Drive by Elaine Sexton

Review by Diane Schenker

Full confession before I begin—the basic passions and points of view winding through Elaine Sexton’s new book, Drive, are ones I share. I am a “person of a certain age.” I’m a dog person. I love driving. Driver training in high school was on automatic transmissions so I then had to be coached by my dad to manage the stick shift on his 1960’s-era Studebaker Lark. My own story creates touch points for me with Sexton’s poems that not all readers will have. That said, Drive lifts way beyond my personal experiences. The artful refraction of her life and insights let me see my own from a completely fresh viewpoint. And these poems will take any reader on a journey of discovery to see things they thought they knew from a different slant.

Sexton begins with a block of prose poetry titled “the most beautiful thing.” Another iteration titled “[ride]” comes towards the end of Section I and the book’s final poem is a new “the most beautiful thing.” We are put on notice that beauty is a through-line in life and it is there whether we see it or not. The subtext—look and see.

These poems artfully ride the device of driving to explore travel. But this “travelogue” is only tangentially geographic. Actual physical journeys happen, but the poems build a much more complex experience for the reader. The heart of the collection lies in its travel through time and memory in an incredibly sensual, tactile vocabulary.

Journeying from poem to poem, we soon become aware that we are taking the tour of a long, full, and fully-lived life which Sexton portrays in all its complications with perspective and a depth of experience that doesn’t bemoan our endings. Rather the work celebrates where we’ve been and sees where all of us are going—a recognition filled with appreciation for the beauties and blunders, the accidents and amazements of a life’s journey. The beauties leaven loss and show us the gift of paying attention, no matter the circumstance. The “end of the journey” remains oblique in verbal reference but is deeply present nonetheless—without drama, just there.

One of the delights of Drive is how Sexton puts her poems together like beads on a string, each string having its own theme. She then weaves the individual strings into a winding helix that beautifully evokes the complexities and vantage point derived from decades of living.

The poet takes full advantage of layering meanings of various words, starting with the title. Drive as in driving cars, or what am I driving at?—we the readers are driven through a delicious variety of meanings in a worldly array of settings. There is foreign travel interspersed with travels at home. And ever-present strangeness, expected and unexpected, crops up in Sexton’s imagery.

The opening poem of Section I, “This” (p.15) begins:

In the way your poem
with a lake in it
is not about the lake, mine
with a dog and the broken
heart is not about a dog . . .

and ends:

. . .
Everything is about
gravity, the grave
for us. Each day
it starts with a bark
calling our name

This evocation of the canine continues as a wonderful, recurring thread through the poems. Sexton has mortality in one hand and the joys of the moment in the other. Everything passes. We die. Family and friends die. Our dogs die. The unspoken lesson? In the moment in which you are, pay attention.

“The Motorist” (p. 17) comes early in Section I. The epigraph from Susan Sontag: “Life is a movie. Death is a photograph.” is beautifully reflected by the poem’s own movement. It opens:

A picture of a car and its driver
competes poorly
with the road, the cliff, the sea

moving . . .

And it proceeds to evoke a thematic statement essential to the world Sexton is weaving together for the reader. There is an essential, unrendered being to be had by living in the moment, not thinking about it. The poem defines the undefinable, the unboundaried joy of moving in space:

. . .
so long as she knows

she is free not to be
where she’s expected to go.

This short piece leads us into the title poem, “Drive” (p. 18). Keeping with her themes of cars, driving, travel, Sexton now anchors us in her own past. She does this lightly, starting in a current “tiny” car, we transport to early family memories, a young girl’s feelings of being stuck. The escape?

Real wheels
take me out of state,

escaping the trap
I thought was/the small town.

She left her family, including a beloved dog buried in the back yard.

Then the past is past and we are back to the present. Sexton evokes just enough of her story for us to feel the signposts of the journey which she now looks back on with a deeper understanding. And we do, too, reflecting on our own paths.

Section II spreads out further into the world. There are day jobs with their struggles, scary mishaps while traveling, more deaths. This half of the book feels a bit darker to me but still rides beautifully on Sexton’s sharp word skills, building with darkness leavened by humor and the whole firmly on a foundation of an embrace of mortality.

In all, it is a gift to see the world through the eyes of this poet. Even if you are not of an age to be looking back at your life, Drive is a great manual and road map for living to keep in your pocket.