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In May 2012, at the Northwest Poets’ Concord in Newport, Oregon, at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, in the parking lot of the Hallmark Hotel, I spotted the “poetry car.” In fact, I could not have missed it since my car was parked in the next slot and someone had boldly written poetry all over their car in what appeared to be permanent marker.

October 26, 2013, at the Oregon Poetry Association Conference in Forest Grove, I overheard a comment about poetry written on a car. “Was that your car at the Poets’ Concord in 2012?” I asked. The owner of the poetry car, Sallie Ehrman, kindly answered my questions.

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– The Poetry Car designed by Sallie Ehrman. Photographed in Newport, Oregon by Katie Eberhart (May 2012).

I asked what kind of pen she used and whether she had eventually removed the words.

Sallie Ehrman’s response:

Katie—All of my cars have been art cars but when I bought this RAV4 I thought I might not do anything to it—being more “uptown” than my former vehicles. Oddly enough, I had never written poetry on any of the others—mostly just painted. I did have “I brake for poems” on the back of my Toyota pick-up and “ouch” on another car that had a dent!! So—I had to do SOMETHING with the RAV. It took a while to get up the courage to write on the car, knowing it was going to be there for a while. People loved it.

The way I got it off—and sometimes I would change the poetry—was with nail polish remover. Eventually, the sharpie would fade and I’d either write over it again or change it up and then I decided to take it off altogether. WHY?? not sure, really. Anyway—now I want to put poetry on there again and so I have large magnetic words on order. Who knows, I may just do the sharpie thing again. No “scraping” was involved in getting the words off.

Looking again at the photos of the poetry car, I realize that it’s not enough to talk about the writing process, that encountering poetry in unusual settings can change how we view our surroundings.

The moon is a plate of snow
set on the table of night.
                S. Ehrman

Words become a warm-up exercise for imagination. Take the moon. Make it a plate, not glass or porcelain, but a plate of snow. Transform night into a flat surface, a table. Exercising imagination brings back memories, of sleeping outdoors under a black-starry sky, of an orange moonrise, the coyotes’ snippy yelps, and rustling noises in the orchard.

Another line written on the poetry car is from a poem by J. Gilbert:

We must admit there will be music despite everything.

Googling, I find the line is from A Brief for the Defense by Jack Gilbert, a poem densely packed with sorrowful and tragic images, but a poem that also makes a pitch for the necessity of delight:

. . . We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. . . . 

Gilbert’s poem leaves me with a despairing sense of the flimsiness of borders—and the enigmatic title, A Brief for the Defense, sends me to read the poem again this time—as if reading poetry is an exercise in multi-tasking—I am also thinking about a line on the poetry car by Mary Oliver:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

When a poet asks these questions, listen. You must listen. Hard. It doesn’t matter too much whether the “you” is all of us or someone the poet knows. I am not prepared with an answer so instead go in search of the rest of the poem which I find on the Library of Congress web site. The poem, Mary Oliver’s This Summer Day begins:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-

We might think we know the answers to these questions and yet (before our eyes) the poem shifts away from the abstract of world, swan, and black bear to scrutinizing a single grasshopper. In fact, we share Mary Oliver’s personal moments:

This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

This watching takes time. Reading takes time. Mary Oliver devotes seven lines to the activities of one grasshopper which at the end “. . . snaps her wings open, and floats away.” Where do we go from there? Our job is not over. The poet, and so also the reader, wanders at the mysterious edge (is this also a flimsy border?) between knowing and not knowing—knowing how to “pay attention”, not knowing “exactly what a prayer is”:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?

The poet knows how to be “idle and blessed” in the outdoors of grass and fields, but then goes to the place of second-guessing (“what else should I have done?”). Indeed this seems to be a good question. In Jack Gilbert’s A Brief for the Defense

 . . . The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. . . .

Without Sallie Ehrman’s poetry car, I would not have encountered these two poems at the same time. I read, back-and-forth, immersed in both poems. At the end of Mary Oliver’s This Summer Day: 

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

There are links on the Poetry Center at Smith College website to more poems by Jack Gilbert. I click the link The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart. I read a poem of loss of language over a very long time and am struck by the line

. . . My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light. . . .

Pondering that, as soon as I upload this post, I’m going to play the accordion until my shoulders ache because

” . . . there will be music despite everything.” [J Gilbert]



A Brief for the Defense by Jack Gilbert – http://www.smith.edu/poetrycenter/poets/abrief.html

The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart by Jack Gilbert – http://www.smith.edu/poetrycenter/poets/theforgottendialect.html

The Summer Day by Mary Oliver – http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/133.html