BooksWeekend

The Five-Star Delight of Driving Across America with Ron Padgett

At the heart of Padgett’s writing is an innocence: he sees everything — no matter how banal or how curious or strange — with the same attentive, innocent eye.

Ron Padgett (photo by John Sarsgard)

If you saw Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (2016), you know that Ron Padgett wrote four new poems for this wonderful film. You also know that the film is the story of a bus driver-poet named Paterson who lives in Paterson, New Jersey. If, in addition to seeing this movie, you have played Trivial Pursuit more than a handful of times, or taken a class in Modern American Poetry, you are likely know that Paterson, the name of an unremarkable city on the Passaic River, is the title of William Carlos Williams’ epic, five-volume poem, and that Williams was Robert Smithson’s doctor when he was growing up in Passaic.

What these preeminent individuals have in common is a love for the American vernacular. Like Williams, they recognize that the “pure products of America” have lost their marbles; flipped their wig; blown a gasket; hit the ceiling; gone off the deep end. As filmmaker, writer, and mover of rocks, Jarmusch, Padgett, and Smithson turn these marbles, gaskets, wigs, and much else into dazzling flights of lyricism, with Padgett’s looping passages of prose being the most zany of the four.

This is how Richard Brody’s glowing New Yorker review (December 30, 2016) of Jarmusch’s Paterson begins:

Jim Jarmusch is among the rarest and most precious filmmakers of our time, because, at his best—as he is in his new film, “Paterson”—he conjures an entire world of his own imagination.

Brody’s characterization of Jarmusch is equally true of Padgett: he is among the rarest and most precious poets of our time because he conjures an entire world of his own imagination. And what an imagination it is.

After reading Padgett’s recently published novella, Motor Maids across the Continent, the latest to come to us from Song Cave, one of the most exciting presses around, you would likely agree that Brody’s observation about Jarmusch’s filmmaking style — “the loving precision of his documentary-rooted observations” — can be applied Padgett’s madcap prose. But while Jarmusch’s cinematic vision is rooted in the world at large, you cannot be sure what Padgett’s weirdly actualized vision is rooted in — the everyday world, genre novels for adolescents, B-movies, Surrealism, fantastic tales, proper English novels, and Buster Keaton’s unflappable demeanor are just some of the possibilities that crossed my mind.

What Padgett does can so seem easy — and in some sense it is — that it leaves the reader (this one, at least) astounded and delighted, smiling. His pyrotechnics never seem, well, pyrotechnical. In “Complete Works,” an early poem that was written around the time he started working on Motor Maids across the Continent, the reader comes across this line: “Edgar divided the dainties among the fiends.” By removing the “r” from “friends,” Padgett causes the reader to do a double take. The thing is, what could easily become an annoying trick (or habit) resorted to once too many times, never happens in Padgett’s writing, be it poetry or prose. He neither settles into habit, nor lets the reader read with one eye closed. His love of what is possible in language is evident in every sentence of this phenomenal book.

In a recent interview with Michael Silverblatt, the host of the nationally syndicated radio program, Bookworm, Padgett said that, in 1964, while he was a senior at Columbia University, he decided to read books that he would not have bothered with, partly in response to taking so many courses which “stuffed [him] with great literature.” This is why he bought a used copy of Motor Maids across the Continent (1917), a sappy adventure novel written for teenage girls that tells the adventures of four young women, chaperoned by their matronly aunt, driving from Chicago to San Francisco.

Padgett’s originally intended to read the book, nothing more. Luckily for us, he was carrying it when he went to see his teacher, Kenneth Koch, who took the book from Padgett and quickly crossed out a few words in the first paragraph and then wrote: “The End.” For Padgett, this turned out to be the beginning. Started more than fifty years ago, and worked on at different points, it became a novella that bears little, if any resemblance to the original novel, Padgett’s Motor Maids across the Continent is, on one level, a wacky adventure novel in which four young women (Nancy, Elinor, Mary, and Wilhemina AKA “Billie”) and Miss Helen Campbell (their chaperone) drive a red car named The Comet across the western states, from Chicago to San Francisco.

Along the way, they keep encountering various characters, some of who seem to have stepped straight out of a silent movie. They are familiar types (the possessive father or the heartsick young woman, for example) seen from the oddest angle and becoming something altogether fresh and new. One of the characters is Blaise Cendrars, whose Complete Poems (University of California, 1992) Padgett translated. Although you do not have to know who Cendrars is to enjoy the novel, Padgett’s research into this poet is unsurpassed. As he told Silverblatt, Cendrars was the first poet to incorporate found material into his poetry. In his groundbreaking book Kodak (1923), Cendrars got all the lines from Gustave Le Rouge’s 18-volume, serialized science fiction novel, The Mysterious Doctor Cornelius (1912-13). Padgett wears his knowledge lightly so that the real delight of Motor Maids across the Continent comes from reading it, and not from knowing literary history or catching all the allusions.

Padgett’s sentences mirror the trip, which is constantly being interrupted by inexplicable events that compel the intrepid travelers to take detours, or stop to help Cendrars, or free him, or enjoy a delicious repast, or choose a different route. These unexpected shifts — as if switching quickly and smoothly from one lane of the highway to another — begin happening right in the book’s first paragraph (“…leaning back in her seat and folding her hands as if they were a letter of resignation.”). A naturalist writer would have written: folding her hands as if in resignation. But Padgett is not a naturalist. The reality he describes is full of word substitutions, slippages, elisions, diversions, and unexpected jumps (…and we wished to show our appreciation by giving her a little membrane.”), which always make sense within this fantastical place the author has created for our reading pleasure.

It is as if at any point in a sentence, Padgett follows the cues embodied in the words he uses (“She drew herself stiffer and straighter than a frozen broom and swept across the floor.”). The cue could be sound or meaning or both. He could have stopped at “frozen broom,” which certainly catches the reader’s attention, but he does not; he goes from “broom” to “swept.” You can call this kind of writing surrealist, but I think it is pure genius. And the real pleasure is that you do not know what kind of writing Padgett might use to describe something ordinary. At one moment the Motor Maids are driving through “these flat, monotonous wheat fields,” and then, a moment later, he makes you shift your perceptual gears. (“To the right and left of them stretched a large green haircut yielding great waves of heat.”) Are we supposed to think of “wheat” when we read “heat”? The descriptions are simultaneously particular and wobbly, which is difficult to pull off repeatedly, but Padgett does it without seeming to break into a sweat.

Reading Motor Maids across the Continent is like sitting in a car that has been commandeered by a driver who likes to exceed the speed limit. He does not want to scare you so much as enthrall you, and that is exactly what he does, time and again throughout the book. As the story — if you can call it that — proceeds, things keep getting stranger. You find yourself wondering what he is going to pull of next and you are never disappointed when he does. Motor Maids across the Continent is a page-turner which makes you not want to turn the page because you want to stop and marvel over all the different things that Padgett does in his crystalline prose.

One of many delights of this slim book is Padgett’s ability to make all sorts of weird information and skewed perceptions seem perfectly logical. In one hotel where the travelers stop, they encounter diners who are going to take a stage coach “the next morning to a ranch that operated as a sanitarium.” This leads them to notice that seated at “a nearby table were several trained patients.” If you stop to wonder about the “travelers,” and whether or not they are going to become “trained patents,” you get happily sidetracked even while you try to follow one of the book’s plots, which I won’t give away.

On one hand, the book is a quick read, and yet what Padgett does with his sentences is to be savored. He neither falls into a predictable pattern nor comes across as arbitrary. That is what makes this book special. He offers a level of reading pleasure that we seldom encounter in novels these days. He takes a deep pleasure in the words, their sounds and variable meanings. There are the entertaining misadventures and there are the head-turning sentences. All of it is marked by the ease of Padgett’s writing, his unrivaled directness.

At the heart of Padgett’s writing is an innocence: he sees everything — no matter how banal or how curious or strange — with the same attentive, innocent eye. “Glistening to the west, like a gem in December, is a beautiful lake, and from the very heart of the valley rises the city, nestled at the foot of a vast granite edifice that towers above the homes of its citizens.” You get the feeling that what links “gem” and December” is sound, and it is that sonic connection that motivated the writer to put them together, returning the mysteries of the world back to their proper place: everyday life.

I have deliberately not told you the bones (or plot) of this marvelous book because I want you to read it. Motor Maids across the Continent belongs on a shelf with Giorgio de Chirico’s Hebdomeros, Kenward Elmslie’s Orchid Stories (which was reissued by Song Cave in 2016, with a wonderfully illuminating “Introduction” by Michael Silverblatt), Ted Berrigan’s Clear the Range, Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke Down, and Mary Butts’ Ashe of Rings (which was reissued by McPherson, along with additional writings, in 2015). It is luxuriantly bizarre in beautifully precise sentences. He moves from the frivolous to feeling with such smoothness it takes your breath away.

The morning mists still clung to the citizens of Salt Lake City when The Comet flashed along the quiet back streets. How good it seemed to settle back among his comfortable cushions and hasten to leave this stinking town. At the wheel, Billie looked straight in front of her. Her heart was unquiet and her gray eyes troubled.

Who would not want to go along for the ride?

Motor Maids across the Continent (2017) is published by the Song Cave and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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