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Gale Walden Headshot

The Poetry of the American Car

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I have lived without a car several times in my life -- for a few years in Tucson, Arizona I went everywhere by bike, and for a few years in Chicago, I went everywhere by El, and during those years, I would dream of driving. Cars always found their way into my imagination and when I started to write poetry, cars found themselves into my poems. That is, American cars found their way into my poems -- there were no Mitsubishi Mirages, no Toyota Corollas, no Nissans, not even Datsuns. There were Dodge Darts and Plymouth Valiants, Chevy Impalas and Ford Rangers. They were the cars of my childhood, the cars of my youth, the cars that would transport me into becoming an adult, but they were also cars whose names would inform my poetry, the cars that would drive through the landscape of all my neighborhoods.

The Dodge Dart of my young adulthood with the slant-six engine was the car of my heart. Mustard colored, it fit into the desert, although it's tie rods steered me away from a Jackson Browne concert at Arcosanti. It was both a staid and impetuous car and its full name suited it. My favorite name, however, belonged to my childhood car: The Nash Rambler. It was a turquoise blue car -- with three on the column and a push button starter. My aunt's father owned a Nash dealership in downstate Illinois. And then there was no longer Nash -- it was swallowed by AMC. In high school, my best friend's family owned an AMC Pacer, a space age George Jetson kind of car, with wrap around windows, while my own family owned the infinitely more boring AMC Eagle station wagon (in brown). And then Chrysler bought AMC and all the cars with the futuristic design went away, as if everyone had given up on the space program.

Perhaps my history of owning Dodges -- a Dart, an Aries, a Spirit, a Neon -- is the reason I've been receiving bankruptcy notices from Chrysler with some regularity, even though I don't currently own a Dodge. It doesn't seem efficient to mail everyone in the United States updates on filing bankruptcies, so these notices are mysterious to me. Maybe they somehow know I care; I do seem to spend an inordinate amount of time wondering what will happen if Chrysler and Dodge disappear permanently from the landscape. I wonder about the metaphysics of it. Will that disappearance further dissolve the memory of the Nash dealership I barely remember?

There is a young red-headed girl in my Midwestern town who is driving a turquoise Dart Swinger. She is 22 and wears cat-eyes glasses and every time I see her drive by, I think she will have a good and interesting life. I don't think I would think that if she were driving a Toyota. Which is not to say I don't understand the lure of the low maintenance Toyota or the dependability of a Honda. And there are certain foreign cars that, despite origin, become American cars. You can't tell the tale of the American 1960's without the VW Beetle or the VW bus. There are several foreign models I'm tempted by; I actually like the name Kia Soul, and though the Hyundai Sonata tries too overtly for classical musicality in its naming, it's a great highway car. Still, when my daughter and I drove the whole of Route 66 we chose the Dodge PT Cruiser, a name that would have been better without the initials, and a car that would have been better with lower gas mileage, yet we were on an iconic road, in some version of an iconic car. It's an illusion of course -- that particular romance of America; the endless promise of the road that exists in imagination, is now, in reality, book ended by a bankrupt state. But it is a good illusion.

Eventually, and ecologically, we will give up the automobile as we know it, and that will be a good thing, but until that time there are certain icons I want to see remain as something other than ghostly imprint. Some models are easier for me to send gently into the good night; despite the commercial denial, the Oldsmobile was always your father's and it is hard to find anyone under 60 driving a Buick. But other models retain our youth no matter how old they get. We keep hiding their names places we can find them -- dancing to a little red Corvette -- resting blue suede shoes atop a pink Cadillac, as we speed into personal and national memory.

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