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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Jennifer L. Knox's The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway reviewed by Kat Good-Schiff

[Best poetry book cover in 2010? --Eds.]

Jennifer L. Knox
The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway

Bloof Books, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-9826587-1-0
84 pp. | $15.00

Reviewed by Kat Good-Schiff

As should be expected, much is strange and unnatural in The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, the third book of poems by Jennifer L. Knox. Murderers, opera singers, and coyotes rub shoulders across the varied, yet equally wild, psychic terrains of desert, suburbia, and silent movies. In the poem “Cars,” we coast downhill with the speaker and her father at night in a quietly hurtling truck, unseen animals lurking just beyond the headlights. Many of these poems have a similarly ominous and thrilling momentum. Like a freeway accident, it’s impossible not to stare at the narrator of “The Clean Underwear/Ambulance Thing,” who declares, “When I was 12, I had sex with my / stepmother. It was fantastic, / and not a bit weird.”

Many of the poems contain elements of good fiction: suspense, catharsis, and memorable characters that are at once unlikely and unquestionable. The emotional range of the book is dizzying. One of the more reflective, less narrative poems, “The Cliffs above Oswald,” explores a psychological landscape of “waist-high bramble / … the thorn sea that has / swallowed us” and “seems to seal up / behind us as we struggle by.” In contrast, the preceding poem, “You’re F*cking Crazy,” is the extreme opposite of such gentle witness and features these rock-star opening lines:

I found him in the backyard at midnight
wearing a foam rubber sun costume—no tights
or underwear on—one ball hanging out the leghole
like a jawbreaker in a baby sock.

These poems burn like road rash and are tenacious as gravel under the skin. The book combines the transgressive dramatic monologues and fantastical narrative poems for which Knox is best known with some unabashed memoir, and the interplay of fiction and nonfiction works well. The honesty of the memoir lends the fiction a deeper quality, and the outrageousness of the fiction increases the surreal quality of the nonfiction since both have been crafted by the same brave imagination.

In a 2008 interview in Bookslut, Knox said, “I’m interested in people who do and say stupid, insane or compulsive things, and finding respect for them despite that. I’m not interested in pointing out how wrong people are … it’s way too easy—like watching Cops.” In several of Driveway’s more difficult poems, she musters an impressive amount of empathy for unsavory characters, often writing in the voice of a male persona who has committed a violent crime. In “Saving Her Wasted Breath,” the narrator drives the getaway car while wearing “a new white suit (pulled the tags / off with my teeth),” and his accomplice rides in the trunk:

Mongoloid Todd’s a tougher fit—the gate was locked
at Len’s Big and Tall, so I threw his blood-soaked duds off
the pier and he climbed in the trunk bare-ass—been there
two hours. When I gas up, I’ll cop us both T-shirts and shorts.

Visceral and vivid, the third-person narrative poems are even more compelling given the incredible names and situations Knox has come up with. In “Sling and Moley,” the title characters find endless riches at the beach after Sling inhales the sea, leaving “[p]earls, / plastic, and cans … on the sand space / where ocean used to be.” Mike and Lou (“Nice ‘N Easy Medium Natural Ash Brunette”) attend “a Grow Your Own Cocaine class at the Y” before they “make love like animals, for hours, as some / wildly expensive thing in the oven burned.” Like all good fantasy, these poem-stories are ridiculous yet emotionally true and therefore entirely plausible.

The prose poem sequence “Cars” is a coming of age story set in a suburb on the edge of a desert as one car after another, along with too much alcohol and drugs, bring about a string of near-death experience for the teenaged narrator. The cars become stand-ins for the miraculously resilient self:

I blew a tire coming home from a Dead show in L.A., but because I was tripping I kept on driving … The car drove off the cliff, turned in the air, and landed 30 feet below… I ended up in a ball behind the passenger seat with nothing but a tiny scratch on my hip. Oh, how I mourned those shoplifted pants the EMTs cut off me.

The girl’s father is equally unpredictable:

I could never predict when he would get angry. But since his happiness was rarer, maybe I should say I could never predict when he would be happy.

Ultimately she believes the circumstances were skewed against her: “Every car he gave me to drive … ‘malfunctioned’ in a major way.” As father becomes car and daughter becomes driver, they hurtle down the road and she fights for both control and understanding: “ ‘Don’t tell your mother,’ he’d say. ‘Why?’ ‘Because this is fairly dangerous.’ ”

So much struggle, danger, and mess transpire in these poems that it is fitting for the most tender of them, placed near the end of the collection, to put forth the act of shoveling dirt as a demonstration of affection. “Love Poem: One Ton of Dirt” is a story of horticultural triumph over a barren city lot. It portrays incautious joy (“we are badass with shoulders sore, lower backs no / doubt rainbows of pain on the morrow”) and hard-earned hope that “this’ll be the Mother / of all happy endings.” Such love is gritty and delicious.

With so much driving in these poems, one can imagine the “hidden driveway” of the book’s title as an image of home that, in the askew world of this book, might seem the stuff of legend. Many of the poems’ characters seem doomed never to find it, yet the book’s arc is hopeful. Lest we get too comfortable, it is equal parts cozy dream and accident waiting to happen.

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Kat Good-Schiff is the author of two chapbooks, Curl (a finalist for the Robin Becker Chapbook Prize) and East of North, and her work has been published in various journals including Eclipse, PANK, and Twelve Stories. She lives in western Massachusetts.