Only Ride, by poet and teacher Megan Volpert, is a series of connected prose poems facing one-line sayings or aphorisms which work as titles. They’re about a human coming to terms with her sense of mortality and facing it from various facets of her personality, which is why the first saying is “only idiots ride into the sunset” and the prose poem facing it observes that “if you’re the lucky bastard sitting on that iron horse, it’s an investment in blindness.”
While I was reading and caught up in this book, I said to some friends that I think there’s little chance of sincerity without humor, because without humor sincerity is mostly self-reassurance. The observations in Only Ride are more sincere for their humorous perspective than they could be without it. For example, the moment between this line: “get in a position to argue” and the prose poem facing it:
“Right on the edge of his chair, weight on the balls of his feet, my father would be ready to spring a pointed finger at me to punctuate the yelling. After a decade of work on debate teams, I understand that the quickest route to a win is to appear relaxed. Slack your jaw & slouch a little. Tense only the unseen muscles. Tighten your asshole & limit your attention. Don’t listen to the opposition too well, or you will often accidentally agree with it. Better that your mind will develop a heart of its own, secreting the mortar with which you will fortify your mansion of glory.”
There are lines I enjoy by themselves, and although it may be wrong to lift them from their context, the temptation is irresistible when they’re lines like this one, from a poem that starts out about fighting: “The life is perfectly salvageable. It’s just the person is not yet interested in getting saved.” Or this, from a poem about last looks (a la Elizabethtown): “He mumbled something about community college, bagged my groceries when I came home for winter break.” Maybe the best one is this: “Sometimes I douse myself with humility & then strike a match. While I am on fire, I think about how hard it is & how important it is not to scream. Everybody is on fire & everybody can see it, so screaming doesn’t add anything to our situation.” The economy of words magnifies their applicability.
I can’t decide whether the poem facing “Ankles disappear” or the one facing “We see something terrible & bloom” is my favorite from the volume. “Ankles disappear” certainly applies to me, post-fifty, post-knee replacement. I imagine it won’t apply as much to you, but that you could find another in the volume that does:
“They used to go behind my head. There were bony knobs that would cut cleanly through glassine pools, step out soulfully tanned & ready to run. Now my shoes feel too tight. Those delicate corners have been rounded by the fat of a career & a few too many loose cobblestone sprains. I wonder when I will be able to predict a storm is coming & want to define living daylights. Attempt to circumnavigate the space of things that have been scared out of you & try to tie a rope around all those things of which you used to be so certain. Use a mirror to do it.”
On the page facing “we see something terrible and bloom,” we are instructed to do things that make me remember how the administration building burned down at Hendrix College in the middle of a winter night, how I awoke to a flood in our basement one spring morning, and how much people-watching is part of the pleasure of art museums:
“Look at the sky, so you know what the emergency is. Fires happen at night. Floods happen during the day. Every natural disaster wants to perform when it can be best seen. There is this special type of black mold that only grows where there has been a flood. It’s toxic. But there is also a mushroom, a black morel, which only grows where there has been a fire. It’s delicious. The event is not really the thing, just a seed. In museums, I probably spend sixty percent of the time looking at people looking & just forty percent looking at what they’re looking at.”
Reading this volume makes me want a Megan Volpert t-shirt, or at least a button. She can articulate the ardor of someone wanting something that perhaps never existed but in herself, as in the poem facing “That t-shirt has my name on it”:
“There is a girl in the front row that drove five hours to wait three more in the cold, listening exclusively to my albums for the entire eight hours. She was in Chicago last night. Please, sweetheart, go home. I’m not that interesting. In truth, I’m more than a little tired, but we booked this gig nine months ago & everybody has to make a living. I can see her misting up in the spotlights. She doesn’t care that there’s no encore. She is going to spend another hour behind the theater, shivering near a door out of which I will never come. But maybe one time, I will.”
Reading Only Ride made me feel at least momentarily less ashamed of my habitual reaction to having some kind of mistaken ardor discovered, the reaction of the boy at the end of Araby: “gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” Perhaps, this volume suggests, if we’re going anyway, it’s better to ride on the backs of our own mistakes rather than be driven by anything that depends too much on the perceptions of others.