Saturday, March 29, 2008



Behind the Wheel: Poems About Driving by Janet S. Wong
(Margaret K. Elderberry Books/Simon & Schuster, New York, 1999)

As I read through Janet S. Wong’s Behind the Wheel: Poems About Driving, I came to imagine a very specific life for this book.

First, a parent would give it to a 16-year-old or a teen about to commence, or in the early stages of, driving. Second, the young driver reads through the poems, finds them charming enough (or something-enough) that s/he realizes one can write poems about what one experiences; part of these poems’ effectiveness are its winning ways of making the reader empathize with their narratives. Third, the youth starts writing poems, too, about the driving experience.

Fourth but not least, later down the road (pun intended), the youth continues to write poems (about other experiences) and ta-da a new poet is born.

I don’t think this result is so much fanciful imagining on my part. Because while the language is straight-forward in these poems, their words are educational in a non-didactic way. This collection avoids the pitfall of projects written for children and “young adults”: it does not patronize its targeted young audience. And, in the process, it makes the poems not “too young” for adult readers as well. Here’s one example:
Behind the Wheel

Forget kindergarten,

Everything you need to know

you learn right here
behind the wheel.

Watch out for the other guy.
Keep your eye on your rear.
Thank the old lady who lets you in.
Don’t steal someone else’s spot.
When you rush to park and end up hopeless, crooked--

just start over.

Here’s another, a nuanced look at a hitchhiker:

A father should be a responsible man.
Should know better.
Set the example for his daughter.


drives me to school,
swerves over to the side of the road
when we see a hitchhiker
with an algebra book in his hand,
some grimy boy I don’t even know.
The boy runs to the car, pants like a dog.
My dad treats him like an old friend,
Talks to him about our teams,

listens to him, even,

says to please look out for me.
He says he’ll keep an eye on me.
I look into his pimple face
As cold and hard as I can look,

Looking not at all
Like my father’s daughter.

This book, in fact, prepares one for life:
Hard on the Gas

My grandfather taught himself to drive
rough, the way he learned to live,

push the pedal, hard on the gas,
rush up to 50,
coast a bit.

rush, rest, rush, rest--

When you clutch the bar above your right shoulder
he shoots you a look that asks,
Who said the ride would be smooth?

So, yes, if a teen in your life yawns at poetry -- or if a parent in your life yawns at poetry -- this is as good an invitation to Poetry’s marvels: for Behind the Wheel is (forgive me as I’m writing this review in my head as I drive) an enjoyable ride, even over the bumps on and potholes in the road.


As remuneration for editing Galatea Resurrects, Eileen Tabios doesn't have her books reviewed here ... but she's pleased to point you elsewhere to Thomas Fink's review of her SILENCES: The Autobiography of Loss.

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