Steering Wheel

My New York City grad student, Tom, has sent a poem. He said my little essay had echoed a lot of the themes in it. Actually he used the phrase ‘dovetail,’ as in ‘a lot of the themes in your essay seemed to dovetail with the poem.’


In the rear view mirror I saw the veil of leaves
suctioned up by a change in current
and how they stayed up, for the allotted time,
in absolute fidelity to the force behind,
magenta, hovering, a thing that happens,
slowly upswirling above the driveway
I was preparing to back clear out of—
¬and three young pine trees at the end of that view
as if aghast with bristling stillness—
and the soft red updraft without hesitation
aswirl in their prickly enclosing midst¬—
and on the radio I bent to press on,
a section with rising strings plugging in,
crisp with distinctions, of the earlier order.
Oh but I haven't gotten it right.
You couldn't say that it was matter.
I couldn't say that it was sadness.
Then a hat from someone down the block
blown of, rolling—tossing—across the empty macadam,
An open mouth. with no face round it,
O and O and O and O—
¬‘we have to regain the moral pleasure
of experiencing the distance between subject and object,’
—me now slowly backing up
the dusty driveway into the law
composed of updraft, downdraft, weight of these dried
midwinter leaves,
light figured in too, I'm sure, the weight of light,
and angle of vision, dust, gravity, solitude,
and the part of the law which is the world’s waiting,
and the part of the law which is my waiting,
and then the part which is my impatience—now; now?—

though there are, there really are,
things in the world, you must believe me.

I have to admit, I love the poem. It had an undeniable, immediate effect on me. Not quite like Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Siege, which, when I last read it gave me goosebumps. Each and every line. But not unlike it, either. Except that this is a plea, it is a wish, a hope, and Siege isn’t. Siege is a siege.

I’m still trying to puzzle out what this poem has to do with me, though. Poems are funny. I mean, Siege is pretty straightforward. ‘This I do being mad…’ But this is a horse of a different color. It appears for all the world to be about the poet backing out of his driveway on a windy day. In Siege, you can be fairly sure ‘baubles’ means baubles, for example, and ‘Death’ is death. But here you’ve got all sorts of things that presumably stand for other things. Or maybe not.

The poet (some chap by the name of Graham, apparently) does say ‘You couldn't say that it was matter./I couldn't say that it was sadness.’ Which might lead you to believe the poem’s about how material things have another level at which they can be experienced.

The first eleven lines are a fairly straightforward description of a phenomenon, the aforementioned wind. But add to this the fact that at the time he’s backing out of the drive, and seeing all of it in his rearview mirror. And then, in line twelve, he switches on the car radio, where he hears music ‘crisp with distinctions, of the earlier order’ (it is not entirely clear to me here, however, what the significance of the comma in this line is). This reinforces the theme of looking back, both in space and time, one a physical act, the other a mental one.

In line 15 the description ends, and the poet laments he has not ‘gotten it right.’ The most mundane physical phenomena defy description. Or perhaps it is their effect on us that does.

The hat is the clearest, most consciously drawn metaphor in the poem, aside from the trees ‘standing aghast’. And here, I’m quite sure, it stands for something standing for something. The ‘O and O and O and O’ while it fits nicely into the mood of the poem (queer, uncanny, revelatory—think of Munch’s The Scream), is there to reinforce the simple fact that we quite naturally tend to see in the thing more than the thing itself. This is the very essence of poetry, I suppose, and of language generally. Thus the figure, really the letter O, that makes the sound of O, which requires that one make one’s mouth into the shape of an O. That’s the real gem of the poem, in fact. That’s the simple, perfect thing. It’s also the moment when things crystallize, leading to the poet’s revelation that ‘we have to regain the moral pleasure/of experiencing the distance between subject and object.’ Between self and other. There is a world of physical laws that we are a part of, though we are insulated from it in our modern world. We see it from within the shell of our technological, ‘made’ world (from inside the car), reflected, refracted through (the) media (the rearview mirror). But we mustn’t forget it really is there.

But there’s something more here, too. In the plaintive note of those last lines—’…you must believe me.’ Like the prophet whose message falls on deaf ears. Isn’t the poet saying that the real world, the world of phenomena, of physical laws, of objects and others, is always reasserting itself? That we ignore it our own peril? Our moral peril?

And why is the poem called The Steering Wheel, if not for the fact that this is where the will and the world of phenomena intersect (in the extended metaphor of the poem, that is)? It is the necessary physical apparatus that allows us to ‘turn’ the will into the act, without which we cannot affect the will at all.

Hmm. Strangely gratifying, a little Sunday morning poetry analysis. The mechanics of poetry are very interesting to me. I mean, the assumption is that somewhere in the unconscious mind, the message is graspable, and that’s what moves us, without our really being able half the time to say why. The language of this poem, and its various metaphors are not opaque, or even abstruse. But the minimal effort to piece them together is too much sometimes, though if I feel something, I usually take the time.


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