The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway
by Jennifer L. Knox
Bloof Books 2010
Reviewed by Stacey Harwood
“Ghost or Badass?”
The brainchild of poet Shanna Compton, Bloof Books has published enough titles of fine poetry by emerging poets that it can safely be considered an established small press. Among its backlist you’ll find handsomely produced volumes by Danielle Pafunda, Peter Davis, and Sandra Simmons. With The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, Bloof brings us its third volume by Jennifer L. Knox (previous titles are Drunk by Noon and a 2007 reissue of her first book, A Gringo Like Me), thereby demonstrating that Compton knows how to pick a winner and stick with her.
Jennifer L. Knox’s work has been widely praised for its dark humor, and those looking for laughs with their lines will find them, beginning with many of the forty-three poems’ titles. But crack the spine and you’ll see that Knox’s humor is rarely without a bite; her poems can be funny, yes, but along with the humor is an uncomfortable edge, and you could end up feeling as if you laughed too soon at a joke with a cruel punch line. This is to say that Knox’s poems shake your initial assumptions about the seemingly wacky situations in which she places her characters. Again and again, Knox overturns her reader’s expectations with the skill of a quick change artist; with a casual, almost droll tone and matter-of-fact language, she engages the reader with a familiar scene that is quickly transformed to an alien and harsh world.
Here’s a test: Take “Belle with a Showy, Red Leak,” one of my favorite poems in the collection. See if you can guess the line that follows the opening “It was tough to poke the thick embroidery needle through / ” With the Victorian world conjured by an image of woman hunched over her cross stitch, did you even come close to “her lower lip and twist the stud in before the hole closes”? Neither did I. By the end of the poem’s thirteen lines, the subject has moved from lip piercing to “getting shoved listlessly from one set of hands to the next / like a beach ball the whole crowd’s tired of hitting.” As we follow Knox’s imaginative leaps, we’re struck wondering, like David Byrne, “Well, how did I get here?”
Many of Knox’s poems fall in the tradition of the unexpected encounter (think “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”): the narrator has a peculiar encounter that leads to a mystifying transaction, and ends the poem with an altered perspective. In “Old Friends,” the speaker sits in a coffee shop remembering an “old friend” who had committed a despicable act. The narrator allows herself a moment of self-congratulation. Unlike the erstwhile friend, she’s become “a better person, certainly better / than the women I knew, who I would never be friends with / again—she probably hadn’t changed at all . . . ” But in the midst of her reverie, the bodies of everyone she’s ever “drowned in sacks years ago begin / falling from the sky, heavy like wet sandbags from a crane.“ The battered grownup cannot escape her past.
In “Old Friends” and elsewhere, Knox demonstrates her well attuned ear and an enviable gift for metaphor making. Here’s one example, and pay particular attention to the smart internal rhymes and pitch-perfect alliteration, qualities that add to the pleasure of reading a Knox poem aloud:
Beverly Hills Cop III
This again, but way lamer. We started out
outlaws, now we’re law (in chichi suites, 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 or Badass?
Like this: The synthesizer—formerly a wink, sweet
mystique—thunders now, boops and stomps around
as hammy as a Scottish soccer anthem. The walk-on
waiter and his foppish lisp have sailed from sidelines
to sidekick—shares every scene, gets his own
badge, his own girl, his own fight and fall.
“If you want to touch your reader’s heart, grow colder,” Chekhov advised an aspiring writer, and it is with this kind of cool, precise language that Knox moves us so deeply, especially in “Cars,” a spectacular sequence of fifteen prose poems that could introduce a new genre: the life story as told through a series of car accidents. The prose poem is a particularly genial form for Knox. Beginning with her first experience as an unwilling child behind the wheel of a truck, the car accident is the means by which the speaker explores the trajectory of her drug-and-booze wrecked life and more specifically her painful relationship with her father. You know things will go downhill when the father buys a Corvair, the “unsafe at any speed” vehicle that launched Ralph Nader’s career as a consumer advocate. And they do. Cars slam into telephone polls, flip over, swerve “like a cat on iceskates,” yet the narrator survives all of these wrecks to hear her father’s weepy apology for worrying “about you so much,” to which she responds with preternatural wisdom: “’It’s OK,’ and I mean it, because suddenly I know, he’s just scared. That’s why he did all the things that he did.”
While many of the poems in The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway are confounding—we may wonder how to interpret their stories or about the nature of the anxiety that inspired them—they are ultimately exhilarating and fresh, the work of a poet with a unique sensibility and singular intelligence.