See the USA in Your Chevrolet


by Michael Gottlieb

by Drew Gardner,
Edge Books: Washington DC, 88 pp

Ronald Reagan returns from the underworld

Ronald Reagan dies, goes to hell, eventually earns his horns and pitchfork and comes back up here to bedevil us again. It’s years later now. Somehow, he takes possession of a poet, one of us, and he begins to spout his simply, homey, all-so-American bromides and apothegms, but, coming out of the mouth of this poet, whom, after all, is while in the throes of possession, is still struggling, is still trying to hold onto his soul, the free-flowing paean of rueful ‘aw shucks’ are all somehow messed up.

I’m pleased to be here with you today who are keeping America great by keeping her good. I’m giving you as much as I can without also having to come and slap you in the face.

Four Ronald Reagan Essays

In ‘Four Ronald Reagan Essays,’ by far the longest and in some ways most central work in this book, perhaps best exemplifying the troubling and lyric and hilarious aspect of these poems, we learn that we are cursed to live in this here and now. But, of course, we’ve known that all along, the poet hastens to add. And, by the way, he gestures and gesticulates: ‘what do you think of this,’ or this or this – this is America right now, this is what it means to be alive now, here.

Robert Frank was here

Looking at Robert Frank for the first time, when The Americans had just been published, what must that have been like? Looking at the WPA photographers, at Evans and Lange and the rest, that was one thing – after all, those people were all ‘others,’ the poor and desperate. The Americans Frank shot weren’t particularly poor, this was a prosperous mid-Fifties America. Well, they were American in a way that perhaps no one before Frank had shown to us before. Is that why they – these pictures – seemed filled with such ugliness? Was what they portrayed so ugly or did they seem so just because we’d never been asked to look, at what was everywhere around us, at ourselves too, in this way… in the same way so many new things seem irredeemably ugly at first – new styles in lapels and easel painting and power ballads and poems too?

Mikey ate 66 bags of Pop Rocks at a Satan Pop Rocks devil party

And proceeded to drink 6 6-packs of Pepsi.

Pop Rocks

Don’t sell the ugly short, it’s key, it’s fire-sure as a key indicator – anything that’s new enough must certainly seem ugly at first, it has to; and there is great and wonderful ugliness throughout this book.

See the USA in your Chevrolet

But the reason why Robert Frank comes to mind is because this book is in so many ways a similar set of stark, often-harshly-lit, unnerving, occasionally terrifying, but not infrequently, ravishingly arresting, parade of images of this America – the one we’re living in right now, or trying to. And if so much of it seems ugly, well, do we really have to ask why?  Like Robert Frank, Drew Gardner has taken a few cross-country drives, he must have, because look at what he’s brought back to us. We can’t pull our eyes away. It’s terrible, it’s horrible, It’s fascinating, some of it is rip-roaring ridiculous, it’s awful, it’s us, now, here.

But we’ve never quite been given back to ourselves just like this before. This is a poet comfortable, as they say, with his powers, with the tools and controls at his command. It is one of the competitive-advantages, to borrow a term from a different world, that the writing that’s come to be known as Flarf can wield. Because so much of what it’s made up of, the language itself, comes directly from that terrifically ugly, unerringly hilarious, world right outside the door, it surely isn’t particularly hard to be topical, to be on-topic.

I will obtain a vision of matter that is fatiguing
for my imagination, but pure and stripped
of what the requirements of life
make me add to it in everyday language.

I Hate Both Time And Space

But, of course, what this poet does, with those tools and controls, those adzes and planes, those gleaming knobs, those dials that go to Eleven, is give it – this America – back to us in a way that is, simultaneously, entirely unrecognizable and indelibly, intimately, instinctively familiar. That’s the power of these poems.


About the Author:

Michael Gottlieb is a poet and the author of nineteen books. In addition to numerous collections of poetry, his published work also includes memoirs and essays. His most recent titles are What We Do: Essays for Poets (2016, Chax Press), I Had Every Intention (2014, Faux Editions), Dear All (2013, Roof Books), Letters to A Middle Aged Poet (2012, Otoliths), The Dust (2011, Roof Books), Memoir and Essay (2010, Faux/Other). A first-generation member of the Language Poetry school, he helped edit one of its foundational magazines, Roof. He was also the publisher of Case/Casement Books (1981-1999) and started the Last Tuesday multi-media performance series at La Mama in NYC.

Image remixed from photograph by Gage Skidmore via Flickr (cc).