Book Review: Katie Phillips'
Driving Montana, Alone
Slapering Hol Press
Driving Montana, Alone, the first chapbook by poet Katie Phillips, gives us poems that expertly motor through a myriad of human experiences. Sometimes we move as a galloping mustang set loose on the Montana freeway, sometimes at the easy clip of a Sunday drive, but more often traffic stills and a meaningful object of the outer world is transformed into a vehicle stalled in the gridlock of the speaker's inner world. It's one to be inspected, meditated upon, and released. Take "At Last, Some Recognition," for example:
Whenever I see a red truck topped with bikes helplessly spinning their tires, I think how many times
I have waited, on doorsteps and at windows, for diesel to announce your arrival, taking me from another unhappy apartment.
The red truck with its dependent bicycles is not simply a random vehicle passing through the speaker's life. It is an observation, astutely made into a metaphor for the speaker's sense of dislocation. This metaphor is indicative of Phillips' subtly professed intelligence, which her burgeoning poetic gifts bring to fruition.
It's easy to get lost when your mind is in Montana and you car in Iowa.
These lines from the poem "Motion Sickness" are one of the many jewels Phillips adds to the longstanding motif of the American open road. More importantly, however, they ring with loneliness which is paramount among her themes. These poised, deftly crafted lines and line breaks render brilliantly the speaker's isolation. Is there solitude greater than not having the company of the outer world in which one inhabits? Either way, we must applaud Phillips' courage to not interrupt such profound separation. The speaker is not bailed out by one of Kerouac's roadside characters, nor does Creeley's friend pop out to say "look out where yr going." Instead, we are forced to wait for a moment to shatter the quiet solitude. But true to life, there is "no moment here, yet." Thus Phillips ends the poem while simultaneously extending the reader's melancholy; but paradoxically there is camaraderie in sharing a realistic loneliness with the speaker.
In addition to precise control of the line, Phillips is a master at presenting finely wrought, vibrant images. She does so, not as still photographs we find interspersed between poems, but as it is truly experienced—in real time. In these poems the reader is less likely to deal with a framed bolt of lightning than with the sudden strike and the instantly empty sky in its aftermath. Phillips offers us vivid, even memorable images, but retracts them as suddenly as they are illuminated:
a flock of swallows swoops through an open barn door and rushes out the gaping roof
These closing lines from the title poem define the reader's central role in her art: to digest the inevitable absence of that which briefly elicits wonder. I can think of no better canvas than these fresh lyric poems to explore wonder and absence. Here we have the union of equally suggestive opposites, image and emptiness, opposites that Phillips seamlessly manipulates in the framing of heartfelt meditation.
In the closing poem, "Winter Morning," we have perhaps the most resonant of Phillips quiet, contemplative lyrics. She writes:
When you leave, I save an impression of you, the dent in the white pillow, yes, but also footprints in new snow, and a certain sense on my hand, for you to slip back to, for you to know what I keep open.
This poem encapsulates so many of the expansive ideas fleshed out in Phillips' work. There is meaningful metaphor constructed from terse imagery in the impression in the pillow that represents the person who is gone. There is the implication of a great distance to be driven if these two are to be reunited. There is loneliness; the speaker stands abandoned in the room that was once intimately shared. Finally there is hope; the speaker leaves something open for renewal. I like to think that that something is a car door, and that somewhere down the road a car will race the freeway, and that these two people will once again get "to prove what we knew by holding hands."