Review: Driving Without a License

Driving Without a License by Janine Joseph

Review by Josh Brewer

One has come to expect quality from Alice James Books. The venerable New England cooperative continues to publish the best new female voices while expanding their catalogue in recent years to include men and even more international poets. That expectation of quality has been met and exceeded with Janine Joseph’s Driving without a License, which sluices down hot asphalt, gathering steam in the low air. At times steamy but never foggy (the way some poems repeat the worst excesses of the Imagistes), these poems elucidate rather than obscure.

Metaphors of haze seem appropriate to driving in California, where many of these poems live and breathe and have their being. This book, while also obsessed with the asphalt jungle, moves contrapuntally from the West Coast to the Philippines. Characters inhabiting the poems practically live in cars (which may have occurred to me because I basically wrote this review in my car), but the poems’ speakers move from place to place, as the title indicates, with neither license nor agency:

when I’d crunch the tires around

and back onto the road. Watch

the white lines to your left, he’d say

when he hugged the lake, The rights,

when a car passed with its high beams

blinding us both.

This is beautiful and, to my mind, politically charged language. I winced at the exploited, liminal, forgotten, and abused women in this collection. One cannot see them from Trump’s towers. Miscarried and aborted children appear. Women disappear. In one poem, women and their children—whom the yacht club crowd calls “anchor” babies—form a “Human Archipelago”: a “land bridge / dispersed from my body / into water.”

Water. Steam. Fog. Exhaust. We can’t always see clearly into these poems, but this is often by design. In “Where There’s Smoke,” Joseph deliberately builds the poem around an unclear antecedent—offering bawdy gestures, inventive vocabulary, and lines whose breaks become puns—before revealing that the one clear referent is smoke.

The poems return more than once to cars and dying dogs but in quite different manners than one might expect. Call me sentimental, but “Ars Poetica for the Dog” destroyed me with its closing lines:

Once I had a dog that was pregnant for years

with a tumor. I fed her bibingka by hand until she lived. And she lived

until I put her down. Curled at my leg

is another dog. He is a poem that rhymes with her

in another language.

Here, sentiment combines with clarity of reasoning. An indication that animals all have language—that alone would be too simple—but the suggestion of interspecies poetry moves beyond emotions and cleverness into something closer to a humane worldview. The speaker has turned her dead dog into a poem—a move that has been around since Odysseus’s Argos expired unacknowledged. But this rush of language across the barrier of death (via Poe, perhaps) contains such tenderness and compassion that it forced a rare moment: I had to put down the book and walk away. I came back (and so will you) because the collection is too good not to finish. The killing of seven beagles in the final poem (and the cycle of life that traces them through a mulberry’s roots and into a swarm of bees) acknowledges that matter is neither created nor destroyed, which also serves as a grim reminder of the tragedies that accompany both emigration and immigration.

The language in Driving without a License ranges from obscure Filipino recipes and fish species to linguistic kennings (“bunkboat,” “makeshift,” and “lightningfish”), combining lyrical traditions but not in perfect harmony, ever attentive to discord, false notes, unexpected resonances, rhythm interrupted by two hyphens becoming a dash:

He was so good at sinking his line, at aiming just right

 

so every cast was a ninja star into their Turtlebacks.

It was merely hardwood water between them and me

 

And when he unreeled me over the rail by my belt loops,

He whispered, Get-set-go

Such linguistic play in clear, fond pictures of childhood comes as a personal relief. In a time when immigrants, Arab Americans, Muslims, African Americans, Latinxs, the poor, the LGBTQ community, and women have reason for anger and fear, let us welcome this smart, well-wrought verse.

Josh A. Brewer’s writing appears in (or is forthcoming in) RHINO; Natural Bridge; Poetry Quarterly; Booth; War, Literature, and the Arts; Poets Against War; Common Ground Rev.; Sargasso; Yemassee, and a publication of the Modern Languages Association.
He’s an associate professor of English at Ivy Tech, Lafayette, and he has taught at Purdue University, University of South Carolina, Tennessee State, Aquinas College, and the University of Miami.