Poetry Rehab Assignment — Driving

This poem, submitted in response to Andy Townend’s Poetry Rehab Driving prompt https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/806802358  is the most recent in an ongoing series of ‘Trip’ poems, based on journeys of varying lengths I have taken in various directions of the compass in relation to the Greenwich observatory in London, which is still, in this supposedly post-imperial age, taken longitudinally to be the center of the globe.

It is loosely based on Guillaume Apollinaire’s La Petite Auto—a World War I poem with which I have a long-standing relationship of trying to translate in many different ways. This version takes the form of a sort of diptych that draws on memories of two specific car journeys in 1990 and 1984 respectively.

Since I have never been able to drive myself, nor much wanted to, long journeys by car have always been a source of a somewhat exotic and faintly erotic experience for me; replete with gasoline-scented masochistic overtones of being driven against my will. This is an innocence that is itself exotic in a world where everyone seems to drive and the word motorist is becoming increasingly synonymous with citizen or human being.

I thus tend to remember the few car trips I have been a part of in great detail and focus obsessively on the significance and specificity of moments that regular motorists/human beings would probably regard as banal. I attempt to combine this sensation in these ‘trip’ poems (the allusion to the effect of hallucinatory drugs is far from coincidental) with a broader sense of how we are all driven by a history not of our own making.

We live in an overpopulated world in which many developing countries depend on petroleum extraction and most developed countries on the production of cars. Is this really the kind of world in which we want to live? Who is driving whom?


The Trip West

(after Guillaume Apollinaire’s La Petite Auto)

We got a smooth ride west on the A44 out of England

and said goodbye to the 80s;

hello to smart missiles, CNN and Saddam Hussein,

scuds, poisons, torture, dirty bombs.

And everyone ringing in on the radio had something to say,

excited by Armageddon and death…

A fish-shop selling grinning shark-soup


The dogs of Wales still chase English butt;

gamekeepers carry guns in forests

and speak their own language in local shops.

Toy trains trundle around castles and mountains,

lubed by the blood of ancient ghosts….

Bloated monsters washed up from the Irish Sea

are always ready to explode…

on the fog-bound mountains and hills,

man fighting man,

till star explodes in sky and all bow down in peace.

Chapels empty but always open,

as the faithful drunk-drive themselves

to church, home from bars.

Our hearts beat deftly to the beat of an alien motor.

We hotrod a new universe into being:

one of supermarkets & department stores.

Dumb masses of souls

drive past beggars & barking dogs

on the way to malls.


I will never forget that night drive:

that sad farewell to home,

bathed by the light of postwar stars;

sister tucked up in an embroidered blanket

hogging the back seat;

little villages with their carefully-tended war-memorial crosses

passing by; black as witchery against the moonlight;

insomnia; watching the stars circle round the Dog Star

between dusk and dawn in a car

parked illegally up some farmer’s lane;

cows lowing and moaning in a shadowed field;

dashboard lights dimmed;

coffee in plastic orange mugs;

jacking the old car up and changing a tire

in the pixie mist of a crisp farmland dawn.

Mid-day saw us in Oxford.

The Sun had declared war on striking miners.

We arrived tired in a flashy new world already jaded and old.

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