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American Classic : CAR POEMS FOR COLLECTORS; edited by Mary Swope and Walter Kerr (Scop: $8.95; 130 pp.)

May 11, 1986|Gerald Locklin | Locklin teaches and writes at Cal State Long Beach. and

The funding and marketing of poetry have been problems since Homer's Hector was a pup, and the cuts in the federal arts budget have not helped. Nevertheless, the "International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses" grows thicker each year as poets and their publishers extend their creativity into the fiscal realm. One answer has been the chapbook contest, a sort of lottery in which you put your money where you hope your talent is. Another is the theme anthology such as this collection of car poems, obviously aimed at extending the readership for poetry and with financial assistance from, ingeniously, the United Auto Workers. For such an inspiration alone, the editors deserve credit.

The poems deal with brands, parts, hitching, radio stations, religious billboards, alcohol, crashes and couplings. Real cars drag-race symbolic ones. The table of contents drops names from Carl Sandburg to William Stafford, with Howard Nemerov, Robert Bly, Gregory Corso, James Dickey, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, May Swenson, Joyce Carol Oates, Elizabeth Bishop, John Hollander, Louis Simpson, Paul Zimmer and Theodore Roethke distributed eclectically about.

Ogden Nash, rendering the plight of the husband who has unwisely passed the last truck stop with his ravenous family, produces a rhyme that would be hard to top: "Into the highway you burst like a comet or/Heat Waves climbing a Kansas thermometer." Cummings' "She being Brand/-new" extends a characteristic double entendre. The title of Stevens' "Reality Is an Activity of the Most August Imagination" preps us for a typically symbolist essay into the harmonic, phenomenological, and virtually unparaphrasable: "An argentine abstraction approaching form/And suddenly denying itself away."

Josephine Miles' "Reason" demonstrates that traditional form, in skillful and flexible hands, need not be antithetical to contemporary idiom: "Said, Pull her up a bit will you, Mac, I want to unload there/Said, Pull her up my rear end, first come first serve." Karl Shapiro's "Buick" and "Auto Wreck" wed (or weld) machine and metaphor. All the poets are conscious of their craft, yet Reed Whittemore astutely notes in his brief introduction that the most attractive poems are not only those that venture thematically beyond 19th-Century technophobia, but that they are often by the least well- known writers. Thus Michael Casey's "Driving while under the influence" is unfashionably sympathetic to a guy who cannot win for losing:

he said he followed the leaking radiator

it leaked after the crash right?

fifty million dumb cops in the world

and this one has to be a genius

David Barker is, for better or worse, at one with his "Packard":

But I, like some silly old lover, have

plucked the rotted cotton from your springs. I

bear you tender gifts of fiberglass, Rustoleum,

WD-40. I shall patch you up and make you anew,

my darling.

Together we shall travel very far indeed.

L.A.'s Eloise Klein Healy sometimes feels about love "like driving places at darknight speed/with radio on . . . " She always believes she could get herself "in somebody's eyes/wide and interstate--steady." And if she could keep up this interpersonal high, "just flat out speeding along/and scanning the road ahead," she'd go "absolutely right straight crazy to heaven."

Reviewers of anthologies are notoriously chronic quibblers about omissions, and this reviewer is no different: "Charles Bukowski? Edward Field? Ronald Koertge? Kirk Robertson? Nichola Manning? How widely published was the call for submissions? Or was the process by invitation only? Some stretches of the book suffer from a tedious propriety, like a highway landscaped by Lady Bird Johnson.

But buy it anyway. The best of the poems--and they are many and diverse--offer a value and durability that would be the envy of their subjects. And even the lemons won't drive you to the poorhouse.

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