Book Review: Night Ride Home (Kara Dorris)
Reviewed by Linda Cronin
Kara Dorris's new chapbook Night Ride Home is a real treasure. Like her first manuscript, Elective Infinities, this book is not large but makes the reader aware that each poem was specifically selected for what it contributes to the book. Time and again throughout the manuscript, Dorris returns to her theme of home, openly announced in her title, and of leaving and returning home.
From the opening pages, the speaker appears to be in conflict, constantly searching for her/his ideal of home which cannot be found in the home that exists. The collection opens with a quote from Mark Strand, "Keeping Things Whole:" "we all have reasons for moving. I move to keep things whole." (4) And from this opening quote through the end of the manuscript, the speaker never stops moving, whether by car, by train or by foot. She is not happy at home but cannot seem to find what she is searching for elsewhere.
In "The Way Home," the opening poem of the collection she writes,
Is this why we move even in our sleep
In this opening poem, the speaker's mother and brother make their first of several appearances and other family members also populate the poems. Her grandmother is found in several poems. These family members all play a role in the speaker's dissatisfaction with the home where she was born. Her father, however, is most noticeable for his absence. It made me wonder if part of the speaker search for home is in fact partly a search for a father. In the title poem "Night Ride Home," Dorris writes:
We'd watch Stars Wars every
And in "A little something about transportation" she writes about her father: "when you pass and waved to the sperm who made you,/then cried as you told your mother/she was becoming her own mother." (12)
In "Night Ride Home," the brother is speaking when the poet writes "he'd say, I'm driving home/& I think where is that today?" Later in the poem "my brother likes to sleep in cars/a childhood left over." (8) In "Hay fever" the speaker says "But here in the country/I dream of leaving" and later in the poem "Mornings when I wake, I hold onto/the loneliness of leaving."(10) The speaker has been in constant motion from the time she was little and the home that did exist was always shifting and changing. The speaker is used to the excitement of constant change and I am not sure if even Doris knows what she's looking for i n a home. If the speaker has never experienced something, in this case a permanent home, will she know she has found the right place when it appears?
The speaker doesn't want to turn into her mother and she can't decide if the only way to escape that fate is to not have children. In "Texas gravity," the speaker is leaving the daughters she has not had: "We leave our daughters to never/birth them…"(9) In the next stanza "as we decide we will not turn into our mothers driving somewhere between Dallas and home."(9) The speaker feels the only way she can escape turning into her mother is to not follow the path mother took and also by keeping herself in constant motion. She's trying to escape the past and yet she's afraid of what exists in the future. Her constant motion is an attempt to avoid future and to avoid making a decision about having children. When the poem closes, the speaker appears to be torn about her decision. She ends
we decide to have daughters
Dorris writes in "Supernatural Scrabble:" "my grandmother loves a man/ she cannot have" and,
you need to keep
There is a longing to belong throughout the work. And at times this is a feeling of desperation and frustration, the desire for home against the desire for motion. Time and again, there is the feeling of wanting to escape, to leave this and at the same time being torn because one part of the speaker wants to stay, to find that home she's always longed for In "Highway 20:" the speaker wants to escape where she is: "I pass 5 others just to feel how fastfast can go. "(7) There is a need for speed and that feeling of freedom motion provides. And later in the poem, "my grandmother says not to trust people walking by. . . We have different ways of holding hostage."(7) There is a sense that the speaker feels she has been held hostage by those she loves and it is part of what she's trying to escape as she leaves home time and again.
At times, the reader has a feeling that the speaker thinks a permanent home is forbidden for her. Doris writes in "Supernatural Scrabble:"
Now my grandmother loves a man
There is a feeling that something in the speaker's heritage denies her the permanent home that she wants. The father is present only in his absence and the grandmother cannot have the man she loves leaving the reader to wonder what chance the speaker has to find true love. In "Concessions/Confessions," the speaker says her boyfriend wants to believe we will be porch swinging in 47 years. The speaker says " He believes this like prayer, & I want to run /but I don't,"(18) giving the reader hope that she can find that happy ending she's searching for. And later in the collection, "You want to go home /So you don't home" (20) Perhaps the reader realizes she wants to go home if only she can find home.
But at other times, the speaker doesn't feel important, she's not the center of attention when she writes in "Feel-good pills:"
Or more likely those wings, like us,
There is the feeling that fate cannot be escaped. In "Killing the plants," she discusses the fate of a plant her boyfriend has given her saying, "He knew its fate /& still planted it in our windowsill."(17) In "GPS directions (in the voice of Darth Vader), "the reader hears the speaker say "Fear you'll never love yourself first, Christmas-morning-like" (20) There is a real fear for the speaker that she will not find home or happiness even though she wants it desperately. She feels like she is only in the background and that she is not the main act of life.
Again and again there is the underlying threat of violence. Throughout the collection it hovers just below the surface leaving the reader to wonder if this is why the speaker wants to escape home so badly. In "Night Ride Home," the poet writes "as my brother double fisted oak trees" and continues "I used to color code our answers/depending on what we needed/FIRE we went/ when broken or RIVER when safe." (8) Their code sounds like a child's code making the reader wonder if her home was ever safe and if this is why she so longs for a home of her own. In "A little something about the importance of transportation" she write "but so many dead things surround you" and later
you know cars are shrines
And in "Digging ditches" the brother is digging a ditch for their mother and the poem finishes "I only flinch but it cools before the shell or my mother's body /touches the ground."(13) Later, Dorris writes; "We lift up our guns, Ruger, a Beretta, pretend/paper targets are terrorists"(13) And yet there is a sense that the danger is found much closer to home and not among terrorists.
One poem, "2604 Pin Oak Street", simply titled for an address, is again filled with that barely suppressed threat "the single yellow rope hanging from the oak tree is not a noose/or maybe it is, but it wasn't always. Not a torture but a hand-carved swing –" (6). Something that was once safe, a plaything, can easily become filled with danger, with a suppressed threat. And later "the windmill used to be a man/more than a family name spinning too fast – the carport was a portal of girl grew up in."(6) There is no safe place to be a child. Perhaps this is another reason why the speaker is afraid to have children. In "The Way Home" Dorris writes "the wall between two prisoners (when one must & does betray the other)."(5) In "Barn burning" the speaker talks of the chemical burns her stepfather has received from his work on refrigeration and at one point, she writes "I'd love to burn down our barn"(24) A sense of desperation to escape exists in several of these poems and the reader can understand why the speaker wants to leave – there is a constant presence of danger.
Several times in Night Ride Home, the speaker refers the characters of folktales or fairytales. These characters or fairytales appear at times when the speaker wishes to disappear or lose herself in the stories to escape what is going on at the present. In the title poem, it is Alice in Wonderland who appears.(8) For readers who are aware of her first collection which was very heavily involved in fairytale, these appearances remind them of those first poems. In "Supernatural Scrabble,"
breathing it keeps me awake at night,
Religion appears in several poems including "Last Supper" when the speaker writes: " Is the painting defined by Jesus /or the absence he creates?" (22). And the reader wonders if the speaker referring just to the painting or can this be taken further and be applied to her life? In "Ditching Sunday school," the speaker is trying to escape from organized religion but still even out in the fields, rolling down the hill she "pretended to be Lucifer" (23). Lucifer is free and not trapped by convention and rules. In "Church going," Doris describes a morning at church when "We didn't know we ourselves were inside-/out" (25)
In the closing: poem dedicated to Sheila Black, Dorris writes "The way melting turns everything/into what it doesn't want to be:/salvage reclamation " (27) Personally I love the way, Dorris concludes "A young woman learns about migration." It wraps up so many themes of the collection it becomes the perfect ending note when she writes:
Still, we haven't learned enough
Overall Night Ride Home is a journey well worth taking and truly follows up her first collection in a wonderful fashion. We have all journeyed to and from home and at times, tried to identify exactly what made home the place we wanted to be or didn't want to be. I found myself wrapped up in Dorris's world and look forward to turning each page and seeing what the next would bring. It is a collection you can read time and again and each time grasp more meaning from it. I eagerly await Dorris's next collection and urge you to read Night Ride Home for yourself.