Sunday, February 12, 2017

10th Canadian Challenge - 20th Review - Cruise Control

The full title of this poetry collection by Ken Howe is Cruise Control: a theogony.  I came across it while deciding which version of Hesiod's Theogony I would check out from Robarts.  Theogony literally means a story about the birth of the gods, and presumably Howe means to suggest that North Americans treat the automobile as divine, but somehow this doesn't really come through all that well.  The closest is when he substitutes 10 gas stations across the country for the stations of the cross in the multi-part poem "Stations of the Highway."  Each subsection has a reading, an exhortation and a prayer.  He also wedges in some passages from Kerouac's On the Road, obviously the ur-text of any road trip novel.  But it just falls flat.  Either he's trying too hard, or, paradoxically, he needed to push even further, since this doesn't have anywhere near the intense emotions that a stations of the cross is supposed to evoke.  Where is the equivalent of the scourging?  And the crucifixion itself?  I think to carry the metaphor to its logical conclusion there would have to be much more about abandoned cars just over the ridge from these gas stations and then the narrator would have to pass the scene of a horrific car accident on the highway near a station.  That would have been a reasonable approximation of a secular and car-dominated stations of the highway.  This is pretty weak in comparison.

I suppose it is unfair to criticize a book for what it is not, but in general, I think Howe squeezes far too much into this collection -- Marxist theory and in particular Frederic Jameson's take on postmodernism (a frankly barren approach in my opinion), random pop culture bits (like old Star Trek episodes), some name-dropping and then the underlying metaphors of the highway as the life-blood of the nation and/or economy.  It's just too much, and I think peeling back some of these layers, particularly the philosophy, would have been wise.

That is not to say that Howe's poetry never works.  One of the better poems is "Atlantis."  Here is a short passage from it: "Doric columns, bones of coral made, rise out of the surplus value of submarine light, the visible manifestation of all irrevocably lost things..."  The passage flows well, but was "surplus value" really necessary?  It certainly shouldn't be used in this context, since Marx would argue that surplus value only makes sense in the context of a capitalist society, not a dead, underwater city.  So it makes Howe sound very smart (though perhaps alienating potential readers) but is actually an improper use of the term.  I generally don't think philosophy and poetry mix well in the first place, since the search for truth or at least inner logic is besides the point for poetry.  I'm sort of working myself up into a lather over this collection, and it just isn't worth it.

This weird philosophical-poetical mix works somewhat better in "Notes on the Schonfeld Airport in Berlin": "All time flows into airports / but the airports are never filled. It / pools in departure lounges where travellers / inhale it like opium smoke as they await their connections."

Perhaps the most successful poem is "Chicago," though here the poem takes place on an elevated train about to go underground as it approaches the Loop: "The train plunges under the Earth. As the lights wink off in this car I see glazed faces in the next, hear the wails of unbaptized babies descending in sparks. But in the twinkling of an eye light again..."

I'm not quite sure what it says that my 3 favourite poems from Cruise Control don't involve cars on the highway at all, other than I think Howe took on a bit more than he could chew in the highway poems.  A simpler approach, more focus on the Husky and Esso stations across Canada without the philosophical scaffolding would have been very welcome.  One very small section of "On the Malignancy of the Automobile" suggests what might have been:
soft suspension numbing the brain, awakening 
and confusing the esophagus.

"Stop the car!" I bellow,
"I gotta THROW UP!"

But when we pull over, stop,
my stomach stops right with it,
and, recovering sufferer,
I am kicked out into the ditch:

"Well, come on, puke!  You said
you hadda puke, so PUKE!"

This would fit well in the excellent auto-themed collection In Cars by Kimmy Beach, and which I would recommend as a better starting place than Cruise Control.

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