Cover Image: Roadworthy

Roadworthy

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This was a purely experimental read. I don’t normally go in for poetry and I don’t have a lot of interest in long distance hauling or trucker lifestyle. But the cover attracted me and it was short enough to just check it out on a whim. A peculiar wildly uncharacteristic whim.
    The book actually had a lot of praise, but from no one I ever heard of, so that was neither here nor there. The most explicable attractor past the cover was a sort of travelogue appeal, something about hitting the road and checking out the country.
     Well, trucking may not be the best way to do it. It might be hitting the road too heavily. Literally. Also, going by the author’s long tenure in the field, it isn’t especially lucrative and can be anywhere from uncomfortable to downright dangerous. Whatever poetry he found on the road may not translate into the same experience for others, in fact most likely it doesn’t. Unless you know some poet truckers…
     So no, the book didn’t sell me on trucking. Or poetry, for that matter. I really did try, but it just didn’t really work for me. It doesn’t seem like the author’s fault, he tried his best, he spun some nice imagery and turned out some nice phrases, but, ironically enough, for me this was best showcased in his nonpoetic entries of which there are few throughout the book. In fact, the van Gogh one might have been one of the best things in here. There were some other interesting things, the CB chatter was quite fun. Overall, though, this was a very specifically inspired collection so it produced a very specific experience. Even as travelogues go, it didn’t go far, just along the Northern West Coast. 
     It’s meant to be an ode to the proverbial everyday man, the sort of no collar working class hyperrealistic chronicle of their quotidian lives. Which can be good when done right, but for me it would require plot. Not just sketches and glimpses. 
     Maybe that’s why most poetry doesn’t work for me. I’m a narration person. I need a story. This makes me think of perusing movie storyboards as oppose to watching the movie. Or maybe I’m too much of a traditionalist and I prefer more traditional sort of poems, rhymes and all. These were definitely not like that. In fact, a lot of them just seems like regular narration paragraphed into looking like poetry. 

     I can probably do the same thing here right now,
watch how one review turns poetic by mere excessive use of return button,
for this might be how poetry is made these days, just tapping out rhythm in your mind, 
rhyme free, just spinning imagery like a Wildman with a thread…
so that it may become roadworthy yet.

No, messed it up, it still had more rhythm and that one last rhyme. So ok, I read some poetry. I didn’t hate it per se, certainly love it. It just fed the confirmation bias, I suppose. 
Also, this stood out…in the poem listing his generally very reasonable fears the author mentions his daughter leaving her three year marriage to be a lesbian. That’s a fear on par with poverty, death, etc. Seriously? Even in a country as lamentably socially conservative as US, this seems kind of too far. But anyway, just an observation. 
Also, weirdly enough, this read just as long as a regular novella of the same length would, despite lower word count. Also, there’s an entire afterword dedicated to decrying truckers’ working conditions, including very detailed scheduling logistics. So, basically, you will learn a lot about the trucking life. Maybe working class is poetic and it’s all the matter of perspective and I’m not poetically savvy enough to be the judge of this collection. But where is all this adoring audience then? Mine is only the second review on GR and the book’s been on Read Now shelf on Netgalley for a while now. I don’t know, these are just some thoughts in a review that’s gone on way too long about a book I didn’t really give a truck about. An interesting experiment, though. Thanks Netgalley.
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Roadworthy offers an informed and affectionate portrayal of how long-distance truck driving creates a unique way of seeing the world.  Those who perform this demanding work form a clan with its own procedures, mores and signs. Politeness is one essential as shown in  ‘At the Dollar Tree in North Bend OR'.  Mehler addresses a litany of complaints to the driver supervisor of a dairy driver whose honking of the horn at 3.13 am has awoken him.  Yet the poem turns and ends with a sad  wryness suggestive of a deeper source behind these complaints:
I wish I used a pallet truck to unload my truck
and drove a day cab got paid union wages
you wouldn't happen to be hiring
would you’

Another listing shows up in ‘back to back runs in the Rockies'
when different remedies for staving off sleep are suggested. These include coffee, cigarettes, loud music, taped books, lots of curves and traffic, hard rain, slapping your face, periodic screaming, bouncing, riding seat to music and 10 minute nap.
There is a surreal flavour to the strangeness of these juxtapositions but they also make good practical sense.  The universe of long-distance is instantly recognisable yet also deeply foreign; a community with its own rituals as in the superstitions that gather around ‘Trailer 2542L'.
‘...The queer frequency
Of mundane mechanical failures – lights that lit
Or didn't; lug nuts flying off wheels bounced into 
people's windshields; tires throwing tread; brakes 
that locked . . .’
The drivers talk and dread seeing 2542L on a load.  It goes on its final journey from Newark to Missoula.
In Mehler’s clever telling there are two narratives: in one, the true one, this turns out to be an incident free trip. In the second, the jinx that has plagued the trailer continues on. Mahler concludes that the curse that continues,
‘...would be the stuff of a 19th century Joseph
Conrad tale,
Wouldn't it?’
This tongue-in-cheek knowingness is one of the cardinal strengths of this volume.  It has a sustained tone, a well-informed grip of the practicalities of trucking while still communicating that naive universal romantic longing for a life ‘on the road’.
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One of my favorite surprises in literature is when authors take the time to tell us “how stuff works”: a lever, a switch, a gear. Or, if not exactly how it works, then how it feels to interface with the technology. Usually this happens in fiction, and it can be done in poetry, too, although I see it more rarely. To communicate a lot about a machine through poems, a poet might have to build a whole book around it.

Roadworthy, Dave Mehler’s new book of poems, is an example of this. In addition to editing Triggerfish Critical Review and serving on the board of the Oregon Poetry Association, he is a truck driver, a job that inspires and informs his creative work. The poems are delivered by the muse, surely, and also by truck.

The poetry in Roadworthy is divided into four sections, the first of which is called “The Dollar Tree Poems.” While I am not sure if I have ever been inside a Dollar Tree, through Mehler’s telling, I can hear how the repetitive delivery of inventory to chain stores yields itself to poetry.

“…stacking pallets incrementally / higher making platforms, each step closer to the load, / over which I hook the rollers and lay them like track…”
(“The Young Pugilist at the Dollar Tree in Milwaukie, OR”)

“Early morning late fall, thirty-three degrees, clear, / and from quiet leaf-strewn streets I feel a safe, / hot apple-cidery nostalgia.” (“Unloading at the Dollar Tree in Ellensburg, WA”)

He describes the people he meets during his truck deliveries and imagines backstories about their lives. Backgrounding this human activity are the machine and animal ecosystems, as humans stand with one foot in the machine world and one in the animal world. Coughing engines and the slap of machinery make up the scenery’s rhythm, and so do wildlife at rest-stops: eagles, beetles, turtles, mice. The attention needed to interpret “shoe brakes, open trannie casing, / parts of engines strewn, a metallic chaos” (“Spring, and a Mysterious Sense of Well-being at the 11th Street Dollar Tree in Eugene, OR”) is a cousin of the attention that sees the birds: “Black-winged shoulders notched / blood red — below red leaks hot gold light…” (“The Sunny Riverbank at the Dollar Tree Distribution Center in Ridgefield, WA”).

When authors incorporate technology — which in this case includes machinery and retail distribution — into their writing, it gives the writing historical value.

Roadworthy provides an eyewitness record of how people interface with trucks. For truck drivers, I imagine that some observations — the starting, the stopping, the sound of the motor — ordinarily form a set of assumptions that might seem obvious to them until someone logs these observations and transforms them into poetry. Once they are inside a poem, the assumptions are made explicit and can take on new meaning for a wider audience. For those of us who aren’t truck drivers, these detailed journeys offer a window into a rhythmic schedule entirely new to us.

These poems have an immersive physicality. They are immediate in the sensory way. You feel what it is like to be awake at 5 a.m. on the highway, stopping for breakfast, hearing the call of a bird. Here, a reader can “revel in cold and wet seeping through insulated coveralls, with just that hint of warmth and scent passing through the glass of each shop window I walk past, glazed and glaring with all the richness, mulled spices, the life of that world inside.” (“The Jolly Season in Steamboat Springs”) If you like to imagine yourself inside a detailed, real-world scene, this may be the poetry book for you.
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I like poetry, and I make a point of reading a poetry book per month, so poetry doesn't scare me. What scared me a little bit was the topic of lorries, which is very alien to me.

But I actually connected quite well with the predicament of the author and his colleagues during the decade or so that he was working as a lorry driver. I loved the anecdote of surgeons trying to protect the tattoes of a lady who had some pregnancy problem. It was weird but plausible, the way of narrating the event was tragicomic. 

My favourite poem was Not the Chicken. I thought it was going to be quite funny, maybe childish, but it was all the opposite. To me, it meant more than any other of the poems, it was the one in which the plight of the job is conveyed more strongly.

Smoke Break, and the previous proem- I can't remember the title with precision right now, but  it was quite weird - are striking remarkable. 

I liked the conversations Dave Mehler has with some other lorry drivers. I also checked out the existance of the Dollar Tree shops on the internet. It becomes a metonymy which creates a thematic repetition and gives unity to the first third of this collection.

I appreciated how urban and down-to-earth everything is. The narrative voice can be quite amusing and a bit cynical. I think  that the author managed to show some real life experiences, and made them interesting, well narrated.
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