Based on its title, I had assumed Elaine Sexton’s collection, Drive (Grid Books, 2022), would take me on a journey, but I hadn’t quite expected the way its individual poems would move me through time and space—tangible and intangible, emotional and physical landscapes. Take, for example, the opening poem, which appears with no title:
The most beautiful thing about my car is the
beach, and the most beautiful thing about the
beach is watercolor, and the most beautiful
thing about water is the word, and the most
beautiful thing about the word is pigment,
and the most beautiful thing about pigment
is the soil, and the most beautiful thing about
soil is the earth, and the most beautiful thing
about the earth is the sea, and the most beau-
tiful thing about the sea is the drive. (Sexton 11)
This poem starts with the car and the beach and ends with the sea and the drive. The cyclical movement calls to mind the feeling of going out for a trip, taking in the scenery before returning home to where you started. “A Thing or Two,” starts with a leaf and ends with the tree. “Predator / Bait,” starts with a splash and ends with a splash. These poems travel but don’t forget where they came from. The speaker travels as well, from Boston to Rome, from the sea to the sky, from the past to the future.
Sexton’s poems feel like driving with the windows down on a spring day. The language, crisp and gentle, takes its time. Coupled with the poems’ short lines, some just a word or two, these poems slowed me down. They are not destination focused; they invited me to enjoy the ride.
As a person who travels full time and spends many days behind the wheel, I felt a camaraderie with the speaker of these poems. Reading them felt like trading stories with a new friend at a rest stop. I too have traveled through the “dead zones / in America / where no one lives / and satellites turn a deaf ear … in one of those red states / shaped like a box” (Sexton 69). I know the ups and downs of a road trip, “the soaring, the breakdown, jumpstarts, the brand new, and old reliable” (Sexton 20). These images invite in all those who are drawn to the road, those who might be caught “Downshifting for the view” (Sexton 23), those who roll down their windows, as Sexton does, to let “The dead / ends of my hair / dragged through the air, / pull their roots / alive” (26). And when Sexton writes, “she is free not to be / where she’s expected to go” (17), my heart flips with recognition.
Despite the romantic descriptions of a good drive, Drive is not all light and breezy. Early on, Sexton introduces the prominent theme of death. The second poem, “This,” ends with: “Everything is about / gravity, the grave / pulling / for us. Each day / it starts with a bark / calling our name” (Sexton 15). While awareness of a looming mortality lingers throughout the early section, I explicitly felt the impact of an early loss in the poem “Ignition.” Sexton writes,
I remember my hand
on the car’s smooth blue
lining, the Rambler’s
door as it opened
to the damp grass
of the lawn
to the new house.
I was three
close to four
years old, my father,
and my mother
to drive.” ( 27)
Here, driving is not about freedom or escape. Driving is about survival. Similarly, the poem, “Drive” explains, “We are old, / old enough, / to equate mobility / with independence” (Sexton 19). I began to understand more intimately the deeper role driving has played in the speaker’s life.
Just as a car eventually begins to break down with use, so do our human bodies. In “Self-Portrait: Between the Car and the Sea,” Sexton writes, “the engine strains in first gear the way on foot my body climbing the last few steps does … How long will these parts last?” (23). The speaker grapples with her own mortality, her own body slowing down with age. This grappling, though, is not morose or despondent. The speaker matter-of-factly tracks these changes. In the poem, “Run,” the speaker begins to pick up the pace on a walk “until a clicking / reminds me that fuel / which is matter / which is mind / which is idea / is not endless / and only as fertile / as the working / brain / allows— / the brain we take / for granted / which could fail / at any time” (21). Though many of these poems address mortality, they seem to argue for presence and appreciation for what is. There is a sense that we are meant to grasp the moment we are in, rather than worry about the future.
I mention above that these poems feel like a spring day, and they do in that they are refreshing in their honesty. They gave me room to breathe. They are not, however, necessarily all happy or full of new hope. One of my favorite poems in the collection, “Self as Hypotaxis,” points to this nuance: “I am happier than I was / when spring equaled death, / so many wakes, so many silences, / equal and un-equal. Spring / sometimes operates / in opposition / to her contract with the earth, and / is not always the birth / of something good” (Sexton 80). These poems are full of life, but they are also full of death. They do not shy away from the truth of our human experience.
Drive is available from Grid Books
Jen Gayda Gupta is a poet, educator, and wanderer. She earned her BA in English at the University of Connecticut and her MA in Teaching English from New York University. Jen lives, writes, and travels across the U.S. in a tiny camper with her husband and their dog. Her work has been published in Up the Staircase, Rattle, Jellyfish Review, Sky Island Journal, The Shore, and others. You can find her @jengaydagupta and jengaydagupta.com.
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