Linda Gregg, “Highway 90”

Highly recommended: Allison Seay’s beautiful consideration of this poem, where she talks about the journey and the destination.

*

The ancient sense of what makes an omen puzzles. A falcon shrieking overhead as you’re being humiliated—how could this possibly mark you a future Emperor? Why would the arrangement of an animal’s organs tell the future?

“Highway 90” opens with this detail: “An owl lands on the side / of the road. Turns its head / to look at me going fast.” She’s driving, immersed in the freedom of motion. Yet she notices this one animal, which for a moment attended to her and her behavior.

She notices, perhaps, that nature is watching. Not just an owl, but all of it, including her sense of self. The sense which knows how it wants to feel, which knows there’s something missing in this moment. That is ominous, whether it ends well or badly. Her deepest intuitions find themselves mirrored in the glance of an owl. The very occurrence is divine. In noticing that she was noticed, she glimpsed another order, another world, viewing us. 

Highway 90
Linda Gregg 

An owl lands on the side
of the road. Turns its head
to look at me going fast,
window open to the night 
on the desert. Clean air,
and the great stars.
I’m trying to decide 
if this is what I want.

*

“Me going fast.” I go out for walks, I go out for drives. They’re not the same thing, even if I’m frustrated in the same way.

If I’m walking, I want to feel blood circulate. It won’t take long for it to reach parts of my hands that typing and screen-watching neglect. It usually takes a little longer to reach my scalp. I’m more physically attentive to myself. My walks always feature a few minutes where I try to focus on the sounds and sights around me, no thinking about thoughts permitted.

Driving is different. Even if I’m not going fast, it’s impossible not to indulge a car’s power. Every car feels weighty. A sheer amount of metal, an engine that hauls tonnage, are directed wherever you point the nose of the car.

Driving is about the power of possibility. This isn’t unambiguously good. Inattention to what’s involved leads to shortened, maimed lives. Gregg draws us to the full power of possibility, though. An entirely new landscape, with one explorer: “Me going fast, / window open to the night / on the desert.”

There may be other inhabitants, but it might take a lifetime to find them.

*

It’s still a beautiful night, though. Worth driving through and writing out.

There’s “Clean air, / and the great stars.” Clean air I get on a level I shouldn’t. My skin is sensitive to the pollutants of the DFW area. Humid, moist air has in general been good for my breathing, but that same air often holds a lot with which I struggle.

I’d love the air to be scrubbed clean of loneliness, whether I chose it or not.

“Great stars.” In using the word “great,” she spotlights how it’s entirely her construct. Everything. Driving fast, seeing the owl, keeping the window open, documenting it all. The stars are great because she sees them as great, not because they cover a great expanse. Or because they’re literal cosmic history.

*

Gregg has a number of lines with the spirit of Rilke’s “you must change your life,” but one stands out for me as I look at “I’m trying to decide / if this is what I want.” It’s from her essay “The Art of Finding:” “I would not have sacrificed so much for love if love were mostly about pleasure.”

It hits hard, but in a good way. What I’ve shared with others hasn’t always been easy. A lot of things in more extravagant guises have revolved around deeper issues. Good wine, while talking about one’s parents as an influence. Standing before a self-portrait of Picasso, wondering aloud about our need for self-expression.

Those moments had pleasure, but it was secondary. What mattered more was whether a conversation could be started, one that might last longer than a few days. And if that conversation couldn’t be started, well.

A lot of people say “settle.” You don’t need the perfect person, you don’t need to self-actualize with a partner. But any serious partner wants to be fully there for another. They may not unravel the secrets of quantum theory with them, but they’re preparing themselves to bring new life into being, even if kids don’t happen.

Love entails willing to go it alone, if need be. The internal dialogue matters. “I’m trying to decide / if this is what I want.”

2 Comments

  1. Crikey, some major sentences. Ones where you (meaning ‘me’) stop. Didn’t particularly expect that in my fishing net!

    Well done, well done.

    “There may be other inhabitants, but it might take a lifetime to find them.”

    “I’d love the air to be scrubbed clean of loneliness, whether I chose it or not.”

    In one way, there is no mystery. Or, if it is, perhaps it’s the mystery of knowing. It seems so odd that what we most need to have known is unknowable, but maybe it just seems that way. Ordinary understanding
    though is probably a lot better than the mysterious stuff and as infallible. I guess it’s at least a part of what’s going on when you’re into trying to decide if what you want is what you want. Can it be *that* difficult?

    Not sure I read the “great stars” in the same way. The sound of them functions like brakes. I feel it’s not for her.
    It’s like “that was small” and “this is big” and it is very sad. I suspect it is some version of Goodbye. One moment of wisdom (“owlishness”) so hard to say in any other way. So hard, for example, to describe the speeds involved in perception: she knew before she knew (almost). Or she suddenly knew, which is almost the same thing!

    1. This poem has a lot of poets buzzing. There’s so much here in terms of craft to explore.

      The Allison Seay commentary I linked to has two paragraphs that are just perfect.

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