A Review of Elaine Sexton’s Drive

Review by S K Grout

The Space of Possibility
in Elaine Sexton’s Drive

A gouache painting, Early Morning Swim [2020] by Katherine Bradford, is the artwork for the cover of Elaine Sexton’s Drive. It is an enigmatic and perspective-altering entry point to the collection and introduction to its themes, showing a body diving off an outcrop into the sea. But the body is not only about action, there is a sense of falling, of weightlessness; it’s between states, from earth to water via the air, and, from certain perspectives, the body’s equilibrium could be stationary, or even, rising up from the sea. The body in movement toward something, but also through — simultaneously encountering time.

In a recent guest blog post on Trish Hopkinson’s website, Sexton discusses her approach:

“I’ve always wanted a book whose cover makes you want to pick it up. With Drive I like the feel of the matte finish. The slightly smaller-than-standard width, made to complement the short lines in the poems – the whole glove compartment-size of the book – makes sense.”

Cover Stories: Judging a Book by Its Cover – guest post by Elaine Sexton

A similar state of a body moving through time is automaticity (or highway hypnosis) — the ability to undertake a task or action (safely drive a car between one point and another) without having to occupy the mind with low-level decisions (gear shift, indicator, etc. in order to drive). These movements become an automatic response pattern or a habit. Have you ever driven somewhere familiar, gotten out of your car, and had little to no recollection of how you got there? That’s highway hypnosis.

I often thought about this between state of being when reading Drive. The poems engage with direction and propulsion, the forward momentum of a poem. But they also take me to places unexpected and varied. Poems were able to hang in space, much like the body on the cover, and thus inhabit a number of different states at one time. Yet at the heart of each poem is the human, or even the human condition, engaging with and driving the world.

✻ ✻

Drive is Elaine Sexton’s fourth collection of poetry. In it, we see her engagement with the artistic and the visual (and how to bring an image to life through language), studies to which she has dedicated her life.

“In my experience of art and the act of making it, creative endorphins kick in. I see or read a great work of literary or visual art, or a work in progress, and I am energized by it.”

Elaine Sexton in an interview with Matthew Thorburn, Unexpected Brightness, Ploughshares

These are poems that try to grasp the fleeting, difficult image, like a passing landscape from a car window. In almost all the poems, lines are short, three to four words long; in this way, lines act like moving images on the page. The first half of the collection is specific to concept; the second half more specific to time and place. We should consider the space of a car as an actual place, but also as a non-place, where a person can lose and find themselves, lose and find time. In the first half, there is a sense of timelessness, placelessness, as in the poem “This”:

  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
  or saving face.

Words shift their meanings across poems; in “Fuel”, we understand this word to mean that which powers a car (and the poem also subtly questions whether a car needs a human to power it) but in “Run”, fuel becomes something which powers closer to the spiritual.

  until a clicking
  reminds me that fuel 
  which is matter
  which is mind

  which is idea
  is not endless

In the second half of the collection, places, people and time come into focus. Whether or not they are specific to the poet or speaker or both, autobiographical elements like job titles and work places enter the poems. Details are interrogated, turned over, discussed. From “Finding Work”:

      I was out of work
  in the dream, and really did
  need to work, so drawing
  from life
  was essential. In life I deeply
  regret time wasted on subjects
  I cared little about. The day jobs,
  the lost years. Time.

The engagement with the visual extends to the poem titles themselves: “Sill Life Inside Last Year’s Chinese Lanterns” and “Landscape with Power Lines”; poems quote and reference Susan Sontag and Mark Rothko and, in the cento “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” (published in the Summer 2020 issue of The Night Heron Barks), each line is the title of a film, and the poem begins and ends with an Agnès Varda film. Even the table of contents, with its regular one word titles, presents itself visually like a long poem.

Listen to Elaine Sexton read
“One Sings, the Other Doesn’t”

Sexton tries to grasp at that which is not timeless, but rather ephemeral, and hold it as long as she can.  “When I am an eraser I can do / anything.” from “Caper” and “Someday the blank page will rush / under me” from “Autobiographia Literaria”. In the poem “Girl with a Book”, we are presented with a kind of material ephemeral, we turn over the details, we see a painting through words,

  The fact
  of the halo in the fresco

  makes you a saint

and yet the painting still does not manage to capture the sadness of the sitter. The painting freezes the moment in time through the medium of canvas, oils and paints, but grief and sadness are a process, like a body falling on the cover, a movement through time as shown in “A Thing or Two”.

  Your mourning arouses ―x―

  in the air, what I breathe
  and can’t breathe,

  what I see and don’t―but want to.

✻ ✻

Being between states is not only about temporal ones, but also the concept of between places “Real wheels / take me out of state.” (“Drive”). One of the key poems in Drive is titled “Nonplace.” Sexton tells us in the notes that this term, coined by French anthropologist Marc Augé, refers to a place where a person can become transient or anonymous, that does not hold the significance of a place — such as a motorway, an airport baggage collection, a shopping mall — a between place. “Maybe the past is not / the way to navigate” Sexton suggests. And this is a poem, like so many around it, of navigating grief, of understanding personhood through movement, and of moving from one place, one state to another. That movement, that “going” is fundamental to being human.

The car acts as a catalyst for transformation. Simply, it’s a machine that takes us from point A to point B, but Sexton asks us to think about who we are, who we were between these states — what a car journey can do to transform us. “Nonplace” is a study of two important cars that have defined the speaker’s memories and journeys that have shaped them as a person. In the poem “Drive”, the speaker talks about driving away from a family visit.

  I think I hear

  my brother’s taunt:
  What is it
  with women

  and cars? We are old,
  old enough,
  to equate mobility

  with independence.

A car journey through its repetition of the every day makes something new. Sexton explores this idea by returning to and repeating language throughout Drive; there are dogs, journeys, the names of cars. Even the poem titles engage with words associated with movement and journeys, using words often repeated across different poems – “Run”, “Fuel”, “Ignition”, “Transport”, “Brake Lights” and, of course, “Drive”.

This movement from one place or state to another is charged throughout the book with concepts like getting lost, losing something, being found and processing grief. Sexton examines and re-examines the specific and the non-specific at once: losing something is not quite the same as grief, but grief is precipitated by losing someone (or something), the state of grief is different from the state of loss. As in the poem, “Nonplace” the past acts as palimpsest to the present moment through the processing of grief and the forward momentum of a car. From “Ignition”:

  I was three

  close to four
  years old, my father,

  newly dead
  and my mother

  just learning
  to drive.

There are a number of poems where the speaker gets lost, or loses something, catches a glimpse or passes through a dream as if to remind the reader that we are always in movement toward something. “The most beautiful thing about the wind passing over the skin is sensation, cellular, invisible, metabolic” from “[ride]”.

✻ ✻

One of the most memorable parts of the collection are the bookend poems. The opening poem is titled “the most beautiful thing” and works like a continuous stream of consciousness. Perhaps the way thoughts knock against each other whilst driving, each line states a beautiful thing (“and the most beautiful thing about water is the word”) and then building and building upon it. The last poem is untitled but opens with “scraps of text” (what are poems if not this?), continues for five lines and finishes the poem and the book with “[t]he most beautiful thing about trust is what holds it in place.” For all Drive’s engagement with non-place, the ephemeral and moving between states, time, and place, it’s a triumph in crafting the moving image, an affirmation that human connection is the most beautiful thing.

S K Grout (she/they) is a writer, editor, and poet. She grew up in Aotearoa, New Zealand, lived in Germany and now splits her time between London and Auckland Tāmaki Makaurau. Her debut pamphlet, ‘What love would smell like’, is published with V. Press (2021). They hold a post-graduate degree in creative writing from City, University of London, and are a feedback editor for Tinderbox Poetry. Their poetry and reviews are widely published in the US, UK, Europe and the Pacific, including Ambit, Cordite Poetry Review, dialogist, Magma Poetry, Glass, Poetry Wales, and Finished Creatures. Website: skgroutpoetry.wixsite.com/poetry

Elaine Sexton is the author of three previous collections of poetry including Sleuth (New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2003), Causeway (New Issues Poetry and Prose, 2003), and Prospect/Refuge (Sheep Meadow Press, 2015). She currently teaches at the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute and lives in New York City and the North Fork of Long Island.

Drive, Grid Books