My Mother’s Red Ford: New & Selected Poems 1986-2020
Lost Horse Press
Reviewer: Brian Fanelli
Roy Bentley’s My Mother’s Red Ford may be a collection of the poet’s work from the last several decades, beginning with his 1986 book Boy in a Boat, and concluding with new poems, but it’s also a fine document of America post-mid-20th Century. His poems recollect growing up in Ohio during a time when the Midwest was bustling before factories closed. There are references to drive-ins, first dates, Elvis, jazz, the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, and so many other aspects of American culture. Yet, there is also an examination of the failures of the American dream, poems that depict workers desperate for employment, and a country ravaged by the horrors of Vietnam. Bentley’s poems can be sprawling, layered narratives, but his work is widely accessible as the memories, pop-culture references, and history he taps into are part of a larger story of America, one that most of us know.
At 200-plus pages, My Mother’s Red Ford is a large collection, but even in so many pages, there are themes, images, and memories that appear again and again throughout Bentley’s work, thus grounding the poems. Ohio is one of the book’s central locations. Several poems recount Bentley’s time growing up in Dayton. Few poems better underscore what’s happened to the Midwest than “Being from Dayton,” initially published in his 2013 collection Starlight Taxi. When we talk about closed factories and the desperation of the white working class specifically, we’re talking about what Bentley depicts in this poem. He calls Ohio, “the yes vote for a future where wide-eyed looks / count for nothing or are overtaken by what’s real / and jobs that grow on trees beside the still waters.” He also depicts what used to be, including a state that was home to the Wright brothers, the Belmont Drive-in Theater, and “stories of light.” The poem then shifts midway to address what happened to the city as well as the state as a whole. He writes:
Fear of loss made families of strangers
then silent strangers of the same families
made to witness the end of a dream of something
tripped up like yard weeds by factory work.
The poem then turns to the personal, as Bentley mentions his mother, who had to uproot, and other families who left the area, fleeing the suburbs that once seemed so promising. Bentley has a knack for juxtaposing his family’s history with a broader historical context and the story of the Midwest specifically.
In one of his new poems, “Dayton,” Bentley revisits this familiar subject matter and uses his hometown to address the American dream, especially in the 1950s when a union-wage job could provide for a family. The poem mentions life on “wide, new streets,” color televisions, and baseball. Bentley does address the consumerism of that era, even joking, “The motto / on the currency should have been In Us / We Trust” before mentioning a few lines later the sky over Dayton with “its scandal of exhaust.” Yet, despite the flaws of that era, the poem ends with a sense of longing, particularly in its closing lines: “And rain / on Saturdays washed us clean for a while. / There was an after-music to laughter. / Why doubt the world is gorgeous?”
If the book has one problem, it’s that Bentley sometimes makes aspects of the past seem a bit too rosy, particularly the 1950s and 1960s, while sometimes ignoring how that period wasn’t so ideal for many Americans, especially minorities. That, however, is the past and childhood that the poet remembers, and as with most of us, childhood often conjures memories of innocence and a simpler time.
Other poems call to mind the poetry of Philip Levine, Jim Daniels, and Afaa Michael Weaver’s earlier work for the depiction of the blue-collar worker, be it a factory hand or a miner. “Men Coming Out of the Mine,” for instance, is like a snapshot in time. While the title says exactly what the poem is about, there’s a fine level of detail in Bentley’s lines that renders even an ordinary circumstance compelling. The poet is careful to never be overly sentimental about the working class, though his lines also offer them praise. He writes about one of the men who hates dogs because he sees himself “as treated with far less respect.” These are men with Obama-Biden stickers on their lunch buckets, “tossing around the latest Rush Limbaugh lie.” As stated, the poem is a snapshot of a moment, but Bentley’s fine eye for detail and his ability to humanize the working man makes the poem engaging, even if the reader has never been to the blue-collar places Bentley writes about or stepped foot in a mine. The poet makes these workers living, breathing characters who kick Mountain Dew cans and joke with each other, trying to get through the day-to-day shift. They are never one-dimensional or overly simplified.
Bentley also has a skill for using pop culture as an entry point to address personal memory and family. One of his new poems, “This is Not a Dark Ride,” is set in an amusement park at Kings Island near Cincinnati. The speaker is on the ride with his kids while his pregnant wife leans over the ride’s railing, waiting and watching. Bentley references one of Bruce Springsteen’s lines, “Got in a little hometown jam,” and then shifts to reflecting on life and the twists and turns that it takes. The Springsteen lyric hits at something deeper, especially in the closing lines:
I think of that coaster ride sometimes now,
now that I know how a day can become heat
and complaining kids, and Disappointment,
now that my life after has broken my heart,
though I chose each twist and turn myself.
I bounced until I prayed, a student of bliss,
getting it, for which any rock ‘n roll song is
a how-to: Teaching the World to Say Yes.
Like the sign said: This Is Not a Dark Ride.
Nor is it the story of learning to expect less.
The tone and shifts the poem takes embody Springsteen’s work, especially the earlier part of his career. While albums like Greetings from Asbury Park and Born to Run spoke of promise and leaving behind the familiar, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A. addressed failed dreams and the feeling of being stuck. Bentley’s work contains characters and places that conjure the type of narratives that Springsteen has long spun.
My Mother’s Red Ford is a stellar reflection of Bentley’s career as a poet. He is a writer who sings of the working class and the best parts of American culture, be it jazz and rock ‘n roll or drive-in movie theaters with first dates. While his work speaks to the American dream and a period when the Midwest once bustled, it also addresses the country’s failures and the pain job loss means for the individual and the community. His New and Selected Poems place his personal story against the backdrop of broader contemporary American history. As we teeter on the brink of economic uncertainty, and as the story of the Midwest and Appalachia remains one of struggle, desperation, job loss, and hope for a fair shake, these poems ring as relevant and imperative.