The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway
I have often wondered, because I clearly have too much free time, if there is anything upon which contemporary poets could agree. The only candidate I’ve found thus far is “Chicken Bucket,” a poem from Jennifer Knox’s A Gringo Like Me. “Chicken Bucket” has earned me lots of new friends, “Chicken Bucket” has eased me through tense encounters with would-be enemies, “Chicken Bucket” has convinced my students that if I am not awesome myself, I am only one degree away from awesome, and “Chicken Bucket” has required lots of explanation when people find out I read it to students at all. I’ve lent out many copies of the book in which “Chicken Bucket” appears, and I’ve never gotten any of them back.
So who is this Jennifer Knox Person, this savior unexpected, this salty redeemer we didn’t know we needed? Maybe it makes more sense to answer the question of who she is by noting when she most resembles.
Confused citizens of the United States of America recently celebrated (or, in smaller, numbers, lamented) the centennial birth of Ronald Reagan, our two-term fortieth president, preceded in this office by Jimmy Carter. The years between 1976 and 1989 possess what I like to identify as low production value, as if our national budget for fantasy was so limited that it became difficult to misperceive how shitty our affairs truly were. Cheap things looked cheap, expensive things looked gaudy, and it took a colossal act of will to obscure these truths. If you slid into your El Camino after a hard day’s work and rewarded yourself with a Very Special Episode of B.J. and the Bear, you knew in your soul that your civilization had failed, and that it couldn’t possibly last much longer, but that was okay, because when it finally collapsed you could break into the mall and make Orange Julii and have fun until the zombies came.
This gallows realism didn’t last, of course. A confluence of technological seduction, increasingly strategic civic distractions and desperate fear led us to unreasoning, jingoistic hope, drove us to pretend sunshine even though darkness still ruled the land. We gained self-esteem at the price of self-awareness, a bad bargain from which our current woes derive. But we lost much, as well. Eventually, we lost, for instance, Don Ho, as Jennifer Knox laments in “Don Ho’s Funeral”:
Great Shaman Mickey read the eulogy. Mickey’d only come down from his hut on the volcano’s slope one other time: the 1969 moon landing. Mickey told us many things we’d never known about the man Don Ho, the husband Don Ho, the father Don Ho—and one thing we did: Don Ho was a really good guy and everybody liked him.
This is ridiculous. It’s also funny. But unlike most other poetic marriages of the ridiculous, the funny, and the (insert reference as obscurely populist as Don Ho), it isn’t ironic, or at least not in the sense that an ironic speaker sucks the bitter marrow of pleasure from alleged superiority to their subject. Of the multiple ironies in which we currently flail, all require a subject stripped of any unconsidered virtue. But sometimes this results in self-congratulation—I see through you, Don Ho!—and Knox’s irony is of a different kind, in that it asks what kind of tool could muster pride from “seeing through” the likes of Don Ho. After all, if it is ridiculous to stand up for Don Ho, only an egomaniac or an asshole would dismiss this kind of valediction:
Now Don was nestled in the always-86 degrees, breezy bosom of the Lord where everybody’s gonna get paid, everybody’s gonna get champagne—the good stuff—with tiny bubbles zipping off like pricked balloons, like cells unwinding in the blood.
The most destroying detail here is “the good stuff,” a qualifier that proves that nobody’s going to get the good stuff, no one knows what the good stuff is, everyone just hopes and believes in a later and better world, you know, where they keep the good stuff at, where all it takes to be heavenly is a paycheck and fancy folk’s fancy wine. Primary irony would disallow any longing of this type, no matter how modest it seems; Knox goes better than to allow it, and suggest a sort of wistful nobility.
Straightforward as this poem is, Knox is better known for bringing the weird, as she does when prophesying one of the seventies and early eighties’ icons of manliness, in “Burt Reynolds FAQ”, which begins by telling us
Reynolds is he son of six grizzly bear brothers and the Holy Goddess of Cherry Trees. He was born from his mother’s nose, which ensures lifelong charisma. Before he could walk, alligators would gather to watch him wrestle other babies.
and concludes with the deadpan assertion that “In the summer, his mustache still grows unruly with lily of the valley.” If you didn’t know any better, you could call this surrealist, though most surrealists wouldn’t bother with the velvety trochaic beauty of that back-half of the line. More importantly, surrealism would shove the impossible onto the field to compete with the reduced capacities of realism, which suggests a kind of hierarchy in which the real suffers by comparison.
But Knox insists the playing field between the bizarre and the mundane is fully level, and doesn’t really recognize or care that the teams wear different colors. So in the very short novel-poem “Red/Green Color Blind Madness,” when the antagonist, Pokey, says
Whoa there, Stretch. Hands
off—the madness stays right
where I left it,
and offers, by way of justification,
See it’s a philosophy, really—
a conscious choice to be this way—
though it’s costed me dearly…
the narrator responds with
It’s rabies, you dolt—you’re
Drooling all over the place
I am given to trust the narrator over Pokey, simply because of the contrast between the deluded rhetoric of self-inflation and the cranky facticity of the speaker, even though she then proceeds to worry over a spider’s egg buried under her scalp, predicting that “Soon it would hatch / and its scorching righteousness / would pour forth like lava.” Well, better the illusions that exalt us than ten thousand truths, says Pushkin, but I stand with Knox, who says it’s rabies, you dolt. It isn’t that extraordinary things don’t or can’t occur; it’s that they don’t justify or deserve a philosophy, nor do they at all imply a conscious choice. The extraordinary is thus very ordinary indeed.
It would be harder to qualify this laconic, resigned irritability if The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway were not so well balanced in terms of the colorful derangements and stark ones. For example, the bizarrely incomplete narrative of “Red/Green Color Blind Madness” sits opposite “”Battle of the Network Stars: “Dream Team”” quoted in its entirety below:
She asked if she could
Sing a song for us
In the bathroom.
It was about love,
And being Irish.
The sound in the stall:
Like she’d opened
A box of wasps
Onto our faces.
Later we laughed about her song
As we were charging the fattest
Hooker in the stable
On a credit card we stole
From my mom’s purse.
This is breathtakingly cruel, and with only a few tweaks, could easily be mistaken for one of Ai’s dramatic monologues, spoken from some dim afterlife of the American West, peopled by spectral fuck-ups of one kind or another. Except, of course, Ai would never have thought to name-check a televised “sporting event” that at its apex featured a showdown between Gabe Kaplan and little Robert Conrad.
We should pause here to ask whether or not it matters if the reader knows anything about Gabe Kaplan or Robert Conrad. If you know enough to recall what a joy it was to see a lanky self-deprecating schlub outrace the bantam rooster of unjustifiable vanity, all to the good. The conflict accidentally reproduces the fight between drolly accurate ‘70s defeatism and the insanely misguided and hateful optimism of the 1980s. But if you don’t know anything about the grand donnybrook to which I refer, it doesn’t matter, because the very title “Battle of the Network Stars” presents you with all the information you need. For you know, at least, that there were things called networks, and people called stars, and someone thought it was a good idea to send them to battle, and whether with shame or pride or no thought whatsoever, we watched.
So if it bears asking what all that stuff is doing in there, what’s Quizno’s doing in there, Knox asks and answers the question herself, by asking about Beverly Hills Cop III, about which she says
This again, but way lamer. We started out
Outlaws, now we’re law (in chichi suits, yet).
Why does every bright, rare thing we are boil
Out like wine’s kick in a simmered port glaze,
Leaving only virgin vapors, Ghost of Badass?
This captures the essential dynamic perfectly. You don’t need to have any special relationship with the Beverly Hills Cop franchise to experience a perverse nostalgia for crap that had the dignity of its own crappiness, the sanity of no real ambition. All you need is the ability to detect the madness of the present. Knox’s writing will always be contemporary, because there will always be a past.
In her previous poems, this relentless reverse-polishing—she works hard to restore rust to a bent fender painted with chrome—Knox simply wandered from one scenario to another, happy to show us disconnected vignettes of the dumb, bludgeoning power of human wishes. But the long second section of The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, “Cars,” tells a story of sorts, or at least draws a portrait of the relationship between a young woman and her dad, a flip-book of automotive mishaps. In one segment, the daughter notes that her father brought a ’66 Corvair, a shapely relic of a vehicle famously marked unsafe at any speed. But it’s the daughter who can be characterized in those terms as well: she drinks, she gets stoned, she smokes crack, she chews Tropical Bunch Bubble Yum, she trips all the way across the desert after a Dead concert on her tire rims. Her dad, for his part, shares her potential for catastrophe, though his springs more from an apparent disinterest in his own well-being. Yet the pair, on Sundays, “go for long rides all day.” On one of these, when he is angry at her for some reason the daughter cannot even remember,
He hadn’t spoken a single word for hours, then he pulled over and asked, “Do you know why you do the things you do?” He left the motor running. I knew that meant he didn’t think it would take long. I also suspected there was no right answer. And I was right.
Rightness, denied and possessed. Knowing that there’s no right answer, refusing to pretend to greater control or wisdom or power or meaning than is possible, is as close to right as we can get. This is why Knox’s humor is kind, for all its sometimes-surly thuggishness. She reminds us that the destination of better is unreachable. When we aren’t crashing, we are simply going nowhere, very fast.