Monday, October 31, 2011

The Bright Altar

In my first year of high school my father bought a new car and decided that the old one would be handed over to me. At the time it didn’t seem like a groundbreaking event, but the significance of having a car all to myself began to grow and within a few weeks that old car had become the crucible of my teenage life, its four tires elevated to wings that lifted me to a whole new realm of freedom. Though he was not writing of cars and teenagers, Charles Dickens described it well: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light…it was the spring of hope.’

Returning to a later century, poet Stephen Dunn says it another way. Dunn is the author of sixteen collections of poetry, including the 2001 Pulitzer Prize winning Different Hours. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Georgia Review, and the American Poetry Review. He has for many years been the Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. One poem from his 1989 book, Between Angels is about flying free, that part of youth that, car or not everyone can relate to. The poet has zeroed in on an experience most common to teenagers and their cars, but in a broader sense his poetry is a reflection of the social, cultural, and psychological territory of the American middle class.


After the teacher asked if anyone had
a sacred place
and the students fidgeted and shrank

in their chairs, the most serious of them all
said it was his car,
being in it alone, his tape deck playing

things he’d chosen, and others knew the truth
had been spoken
and began speaking about their rooms,

their hiding places, but the car kept coming up,
the car in motion,
music filling it, and sometimes one other person

who understood the bright altar of the dashboard
and how far away
a car could take him from the need

to speak, or to answer, the key
in having a key
and putting it in, and going.

1 comment:

  1. Simple, evocative, but says so much about the sacred place we all crave. Joseph Campbell called it our "bliss station"--that place where we are most comfortable, be it sitting on a beach or snuggled down on a couch in the morning sun reading a good book.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America