties (and blindness) about the relationship between humanity and the rest of the natural world. Here, in the voice of Dorothy Wordsworth, are a few "Lines Written Many Miles from Grasmere":
Up to Mr. Simpson's
Up the hill to gather sods
Down to the lakeside and took up orchises
The expectation of
And it was Wm! After our first joy,
The birds were singing, looked fresh,
Though not gay.
Afraid of the tooth-ache for
Wm cut down the winter cherry
unruffled like green islands
Chiding children, driving little asses
Hung in wantonness.
Wm went first alone
upon the water to set pike floats.
These seemingly harmless interventions in nature, when aggregated with all those performed by increasing numbers of others, contribute to the degredation of the environment in some of the same kinds of ways that the actions of industries do -- the difference is sometimes only a matter of degree. William's activities, as reported here by Dorothy, are fine behavior for the man who penned the fabulous sonnet, "The World is Too Much With Us"! : )
I love how Queyras captures in this poem the shorthand phraseology of the journal entry, not explaining the situation, but providing such clear signals of emotion ("And it was Wm!") and such colorful details ("stuck peas / unruffled like green islands / to Ambleside") that the reader can't help but draw an understanding, or at least be drawn into the poem nonetheless. Indeed, one of the things I so admire about this book is how Queyras managed to use so many different voices (as these three excerpts illustrate) and yet keep the language in each of them crackling with sonically and conceptually interesting words.
If this entry is more extended quotation than proper review, I plead guilty, but in my defense, I didn't want the poem to get too far away from me before highlighting it for you here -- and, moreover, in so many ways, Expressway speaks for itself. I highly recommend that you read it -- but not while you're on the road. These poems are sobering, yes, but also intoxicating. Driving under the influence of Queyras' work could be dangerous . . . : )