My hometown does not do expressways very well. In places where it would be obvious to have them, we are late to the game. And each one is a crap shoot, even if you know it well. The first time you have to exit and cross three lanes of traffic in very short order, your head swivelled 180 degrees, just to travel from the expressway to the road you were trying to access you have to wonder: did anyone try this out before they opened it to the public?
When I was still in university I had a summer job where I sat in a building the size of an outhouse, just off the Trans-Canada highway and tourists, just entering the city limits, could pull over and ask for directions. This was long before the era of google maps, GPS, even cell phones. We’re talking printed maps and a highlighter pen. I did my best to give instructions but, to be honest, there was—and still is—so little consistency I was often at a loss to say more than: Watch for the signs. I developed a theory that year that I still hold to. I reasoned that every civil engineering student at risk of a failing grade was given a chance to redeem themselves by designing a single interchange along one of the major thoroughfares. And that’s why no two are alike and some simply defy the imagination.
Canadian poet Sina Queyras completed her 2009 collection Expressways while here at the University of Calgary on a residency. I’m curious as to whether our ad hoc roadway system coloured this poetic critique of the social and ecological impact of the spreading network of asphalt arteries and veins that criss-cross our nations. Her poems speak to the memory of a romanticized landscape of the past on a collision course with an increasingly isolated, technologically driven future. The opening piece “Solitary” sets the tone, with the call to consider what is a risk with the continued push to interconnect places, at the cost of connection to the land and to one another. The final stanzas read:
Wagon train, trail of tears, what aggregate composition,
What filleted history, what strata, what subplates,
What tectonic metaphor, what recoil, what never
Having to deal with the revulsion of self, only
The joy of forward, the joy of onward, then endless fuel:
The circles, the ramps, the fast lanes, the clover leaf,
Perspective of elevation, the royalty of those views,
The Schuylkill, the Hudson, the Niagara, the skylines,
The people in their houses, passing women, men
Dressing, men unearthing, smoke pluming, what
Future? What the apple tree remembered? Not
Even the sound of fruit. If a body is no longer a body,
Where is memory? If a text is no longer a text,
Where is body? If a city is no longer a city, what road?
If future no longer has future, where does it look?
She snaps her cellphone closed: no one. Alone.
The century is elsewhere. She turns her back.
Swallows her words. She will do anything for home.
As ever, I am not an effective critic of poetry. I like it, I read it. Sometimes, but entirely by accident, I write it. But I do know when poet’s work works for me. This collection is a strong, cohesive, and passionate manifesto evoking the poem as a means to challenge the ethics of the expressway—in its concrete and abstract context. A call to recognize what is at stake:
This poem resembles urban sprawl. This poem resembles the freedom to charge a fee. The fee occurs in the gaps. It is an event. It is not without precedent. It is a moment in which you pay money. It is a tribute to freedom of choice.
(from “Acceptable Dissociations”)
At times Queyras echoes of the Romantic poets, even borrows their words. The text of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journals provides the material for “Lines Written Many Miles from Grasmere” which, falling mid-way through the collection, casts a pastoral mood, a look back to the dream of a simpler time, closer to nature. But it is an ideal. The Industrial Revolution was, by 1800, set the groundwork for the technological and economic developments that would ultimately allow for the building of major roadways, and the vehicles to fill them. Other pieces are firmly bound to the present, most notably “Crash” which is assembled from fragments salvaged from google searches. Others stare directly at the future—here darkly, there with a vision of reclamation.
Expressway works as a rhythmic, lyrical cautionary tale. A call to undo harm. But, roads seem to be growing wider, interchanges multiplying. Especially here in North America where spaces are wide and the car is still king. That is, Queyras argues no reason not to strain to hear above the din of the traffic.
I am weary. I walk and walk and meanwhile the expressway hums . . .
What for weary? We all hum.
I am weary. I have so little hope.
Weary, maybe. But, no hope? For that there is never an appropriate time.
Sina Queyras lives in Montreal. Last fall I had the opportunity to hear her read from her latest work. This reflection/review was written in recognition of National Poetry Month in Canada and the US.
Expressway is published by Coach House Books.