Monday, June 18, 2007

Necessary Repairs

Rachel Ray, the thirty-something Martha Stewart of the new millennium, is discussing something I'd probably find meaningless on a television behind me. A gentleman to my right breathes loudly through his nose as he peruses the splayed pages of some mass-market paperback. A few feet away, a salesman jokes about shipping issues. An announcement for "Tim" blares through an intercom directly over my head. Over the edge of my laptop screen, I can't escape the black mesh grill of a fireplace. A secretary in high heel s clicks by, cupping a stack of paperwork in her arms. I'm trapped here. Waiting. For two hours.

This is the well-lit interior of an auto dealership. Brand new waxed cars gleam under stage lights. A salesman's tennis shoes squeak on the tile, where all the autos are displayed like zirconium.


Last Thursday, as I drove for food, I noticed intermittent squealing from the left side of the car, like a pig being chased through the slop by a 10-year-old boy. My first thought (first thought, best thought?) was that the brakes on our subcompact sedan needed to be replaced. Michelle, on the other hand, assumed that it was a worsening of the minor air conditioning issues that have plagued the car since I bought it. But, as the car warmed up, the noise would vanish, suddenly. Brakes, suddenly, no longer made sense to me. I started thinking aloud, bouncing ideas off my wife, listening intently to the sounds of the car in motion, hoping to replicate the sound once it had vanished, and hoping, as a child of divorce longs for a revival of his parents' vows, that the sound would vanish for good when it reappeared. After much thought, a conversation with her father, and a somewhat misleading conversation with a serviceperson at the dealership, by Saturday I'd concluded that the serpentine belt needed to be replaced. This explained why the sound would go away. Rubber, oddly enough, expands when heated.

But the belt didn't look too bad. Yet.

More, Michelle and I were planning to journey to the eastern edge of Ohio in honor of Father's Day, and on Saturday morning after a brief stop at the dealership to make sure the car wouldn't leave us stranded on a two-lane stretch of highway where the only sign of civilization was the road itself (it probably wouldn't), we loaded the puppies and our luggage into the car and made our way.

At first, the car seemed fine. The only sounds were the familiar rubber-band whir of the four-cylinder engine and the rush of wind through cracked windows—until we stopped for gas.

At a truck stop somewhere between here and Columbus, the high-pitched squeal began again. We waited, patiently, for it to stop and pressed on to the border of Columbus where a cafe would welcome our frayed and frazzled nerves. Michelle, at this point, decided that she didn't want to risk the possibility that the serpentine belt would snap, sending all the accessories on our car into chaos, stranding us at the whim of unfortunate chance. We wanted to phone her parents, but Michelle's cellular wasn't charged. She rushed into Target to buy a charger for the car, and we stopped for a fattening of fast food as we waited for her phone to charge. We called, offered our apologies (mediated somewhat by the fact that her father will visit in a couple of days) and turned back home.


The dogs, when they realized we'd gone that far only to return home, seemed perplexed and exhausted. We ate and then slept deep into the evening. We'd journeyed from Cincinnati to Columbus for a couple of coffees and a quick jaunt around a Target.


Today, I drove Michelle downtown to work, came back home, sat outside with the puppies, and took care of a little business. Now, I'm trying not to eavesdrop on a conversation between two friends who happened into the same dealership. One man is finishing his basement, complete with a bar and bathroom. I'm just hoping to make ends meet this month and looking forward to the painful exodus of a few hundred dollars because the brakes are worn thin as wafers. How long to go now? An hour? Two?


Yesterday, I asked my wife, for no particular reason, which of the poems I've written recently she most enjoys. She couldn't answer the question. After all, she's read many of my poems over the past month, but would she be able to differentiate the newest poems from those that had been reworked?

I doubt anyone could.

So, I made a list and discovered that I've actually composed far fewer new poems than I'd first suspected. Instead, I've focused much of my recent poetry efforts on the process of revising. I've been running my own little repair shop, ferrying in lyrics and narratives for their own necessary repairs.


I've returned with a just-washed car and phoned Michelle to tell her the damage. The puppies, as ever, were pleased to see me. A brisk wind blows across the yard, jostling a butterfly seeking pollen near the edge the back fence, where Dixie stalks through thick clover. Archie is sprawled on the dog bed that's softening the concrete for him, drowsing in the humid heat. They say the temperature will soar into the 90s by midday.


For me, much of the flurry of revisions that has taken place this year has been a direct result of wanting strengthen my chances for application to a PhD program and the oft-discussed decision to work on a book project or two. One project—a chapbook—has necessitated revisions simply to allow the poems to fit within the whole. The other project—a book-length manuscript—served simply to highlight how much stronger many of the poems I'd selected for the collection could be. On the website for Ausable Press, the editor Chase Twichell, who is a very good poet, writes “If you know that some poems are stronger than others, then your manuscript is not yet finished. You'll only damage your future chances by sending work that is unripe."

Although I may not agree with everything Twichell offers in his advice, I agree with the vast majority of it, and that sentence, in particular, stopped me in my tracks. That sentence, I suppose, is why what I'd once envisioned as two manuscripts has been sliced and rearranged into a single manuscript.

Now, the most recent poem in that manuscript is at least three months old. A handful of the poems have been knocking around one hard drive or another for about 10 years as I sought to get the poem "just right"—or at least right enough for me. More, although it would be disingenuous for me to suggest that I considered the effectiveness of each poem every day for each of those 10 years, such a notion is probably closer to the truth than I'd care to admit—to you or to myself. I want, however, for you to keep in mind how arduous the process of revising a single poem can be. For the most part, I've lost track of how many times each piece has been revised, but I imagine that each poem has been through at least twenty drafts, and in some of those poems, the need for further revision gnaws at me like a juicy secret about a coworker.

At the moment, such talk seems vaguely overwhelming, disconcerting. But take a moment and think of your favorite poet. Go back and read one of her poems. A poem you adore. How much time, do you suppose, was invested so that the imagery worked? How much time was taken so that the rhythms never (even for the briefest of breaths) falters?


Perhaps it's a bit cliche, but poems are little engines of language. You can't have one misfiring as a reader guns the gas. You can't worry whether or not the brakes will work as the reader cruises downhill. You have to take your poems into the shop, once in a while, and see why they aren't running like you want. Look at the gears, the machinery, and see if that explains why editor X might think you're offering up a lemon. Tomorrow, I'll show you how I dirty up my hands with each service call.

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