“Our own long American sentence”: On Janine Joseph’s Driving Without a License

Laura Donnelly

Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2016. 100 pages. $15.95.

Janine Joseph’s debut poetry collection Driving Without a License explores liminal spaces inhabited by an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines coming of age in the United States. Witnessing how the speaker must hide a part of her identity, we learn how one language’s term for “always hiding” translates to another’s “TNT.” Driving Without a License is political and virtuosic while maintaining a witty and down-to-earth voice, and the finely wrought tension between these modes creates a uniquely energized poetry.

In the midst of the book’s liminal spaces, images of cars appear as both antidote and additional danger. A quick glance at popular music shows the depth of America’s obsession with cars: “Route 66,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Mercedes Benz,” “Born to Run,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Life is a Highway,” “Going the Distance.” Driving symbolizes a rite/right of passage and a particularly American lust for vast expanses (and the freedom and means to traverse them). But if the car is shorthand for an American Dream, it also highlights the slipperiness of that dream. In Joseph’s poems, cars present a possible escape while further inscribing the speaker as neither here nor there, and that letting go of the wheel for a moment could yield disastrous results.

Taking up the image of the car, Joseph shows how this American symbol remains malleable. In one of the collection’s first poems, “Junkyarding Through the Great Moreno Valley,” we watch the teenage speaker and her friend in the process of literally reconstructing a car. “S. was always looking for a carburetor / and I’d hang around,” the poem starts, reaching both forwards and back with that “always”—the moment turned infinite. We don’t find a carburetor in the poem, but other wonders appear on these junkyarding days: “a cat or possum / would skedaddle from a trunk, / or I’d find a cassette we’d jammed to.” Like the car being worked on, language becomes muddled and remade in the search:

We were always getting it wrong,
        he and I. He’d tell me to look for
serpentine belts, but to stay away from
        the rattlesnakes, and I’d come back
swinging an inner tube or two on my arms.

It’s the almost-finds in the vernacular, “those things / we’d holler one after the other / across the junkyard” that form the heart of the poem, “something / like a language passed between us, our own / long American sentence.” Like that “always” earlier in the poem, the final lines link Joseph to both past and present, alluding to Ginsberg’s “American sentence” while claiming the right to again make the language new (and crackling, too, with the double-meaning of the word “sentence”).

In the book’s title poem, “S.” reappears to teach the speaker how to drive “at midnight because I needed to learn / how to drive in the dark.” As in other poems in the collection, we see the teenage experience undercut with additional danger. This “driver’s education” takes on a double meaning:

        the white lines to your left, he’d say
when we hugged the lake, The rights,
        when a car passed with its high beams
blinding us both. What was that tune
        he’d tap against the assist grip
when I’d veer too close to the guardrails?

Later, in “Leaving the Nonprofit Immigration Lawyers Office,” we again see a slide towards the rails, and that same command to watch.Watch when I let go,” the speaker says,

                We’d be pitched into brushglare, I warned, if I let go
      completely. We’d grate the chain link fence and itch the ashen shrubs.

Eye shuttered slow at tumbleweeds storming the under-
                carriages storming the road, B. said: Right, like you’d let go.

The literal movement of the speaker is mirrored by the restlessness of Joseph’s lines, which are rarely bound to the left margin. Instead, she often employs an every-other line indent (as in the title poem), which provides both structure and space for breath and movement.

Joseph also energizes these poems by letting them veer between idiom and linguistic fissure on one hand, and traditional form on the other. “Always Hiding” displays both. Written in Williams’s triadic line, this poem (about hiding the fact that the speaker doesn’t have a car to drive to work) ends:

                                                                           We know
how I’m not
                     even supposed to work and
                                                                   they don’t. I’m sorry,
and whatever, but it’s
                                     like this. And
                                                             it’s maybe endless,
the lie, but we know it’s
                                     It’s all I’ve
                                                       It’s that which—

That “I’m sorry, / and whatever” rings like a flip of the contemporary teen’s hair before the gut punch of “it’s maybe endless.” But neither does the poem end with the flip or the punch. Instead, we get the stutter steps of the final triad, where the attempt to define this “It” (the lie, the hiding, the work of it all) fractures the sentence and leaves us appropriately unmoored.

Just as Joseph’s lines push against linguistic seams, they go on to travel through forms considerably stricter than Williams’ triads, weaving a very contemporary voice into these structures. The most sustained work with form is the third section of the book, made up of a crown of sonnets about a marriage “for a different kind of merging” (“Candlelight Chapel”). The third sonnet of the series, “Reception,” ends with a reference to in-laws hinting about grandchildren: “They were not delicate.” This indelicacy moves swiftly from the familial to the political in the next section, where the final line of the previous sonnet reappears in a very different context: “In the room, they will not be delicate. / They will ask for years of tax records. Hand / them over. Be as natural as planned.” The poem’s final lines are hauntingly ironic in their matter-of-factness: “it is just an inspection. / There is nothing you need to know by heart” (“Advice for Newlyweds”).

Despite the carefulness of the speaker (not letting go of the wheel, vigilantly documenting the marriage), we do see considerable trauma in the book. This is especially evident in the book’s second section, where the pain descends bodily onto the speaker, beginning with “Wreck,” a ghazal about a car accident that has as its repetend the autobiographically pointed phrase, “Janine, come to.” In the following poem, we see needles pushed into the body to listen for “the sound of your injury” (“Electromyography”), and in “Human Archipelago” and “You Lie,” the particular complexities of being an undocumented woman come to the fore:

And so what if I didn’t die. Blood
for no reason, I thought it was cancer

in the toilet bowl. I was nineteen,
if that’s what you’re thinking,

and once said good-bye
to someone whose body couldn’t hear me. (“You Lie”)

Amidst many traumas in the book, the fear in this one especially highlights the precarity of hiding. The speaker tries to make her boyfriend see how, “If there was ever something / wrong in me, I couldn’t see anyone, / just to check. Do you understand?” The poem makes real the isolation that comes with hiding, even when the speaker isn’t alone.

In “Swarm,” the final poem, the speaker is not driving but running, making the book’s movement all the more embodied and vulnerable: “Out of the classroom I chased my leaf / thin shadow into the kickball field as if running / out of the country.” The poem brilliantly melds Joseph’s indented lines (set here in couplets) with the traditional sestina, and the form’s repeated words show both precarious movement and isolation (“left,” “running / ran,” “one”) and something more simple and substantial (“mulberry,” “bark,” “leaf / leaves”) with a couple of the words able to cut both ways: “bark” is both a cry and the tree’s exterior against which the speaker finally rests, while “leaves” is both what the speaker’s family does and the canopy of protective green. Here, the speaker is running both away (from the “yard duties” blowing whistles at the running child) and towards. Towards the solid bark of the mulberry tree and the names of the speaker’s family spoken in certitude, “as if no one disappeared.” We almost get a moment of rest at this ending, but the “as if” reminds us that people do disappear, that the speaker does not emerge unscathed.

Driving Without a License is a collection about and against such disappearance, not only making visible the liminal spaces of hiding, but challenging the reader to understand how these intersect with the mundane moments of growing up—working at the pizza shop, navigating siblinghood, dating, riding in cars, breaking down in cars. Reveling in leap and lyricism, these poems of youth and early adulthood simmer with the coiled power of potential energy while already coursing at high speeds.

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