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.”