M. Scott Douglass
Just Passing Through
Reviewed by Brian Fanelli
M. Scott Douglass’s Just Passing Through contains snapshots of life on the road from a biker’s perspective. The poems, however, will still resonate with readers that can’t tell the difference between a Harley and a Triumph. Douglass offers vivid imagery of American life, including the natural, shifting beauty of each state and the people who inhabit them, including waitresses, diner regulars, Starbucks customers, and drivers of sticker-plastered pick-up trucks.
Douglass presents a strong case that the country is best seen not by flying from state to state, but rather by driving through it. In fact, in one poem, Douglass has no kind words to say about air travel, writing in “Why You Hate to Fly,”
You wish every lady wearing
leopard-skin tights or flaunting a voice
loud enough to drown out jet engines;
every passenger with unchecked bags
or newborn; every woman who thinks
the concourse is a fashion show runway;
wish they all would stay home, wish
the girl at check-in would hand you keys
like they do at the Hertz counter,
offer you safe travels, a nice flight,
and send you on your way.
Here, Douglass links the notion of high-speed flying and airports with consumerism, something rushed, which allows no time for meditation and careful observation, unlike the on-the-road poems that fill a majority of the book. In “Why You Hate to Fly” Douglass even identifies the travelers with material goods, including earbuds, Iphones, and Game Boys.
This is a contrast to the collection’s opening poem, “Reflections on the Road,” a short narrative that pays careful attention to some of the characters the speaker encounters while waiting for breakfast at a Cracker Barrel. The characters identified, primarily two elderly women, are given more humanity than any of the characters in “Why You Hate to Fly.” One of the women is described as having an “ageless look of wonder,” a “child-like expression / as if witnessing her first lit / Christmas tree on Christmas day.” This woman’s sense of wonder, imagined or real, is compared to the sense of awe that travelers encounter, specifically that moment when they “no longer recognize street signs, / no longer know what road they’re on.” In that regard, the poem gives praise to new experiences and that feeling of waking up each morning “like a tourist in a foreign land / eager to rush out into the street,” in order to bask in “the warmth of each new experience” – what Douglass labels as “a never-ending epiphany.”
Even some of the more mundane aspects of road travel, including a bug on the windshield, are given careful attention by Douglass. The poem “Hitchhiker” is a salute to “a little green guy” who decides to ride the hood and sun himself while persisting from stop to stop, still clinging to the windshield, until lunging forward, landing on the driver’s forearm, and then launching himself towards a passing car like “a daredevil defying odds, wind, / and consequences to stick the landing.” This careful attention to detail is what makes Douglass’s collection accessible to the non-biker. As readers, we feel like we are living these experiences with the poet, thanks to the specificity.
In “Poetry Reading at a Biker Bar,” the subject matter shifts to a female poet in front of a mic stand. “Jessica’s got it all going on,” Douglass writes in the opening line, “all the curves in all the right places / and fabric stretched to emphasize / and expose.” Douglass also gives power to the female poet’s writing, thus moving the poem beyond a tribute to her looks. “She steps to the mike, / lowers it, hold it in her hands in a way / that demands every man’s full attention,” he writes, adding later, “We watch spellbound, drips/of sweat kissing our cheeks / on this sultry night as her words / vanish like whispered breaths / in a steamy shower.” If “Poetry Reading at a Biker Bar” doesn’t make people want to attend a poetry reading, then I don’t know what will.
In the last section of the book, Douglass transitions somewhat from character sketches to observations of various states, including Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and others. Here, Douglass manages to find beauty in images that we’re typically not quick to praise. In “Kentucky Rising,” he declares, “Nothing compares to the smell of manure / stewing in the mid-morning sun,” before writing of “wind rushing past your ears.” The poem opens with images of the natural world before shifting to urban sprawl, including traffic replacing “wet shit” with exhaust and budding trees mixed with fast food signs. This juxtaposition of the natural world with aspects of consumerism is a common thread throughout the book, but by the conclusion of the poem, Douglass admits,
Nothing to write home about, but you will
remember this trip and keep it with you
after the final grains of rubber dust
have been washed from your clothes, your hair, your beard,
long after you’ve parked your bike forever
and the road has forgotten you, your
journeys, how well you wore your wheels.
This closing sentiment in “Kentucky Rising” is a good summation for the collection. Not all of the images that Douglass describes are pretty, be it traffic exhaust or a black pick-up with bumper stickers that proclaim “Obama is the anti-Christ,” but as the end of “Kentucky Rising” acknowledges, these images are all part of the journey, just like the rolling hills and bucolic farmland. These images not only compose Douglass’s wearied journey, but they also make up the wide, vast span of America, including the differences not only in scenery but also political views.
On the one hand, Douglass’s Just Passing Through is fast-moving, as the title suggests. In the final poem, “Where Are You,” the speaker compares himself to a ghost. Some of the poems move through several states so quickly that they blur together, but other poems are so rooted in specific locations that they show us vivid snapshots of America and some of the most memorable scenes of the poet’s long-winding odyssey.