This one has a very evocative title and it’s situated in the Myth chapter of the textbook, so I wonder what “Night Driving” could mean when I read it.
For me the title conjured up all sorts of images in my head. Janet Leigh racing down the highway after embezzling from her boss in the movie Psycho, she’s worried and her mind is racing. Me driving somewhat drunk while my mother is in the passenger’s seat. I’m describing how I had to put up yet another Tiger Lady of a boss, how I got passed over for a prettier girl, because I was too nice and she turns to me and tells me for the first time ever, “You’re a good egg.” Driving late at night lost in thought and heart broken over another bad relationship. Driving to find myself. Driving down the highway near the Pacific Coast in the part of the State where the road is tunnel made of 100 foot pine trees and the rain pours down with the force of a waterfall; my fuel gauge is low and there’s not one near town on the map.
It’s weird for a human to be in a vehicle that can go faster than anything on earth can run. The world is speeding by becoming blurred and unreal, but add in the night and it become surreal. It can become another world, one that lives only in the imagination. You speed by and there could be anything in those trees; there’s no time to stop and investigate, to understand.
There’s a bumpersticker, read it a number of times: My car is my bubble. And it is. This is where your thoughts and your worries become magnified, where your ideas become bigger than life, because you’re now encased in this small world. This small world has its own mythology borne by its only occupant.
In the poem there are two concepts of the world duking it out. There are two explanations for the world. For the poet there are “Fords,/ Buicks, Chevrolets, filled with the heads/Of children, lovers, lonely businessmen.” But for the poet’s father the cars are “cats in the darkness.” The poet sees headlights and his father insists they are cat’s eyes “staring back at them”. I’m uncertain how the father sees this. In the light, cars are noisy and clunky, they seem to bump into everything easily and they have no grace. But at night as you stream past, they could seem sleek and smooth, the night might even be able to mask the noise. Or am I just being sold something because the poet told it to me? This is what the poet himself is trying to figure out. “Half asleep,/He can believe, or make himself believe/The truth of his father – all lies…”
We all convince ourselves of things that aren’t true, that we want to believe is true. We’ll have a lucky rabbit’s foot, or wear a certain hat to help our team win, we’re certain that the front seat of the number two bus is the best seat and that chocolate ice cream is the only real ice cream, that our dead grandparents can hear us still, that people really care about the choice of coat we’ve picked. Even the great Atheist Richard Dawkins has convinced himself that given enough evidence and enough time we’ll eventually understand everything – whatever you want to believe, Professor.
The real heart of this poem is a question: how much stock do we put into our myths? How truthful are they? How far detached from reality? Because we think it’s true, does that make it true? And in the absence of evidence (or ability to gather it) how far can we allow ourselves to believe? Are myths just stories we tell each other to pass the night, to make it more bearable? Or do they tell us something vital about ourselves and our world? Do they shine a light on reality that we simply refuse to see? Or are they empty promises? Or are they a fulfillment of a wish? (Or the promise of one?) Does it only depend on hope? And can we have meaning without myths?
by Dick Allen
Cold hands on the cold wheel of his car,
Driving from Bridgeport, he watches
The long line of red taillights
Curving before him, remembers
How his father used to say they were cats’ eyes
Staring back at them, a long line of cats
Watching from the distance – never Fords,
Buicks, Chevrolets, filled with the heads
Of children, lovers, lonely businessmen,
But cats in the darkness. Half asleep,
He can believe, or make himself believe
The truth of his father – all the lies
Not really lies: images which make
The world come closer, cats’ eyes up ahead.