CUTBANK REVIEWS: The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, by Jennifer L. Knox
The Mystery of the Hidden Drivey
Jennifer L. Knox
Bloof Books, 2010
“Jennifer L. Knox Is Still So Funny It’s Sad”
review by Becca Klaver
It’s true what they say about Jennifer L. Knox—you’ve never read poems this funny before. Forget clever puns, whimsically surreal moments, or whatever else you think you know about humor in poetry. The poems of The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, Knox’s third collection, will have you gasping and hissing “Oh no she didn’t!” before you can get past the first line, or sometimes even the title. Case in point: the title of the third poem—“The Fattest Woman I Ever Loved,” which crashes straight into the line “was a contralto who drove birds to suicide.” By the end of this darkly jaunty prose poem, you’ve come to realize that the speaker is most likely a dog. And now you’ve got the recipe for a Jennifer L. Knox poem: one part grotesquery, two parts absurdity, a shot of obscenity, with pathos salted around the rim.
Knox isn’t merely the poetry equivalent of Kristin Wiig or Sarah Silverman, she’s their peer: a potty-mouthed boundary pusher who ventriloquizes the voices of characters who seem to have just escaped through the back door of the Jerry Springer set. There’s a family that raises an alligator, a boy who has sex with his stepmother, and a woman who is disappointed that, rather than the Celebrity Rehab intervention of her dreams, her family instead “nabbed her scabby ass at a fake birthday dinner at TGIFriday’s wearing old lady stretch pants she’d found at Marco’s mom’s condo and a stained polo shirt straight out of the dumpster.” Try as you might, you can’t look away from these poems, each scenario a tinseled train wreck.
Nowhere is the crash-and-burn quality of Knox’s poetry more apparent than in Mystery’s second section, “Cars,” a 15-page prose poem sequence about every car the speaker and her father ever crashed, due to drugs, booze, or a good old-fashioned death wish. “Cars” is the emotional core of the book, and it’s tempting to imagine that the crying girl whose father makes her drive (and bottom out) an old truck against her will grows up to be Jennifer L. Knox, poet with a taste for life’s big and small disasters. In the most frightening episode in “Cars,” Knox writes:
The car swerved like a cat on ice skates. And it’s true: Your whole life does flash in front your eyes. It happens really fast but every detail’s in there, even the stuff you’ve forgotten. The car drove off the cliff, turned in the air, and landed 30 feet below upside down on top of a Joshua tree, its sharp green spines like saw blades thrust through the shattered windows. I ended up in a ball behind the passenger seat with nothing but a tiny scratch on my hip. Oh, how I mourned those shoplifted pants the EMTs cut off me.
The lament for the shoplifted pants seems carefully placed to undercut our sympathies, and this sort of ruthlessly self-indicting move is a Knox trademark. So, too, is her “cat on ice skates”-like ability to glide away unbruised. We’re put in the position of parents, an odd place for a reader to find herself in: should we give this speaker a talking to, or just wrap her up in an I’m-so-glad-you’re-okay bear hug?
If Knox has been granted nine lives, The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway is the one where she tries to survey the damage. With its Nancy Drew-esque title and cover art, Mystery is, believe it or not, less shocking and garish than Knox’s previous books, A Gringo Like Me and Drunk By Noon. Knox’s third collection is interested in following a life’s snarled wreckage back to its source. In many poems, the titular mystery turns out to be a family drama. The cast of crazy characters is still here, but in poems such as “Cars,” “Marriage,” and “Love Poem: One Ton of Dirt,” we sense that Knox is telling her own story, one that weaves in and out of the lanes of her invented personae. Through these more personal poems, we begin to understand the empathy that Knox holds for even her most deranged characters. What might seem like slapstick or mockery eventually emerges as an unexpected form of commiseration for the speaker who places herself, hilariously and humbly, as one misfit in a band of many.
At a few revealing moments, Knox seems to address the change in tone and perspective of her third collection: “These days, not so much regret. Brute will’s broke / as a petting zoo pony,” she writes in “The Earth Is Flat and So’s My Ass.” The whimsical pony and the half-crass title remind us that this isn’t so much a paradigm shift as an expansion of tonal register. Elsewhere, in “Old Friends,” a poignant confession slips straight into an assertion of superiority: “I’m thinking how different things are now, / especially me, how my heart can barely stomach the story, / which means I’ve become a better person, certainly better / than the woman I knew, who I would never be friends with / again—she probably hasn’t changed at all.” Knox’s speaker has taken a long hard look at herself and realized that in spite of all the cars she’s driven off cliffs, literally and figuratively, she’s still laughing. And we are, too. Knox may not be selling out amphitheaters yet, but Mystery is the work of a consummate clown, tears and all.
Jennifer L. Knox is the author of three books of poems, The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway, Drunk by Noon, and A Gringo Like Me, all available from Bloof Books. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review and four times in the Best American Poetry series. She is at work on her first novel.
Becca Klaver is the author of the poetry collection LA Liminal (Kore Press, 2010) and several chapbooks, including the hot-off-the-paper-cutter Merrily, Merrily (Lame House Press, 2013) and Nonstop Pop (Bloof Books, 2013). She is a PhD student in English at Rutgers University and lives in Brooklyn, NY.