Displacing Anxiety: Thoughts on Jill Bialosky’s “Driving Lesson”

Whenever I’m reading a poetry collection and I come across a piece that immediately captures my imagination, I like to flip to the acknowledgments page and see where that poem was originally published. Sometimes it’s out of idle curiosity, sometimes it’s because I’m looking for promising places to submit my own work, and sometimes it’s just to see if I can send someone a link to the poem without having to find a copy machine. Most often, the source is one of the usual suspects: Poetry, AGNI, The Kenyon Review. Every once in a while, though, the acknowledgements page gives an unexpected answer.

Such a surprise came to me while I was reading Jill Bialosky’s The Players (Knopf, 2015), as I learned that my favorite poem in the collection, “Driving Lesson,” was originally published in, of all places, The Chronicle of Higher Education, under the similar but more intimate title of “Teaching My Son to Drive.”

I’m not certain how the piece was originally published, but I was able to find the text of that earlier version of the poem on the Chronicle website. In what is an otherwise wholly digressive moment in her essay “Poetry and Suicide” (which, fair warning, discusses exactly that), Lisa Russ Spaar highlights “the ways in which Bialosky gives the antic world agency and displaces onto the careening trees, racing squirrels, and wild thrashers all of the mother’s anxiety about her son’s rite of passage.” On the whole, I find Spaar’s connection between the topic of suicide (which, in fairness, has touched Bialosky’s life greatly) and the argument of the poem to be rather tenuous. But that notion of displacing anxiety does, I think, fit nicely with how the poem handles ambiguous language.

Reading the poem, we understand that the speaker, a mother confronting the fact that her teenage son is growing more independent and that there is nothing she can do to prevent it, is projecting her dread onto the world around her. When she looks down at the speedometer and tells the reader, “I want him to slow down” (line 20), we understand that the speaker means two things simultaneously. First, on a literal level: she wants her son, who’s learning how to drive, to ease up on the gas. Second, on a metaphorical level: she wants her son, who’s approaching adulthood, to stop growing up.

That latter desire is, of course, impossible to satisfy; time simply doesn’t work like that. By using the external material of the speedometer as a point of reference, as a object onto which she can displace her anxiety, the speaker pulls off a nifty substitution: an impossible desire gives way to an attainable one. Her son cannot slow down the passage of time, but he can slow down the car. Perhaps, one may speculate, that would be good enough for the mother in these circumstances.

In terms of the how speaker displaces anxiety, the speedometer example is easy to pick out because the two elements of the process, the feeling and the object, come in quick succession. More interesting, however, are the places where those two elements are displaced from each other within the text of the poem. To read “Driving Lesson” involves coming across quasi-universal statements along the lines, “I want him to slow down,” without having their immediate context. There’s a consistent ambiguity at work here; the reader must keep asking themselves, “How am I supposed to take this?”

Let’s take two examples to get the idea. Consider the passage in which the speaker observes some horses as they drive past:

Horse farm on the side of the street
where we encounter a field
of young English riders with crops
preparing to mount the hurdles.
It won’t be easy. (9-13)

At first glance, this looks a lot like the speedometer example later on in the poem. After all, it certainly “won’t be easy” for the riders to leap over the hurdles. But, well, this poem isn’t called “Horse Riding Lesson.” It seems overly digressive for the speaker, who’s already using the driving lesson as a metaphor for her son growing up, to start likening her situation to the riders they happen upon. Furthermore, the riders’ situation actually seems dissimilar to the speaker’s, as their task is entirely physical, not emotional. While the horse imagery may suggest the line, “It won’t be easy,” through associative logic, what the image accomplishes is to displace the sentiment from the situation that occasioned it, namely, the driving lesson. Rendered more abstract, the thought becomes more bearable.

Let’s close things here by looking to the poem’s conclusion, which this time invokes the memory of a nature image rather than the image itself:

When I turn to look
I see the pensive boy in the backseat
strapped in his seat belt
watching two red squirrels run up a tree
and back down. (29-33)

It’s this finish that fully won me over to the poem. In terms of displacing anxiety, the speaker does so across so many dimensions. First, as in the previous examples, the speaker turns from the uncomfortable truth that her son is growing up to the youthful imagery of the frantic squirrels. But there’s so much more to this one, for the image is further displaced in terms of perspective (the son is the one watching the squirrels, not the speaker), time (he’s a “pensive boy,” not a teenager), and space (he’s in the backseat, not behind the wheel). The speaker has all but created a alternate reality of eternal motherhood within this moment.

Furthermore, the syntax of the final sentence manages to effectively displace the meaning of the poem. Look at that last line: “and back down.” The phrase “back down” can be taken two ways. In this context, the obvious way is as a parallel to “up a tree”: they run “up a tree / and back down [the tree].” They return to the start in the same way the speaker has mentally returned to an earlier state in her relationship with her son. But “back down” can also act as a verb phrase, meaning a kind of surrender—in this case, to the inevitable passage of time. That second meaning completes the speaker’s arc towards understanding and, as it happens, would fit the syntax of the sentence: if we add in the elided pronoun, then the phrase “and [I] back down” has a parallel structure with the preceding verb phrase, “I see.” “I see / … / and I back down.” The speaker understands the facts of life, however reluctant she may be to accept them.

As an exercise, read through Bialosky’s poem a few times and see if you can find any further moments of the sort of displacement that Spaar and I have discussed. Let me know your thoughts on the poem in the comments.

If you want to read more analyses of contemporary poetry, you might take a look at this post I wrote last year about the syntactical fireworks in Edward Mullany’s collection If I Falter at the Gallows.

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