Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Interstate: An Apology

I remember growing up in the valley of Virginia, on the hills that formed the divide between the watersheds of the Shenandoah River to the north and the James River to the south—one of the highest points in the valley proper. On all sides were long limestone ridges, the valleys bottoming out to carry the water on its long course to the Chesapeake Bay, some 200 miles to the east. I could not imagine these rivers’ journeys; the small matter of blue mountains on either side of my world formed a quite palpable impediment to that imaginative journey. To the east, the Blue Ridge Mountains, Big and Little Spy, Cellar, and Cold Springs Mountains, and to the west, the first line of the Alleghenies, Shenandoah, North, and Jump Mountains. These same mountains made it, historically, impossible for river navigation. The rivers snaked their way through the mountains, here and there finding a pass where they could cut through.

With such natural barriers (barriers that kept the valley relatively safe until union troops began to chase one of its native sons, Thomas Jackson from Lexington, up and down it), it would be easy to imagine a childhood there as being relatively insular. What small window to the greater world, aside from the omnipresence of television, did such topography offer? I lived in the world of roads between the mountains, starting with the old Wilderness Road (now U.S. 11), which led settlers, including Daniel Boone and Sam Houston, down the valley to the Cumberland Gap and the frontier land beyond. Through a small cut in the ridges to the east, toward the Blue Ridge Mountains, I could see a small stretch of Interstate 81. Interstate 81, which parallels the older Highway 11, carried cars from the Canadian border in upstate New York south along the mountains to finally cross them and peter out just east of Knoxville, Tennessee. The break in the ridge was only large enough to admit a small creek, Walnut Creek, though it is not really large enough to be worthy of a name. It is one of the many heads of the James River, though its water is not known as such until the Maury’s confluence with the James at the town of Glasgow, in Rockbridge County, Virginia, some 40 miles south of where I lived.

It would be easy to write a tract damning the Interstate system. Undoubtedly, the extra convenience and mobility that the interstate highway system affords is not without a price. It has chained us all to our vehicles, moving the centers of commerce from local focus points to large coagulations of businesses, strip malls, and fast food restaurants. The increased freedom of travel has also done nothing to help the great environmental problems the world now faces. More cars and travel mean more pollution, ozone, and smog. But, as much as we may hate the fact, the interstate highways have become the circulatory system for this country: arteries that push the vitality of its citizenry out from the heart of their homes to the farthest extremities of our nation, journeys that may have been unthinkable mere decades ago, and the veins that return them home again. Look at a map of the United States. These highways are the concrete stitches that bind the patch work of the 48 conterminous states together, not only physically, but culturally. So little does each seem a different nation now, the definition of “state” is lost. This is, at once, a positive and negative effect. Certainly, the loss of distinctive regional cultures is missed and should be celebrated before even the memory of them fades. But, how much has the increased mobility done to decrease misunderstanding and mistrust?

Without knowing any of this at the time, I gazed many times through the break in the hills that afforded a glimpse of the endless movement of I-81. A small flutter to the eyes accompanied by the endless flap and rumble of traffic, especially at night when the rest of the world’s sounds subsided. To me then, this brief glimpse showed me a life of movement--cars always moved upon I-81, regardless of the time, more and more as the years passed and this stretch of highway became an alternate route to the more heavily traveled and widely know I-95. It is no longer the road less traveled. Riding the highways with my parents, and later on my own, it offered glimpses into places I had not visited, and probably will not visit. Many times, I wiled away the long hours on the road by noticing the license plates of the cars that traveled along with us. Each new state plate offered a chance to the imagination, a speculation to the occupants of that car, people I would never truly meet, with their own lives, concerns, cares. And it was this interstate that took me on all my journeys: from my home to college, then from my home again to start the long journey south to Atlanta. That small visible stretch of highway, tiny as it was, was a kinetic focal point in the shadows of the mountains, which so dominate the scene through which I-81 runs.

I have written often of the interstate highways, and I think it a worthy subject for many reasons, over and above my personal history. Many of us spend a great deal of time on the highway, whether for a daily commute or for a long anticipated vacation. The highways, despite their problems, are the most cost-efficient way of getting from point A to point B, without leaving out miniature pieces of home, traveling houses, islands of home we can take wherever we go. While traveling interstate highways my not be as romantic as driving the back roads, the number of cars from all over the continent that can be seen every day, even on the shortest trip, attests that these highways are the route of choice for many people. Indeed, the freeways are a symbol of transit in our time. They can be viewed as cold and impersonal, offering little human interaction as each person clings to his or her own traveling island (isn’t this a symbol of the world where we find ourselves in and of itself?); but travelers, even on such a engineered marvel as the freeway system, can see many aspects of the natural world, if they only look. First, think of the sheer numbers of people. Think of the wide range of humanity that can be viewed on a trip, each person within a fishbowl of sorts, all looking, noses pressed against the glass, out into the world. What a variety of humanity! Lexuses and F150 Ford trucks can both be viewed with flat tires. Such prospects also included the environment surrounding the driver. As I drive the interstate, especially during the early fall or spring, I find myself looking for where along my journey the line of the season change occurs. Or, later in the year, where the winter rains begins to freeze on the side of the road, and later on the windshield and car itself, turning from wet sheets to hard ice and driving snow. Views from the interstate highways can also be surprising in the prospects they offer to a traveling driver. A driver, no matter what time of day or night, can witness sights that are unexpected in the drone of tires on asphalt and that are sometimes surprisingly beautiful. Life does not stop on the shoulders. Instead, life surrounds us all the time, even though we withdraw as much as possible behind closed windows into the solipsistic silence of the cabins of our automobiles.

As William Bartram states in his Travels: “The attention of a traveller should be particularly drawn, in the first place, to the various works of Nature, to mark the distinctions of the climates he may explore, and to offer such useful observations of the different productions as may occur.” All this can be viewed as easily from a vehicle as from horseback. These changes, still continuous and visible, are the stuff that makes a journey, not time or distance. On the road, time loses its meaning, one minute slipping seamlessly into the next hour, and the earth’s surface curves every 23 miles, so distance cannot be observed without such changes. Such a change can be merely physical, the difference of flora and fauna between home and your destination, or it can be something more nebulous. As Henry Miller said, a destination is not place but a new way of looking at things. Travelers are recreated as they, their outlook changed by the surrounding sights and sounds. Every moment and every experience, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, shapes one’s outlook. I do not see the same tree today as I saw yesterday, just as I cannot step into the same river twice.

Poetry grows from and follows such roadbeds. Merely the act of writing a poem can be a journey, from point A (the initial conception) to point B (the crafted final product). This trip is full of many twists, turns, detours, and unexpected surprises. Whether they be the shape of a poem, its form or lack thereof, and even subject. Many times, I have found that upon completing a poem that the subject of the finished work (if any poem is ever finished!) differs greatly from that initially conceived. A poem can take many detours, can zip easily to its destination, will respond to various road conditions as they occur, or be stuck in traffic for years—how many times have poets found themselves on treacherous and slippery conditions as a poem progresses, only to shift speeds or take an alternate route providing more purchase for the tires of their ideas and imagination upon the roadway of language and its limitations. This traveling aspect to writing should not be bemoaned but celebrated, for it brings us the readers, poems of such diverse scope and tone.

They also follow the paths, paved or unpaved, demonstrating the same movement and tensions of any journey. No poem is a single static artifact; it is a different animal altogether. Poems spring the kinetic energy of contradictions that are generated within it: much like the contrast between movement and stasis of interstate travel. At once, driving from point A to point B, the road signs and scenery tear past on the periphery to fast, almost, for the eyes to focus upon them, while, within the cabin, it seems that you are hardly moving at all. Both journeys and reading or writing poems are exercises in the transient world. Nothing within a poem separates it from time: the time of writing, the time of reading, the transience of the words for their own sake. Things change and are subject to various processes, road conditions if you will. These processes drive the poem from beginning to end, and it is the conflict within a poem (and the road a poem steers between such obstacles) that lend it its power. For me, the interstate highway, with all of the contradictions that are inherent in such travel, offers a find subject and metaphor for poetry. What more basic contradictions can one imagine than the difference between movement and stasis, between kinetic and potential energy? I think that a poem should leap into the world, not fully formed, but in a process of genesis, a genesis that is not complete until the poem is. Fill the poem with kinetic energy and you will fill it with interest and power.

I have written much about Interstate Highways. My attraction to these highways continues because of their reality to the modern world, the world in which we all live. I fully expect a century from now that some ambitious poet will begin writing about the realities of his or her generation, whatever they may be. This is not an “on the road” cycle; instead it aims much higher. My ambition in these poems is nothing less than to offer a glimpse into the modern world: our world, in all of its despair, anomie, apathy and hope, as seen from the highways—not the backroads, which have been already celebrated justly. Instead, I hope to look at the roads actually driven by people, my audience—a familiar subject to all.

The interstate rumbles on. . .

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