Re-Learning to Drive
by Sue Russell
A piece of metal—paramedics say.
It’s better not to think about the car
or run back through your mind another way
you could have driven when you’ve come this far.
The road was ice, you skidded more than once.
That day you really didn’t want to drive,
but you set out and landed in a fence.
It didn’t feel like luck to be alive.
And now a passenger, you hit the brakes.
The roads are slick. You watch while others swerve
and right themselves. One lapse is all it takes.
They tested you for damage to your nerve.
Insurance covered one part of the bill.
You walked away, and you are walking still.
You walked away, and you are walking still.
But now it’s spring, the roads are mostly clear.
You start to wonder if you have the will
to get into the driver’s seat and steer.
The state has deemed you ready, yet you pause
just as you would while waiting at the light.
There must be some way out, some safety clause
that keeps you from establishing your flight.
And riding shotgun on a weekend trip
You start to feel like you could pick up speed.
You wish it were your car and you could grip
the wheel and just set out, just take the lead.
But you have never learned to drive a stick.
Your getaway could never be this quick.
Your getaway could never be this quick,
and yet escape is always on your mind.
With every mode of transport that you pick,
the hidden exit’s what you wish to find.
These mornings, when you take the bus to work
you’d like, for once, to venture past your stop,
capture that free space, not be a clerk
to someone else’s folly, let it drop.
You signal for the back door, shuffle out
onto the avenue, your daytime home,
say your good mornings, set aside your doubt,
turn on your surge strip, fumble with a comb.
Before the day meets its official start
you take a moment to reclaim your art.
You take a moment to reclaim your art
with recognition of this fateful shift
into the costume of another part
the jester, the king’s fool, sweet reason’s gift.
Some years ago, while on another bus
that took you to another nameless place,
there was a Zen-like flash, a sudden thrust
in which you saw some meaning in the race
called human. Then, as now, you let it slide
and thought instead, what would your father say
when faced with a decision where to ride.
Don’t leave your job, you’re safer if you stay.
So do you hit the road or think of Dad
when you’re about to do a thing that’s mad?
When you’re about to do a thing that’s mad
your father’s failures always come to mind.
For honest salesmen, times were always bad
yet he remained unpardonably kind.
Your father hates the highway, hates the ramps,
drives under speed, avoids the dread left turn.
You’ve always been a member of his camp.
These lessons are not easy to unlearn.
Your mother’s son, your brother by a half
drives with one hand and taps a simple beat.
Born of a father with an easy laugh,
he early on arranged his own retreat
in Colorado, far off on the map.
You kept the east, he wore his baseball cap.
You kept the east, he wore his baseball cap,
reminder of the home team, those longshot
Indians, forever bound to lose. The trap
is your devising, don’t get caught,
a geographic game plan, nothing more.
you keep on tracing rivers to the source,
figuring ways to even out the score,
trying to get the shoe to fit by force.
One was the athlete, one the walking brain.
You lost your marbles, he got married life.
He took the mountains, you got steady rain.
He learned to cook, you tried to be a wife.
He’s got a pick-up—four-wheel-drive—and you
Don’t own a car. But this is nothing new.
Don’t own a car, but this is nothing new.
You know the story, you’re the one who’s smart.
Each year your father watches baseball, too.
He says his team is off to a good start
but by the end of season, they’re dead last.
You always rooted for the losing side,
and so as underdog you were typecast.
Now you just want to go out for a ride.
Forget the fact that you once went off course.
Weather’s a safe discussion, as is health.
You’re not your father, yours not his remorse.
Whatever you two share, it is not wealth.
Work is just what you do to earn your pay.
A piece of metal, paramedics say.
PHOTO: “Driving in heavy snow” by Robson Photo, used by permission.
NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: This poem is really the story of my life overlaid with the process of learning how to drive, which I have never really done, at least not to the extent that I could be comfortable enough to drive myself from point A to point B. As I composed it a number of years ago, I kept having more to say, and that’s how I came up with the sonnet sequence form as a vehicle to keep myself going…but not necessarily getting anywhere.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Sue Russell grew up in Cleveland and now lives and works in the Philadelphia area as a medical editor. She received an MFA in poetry from the University of Pittsburgh, where she was the winner of the Academy of American Poets prize, and her work was selected for inclusion in Intro, an anthology of the best from graduate schools produced by the Associated Writing Programs. Since that time, her poetry has appeared in such publications as the 5 AM, Pennsylvania Review, Folio, Laurel Review, the Jewish Literary Journal, the Schuylkill Valley Journal, and the anthology My Lover Is a Woman (Ballantine; 1996). Her essays, reviews, and feature stories have appeared in print and online in such publications as the Kenyon Review, the Women’s Review of Books, Library Journal, Poets and Writers, and the Philadelphia inquirer. She has also written biographies of jazz and cabaret singers that have appeared in reference books and on the website jazz.com.
AUTHOR PHOTO: Sue Russell at her day job, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (December 2015).