TheFlagrant Dead

Before the Silver Ghost, the Maserati, Lamborghini,
the Marmon, Daimler, Napier, Pope-Hartford,
the stylish Panhard et Levassor, the boat-tail Packard,
the Wills Sainte Claire, the glittering Delahaye,
the pressed steel chassis, sleeve valves, chain drives,
the overhead cam, disc brakes, the fettled aluminum block
under the shining Bugatti bonnet, the plated levers,
the felt-lined mahogany floorboards with hold-down screws
in bronze bushings, the chrome-plated buttons,
the friction shocks, the flat-out speed, the noise
at all hours of the day and night, at all times of the year,
there had been, of course, the normal going back and forth
from Paris to Joinville, Cheltenham to Gloucester,
and Glasgow to Paisley. As always, the muddy roads,
the wagon ruts, the fordings, the crumbling stone bridges,
the collapsing masonry beneath the ancient crossings,
the overgrowth of trees, the herds in pasturage,
the flocks of sheep, defined the passage. When Napoleon
sent armies into Italy, he conquered mountains;
with certain passes paved, he changed a continent.
“There were,” the emperor said, “no longer any Alps.”

Time was time was a mud hole rain or shine,
the motion of a hansom cab, a horse-drawn tram,
a tractor hauling omnibuses, a schedule, a line,
an elevated ride from the Battery to Courtland Street,
then uptown, five long miles, toward Central Park.
No black and yellow four-horse post-chaise,
no steam-powered coach from London out to Paddington,
no electric landaulet, no high-seat Dublin tricycle
made home so small, an anchorage of place,
as did the four-stroke engine under double cowls,
the hot-tube burner, and the chain-link drive.

Not long ago I stood beside a six-lane interstate;
behind me, in a field, the trace of an early road bed
cut toward Illinois, winding through the stubble;
the interstate ran full, with trailers, pick ups, vans.
A split-grill Bonneville sedan went by, as well,
a Toronado, a Cougar, and a Riviera coupe.
I saw all these, and more, wheels of every kind,
put motion in a still expanse, enlarging Indiana.

I raced once, a rebel in a custom Merc;
at other times, in Cadillacs and Continentals,
in Challengers and Firebirds, I cruised like a king;
in the Mission District in a dark green Fastback,
I easily outran the big-block Charger R/T at my back.
More often though, these days, I’m gridlocked,
trapped, in the afternoon, in a restless barreled eight;
or else, at night, with hairpin danger up ahead,
with foggy streets half-lit, no time to spare,
my two-toned Hudson Super Six will quit.

As exhausted foot-sore ploughmen trudged
(those patient walkers with their clouts and bags)
and shrine-bound wanderers on horseback went,
so on concrete highways, in a crush, all callings go.
Some eat the road, the holy line ahead of them,
in gas-lit voiturettes, in Zephyrs, long Minervas,
in Lagondas, Alfas, Wintons, Phantoms, Squires;
others, stuck in traffic, dream a burst of speed
while idling in Sting Rays, Mustangs, GTOs.
A few with choice of means by which to ride
insist, as they drive, that theirs is the right of way.
Take, for example, King Edward VII, in 1904,
out for a spin in his twenty-two horsepower Daimler.
The sudden prompt of a Gabriel Horn alerts us,
the deep carry of its three-note musical alarm,
and we find, if we want to live, the safety of a ditch,
as royalty speeds by, delighted with itself.