Reviewed by Ian Seed
Jeff Vande Zandes subject in this book is the alienation embodied by the freeways of America. This is a territory he has made all his own. In the title poem, Transient, Vande Zande writes of how the existence of freeways is directly connected to the destruction of community life:
The countrys soul lies in the road
Neighbourhoods turn over
faceless nomads, real estate signs
for Halloween decorations
nothing tribal, just masked strangers
The only cultures
that revere their elders have no freeways.
This alienated way of living has replaced traditional ways of relating to family and neighbours, as shown in the poem, Moving Away, where Vande Zande describes moving house with his family to a different state. What they have left behind will haunt them. Their children will wail in the backseat / and then go silent for decades / connected and separated by interstates. His new neighbour:
hugs a ladder and paints his walls.
We will both go to bed, unacquainted
for years, our labors unfinished.
In the transient world of freeways, nothing is real except the glow of the dashboard / with its slow march / of numbers (Night Travel). The rest is a sequence of mistaken or incomplete impressions:
For half a mile I watch
a light wind rock a barrel
on the bed of a tow truck,
until it stands, slaps its hands
across its pants
and stretches its back
in what remains
of the evenings available light.
In the ironically titled, Only Birds After All, no driver can see the complete story of a giant whorl of starlings taking off and landing, but only a small part of the whole:
Speeding toward their own exits
only a few see how the shape
finally shatters, each darting
for a space among the miles
of telephone wires. They land
apart, shivering and puffing
down in the cold morning light.
The implication here is of the fragmented quality of our lives, and of the loss which is ours because we do not witness events from start to end. The poet also plays on the similarity between us and the birds, which land / apart. At the beginning of the poem, these lines could also apply to men:
As though abandoned scraps of night
startled by the rush of morning
headlights, they rise .
Vande Zande writes of the separateness of drivers, who can know nothing of other drivers except the outlines their headlights shape like the silhouettes // that trudge the miles of gravel and dirt/ eclipsed on the other side of the pylons. (Interstate Travel). The only emotion visible from outside is that of anger as some batter their dashboards because of delays. Yet the anger is wasted since nobody hears. There is a terrible ruthlessness to this unreal world as blinkers stab like knives trying to cut in. There is no freedom on the free way. Angry drivers are like prisoners as they jerk slowly forward, the way / an unseasoned gang stumbles against / the slack-taut-slack motion of the links. (Highway Accident).
Perhaps the only genuine power drivers have is the power to kill. In the poem, After Seeing The Specialist In Detroit, father and son drive into darkness and a sign showing a buck deer flashes past. As the father falls asleep in the passenger seat, he remembers instructions given to him should a deer cross the drivers path. The instructions build up relentlessly to a chilling conclusion:
Hit the gas.
If youre going to hit it, kill it.
Otherwise, it lies all twisted
in the long grass and just twitches.
Here there is separateness even between father and son. The poem leaves us with the sons angst alone at the driving wheel as he watches the edges, ready for anything. Those who would help others may become victims themselves. In Lending Hands, a security guard on his way to the graveyard shift stops to give a down-and-out hitchhiker a ride and is repaid for his kindness by being stabbed to death. It is also too late for most of us who would wish to escape this kind of life, since we have lost the knowledge and ability to survive outside our civilization. We could easily finish like The Survivalist, who tries to make his home in the wilds and whose body thawing on the bed is stumbled upon by a DNR officer at the end of a long winter. All this makes for a pretty bleak vision, which Vande Zande faces head on and describes in a compact poetry which doesnt pull any punches. Yet this vision is compelling, firstly because of the beautiful images he brings back from the world of freeways and, secondly, because there is, in spite of everything, a community / of yellow dashes and lines:
Somewhere in the race
of voiceless lights,
a turn signal blinks
with the rhythm of a handshake. (from Gestures)
Vande Zande also knows that in many ways he is more fortunate than men of previous generations, such as his father whose hands / with frostbitten, open palms / look nothing like my own, warm // and closed over the steering wheel. (South Michigan Interstate, Near Detroit). I mentioned just now the strange, haunting beauty of the freeway, which Jeff Vande Zandes Transient draws us into skilfully and inexorably. In the last poem in the book, Road Signs, the poet offers us a celebratory glimpse of that beauty, even if in these ways we are deceived:
He notices the branches are losing
leaves, bare limbs against the cold,
and his high beams blink down to dims
for an oncoming windshield,
beauty in the jump of his fingers.
It is in the end, perhaps, the ambivalence of this vision, expressed through outstanding poetry, which makes it work so well for us. Jeff Vande Zandes work deserves a much wider audience, and it is this reviewers hope that sooner rather than later it will find that audience.
by JEFF VANDE ZANDE
MARCH STREET PRESS
3413 Wilshire Dr, Greensboro NC 27408, USA
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