Thumbing It

Try it and I’ll try to make room for you.
I’ll pull over, sweep the junk off
the other seat, turn over a peace sign
and pop the lock. I’ll ask where you’re headed
and when you say there, I’ll say great, so am I
—even if, strictly speaking, this isn’t true.

I know how it is. That lifetime at the side
of the road, the clamp-jawed cars,
trying to assume the right posture
(part orphan, part don’t-fuck-with-me),
licking your thumb now and then
for good luck or no reason or just to feel

the shucked air. And if someone stops
—well, then you worry about the crazies.
You glance in the open door (whiff of—what?
sound of—what?) and remember the one
who passed transports over the double line,
who rolled joints with two hands

at ninety miles an hour while steering
with his knee. You live in dread
of the lesser and greater dangers,
the droners, the ones who wall you in
with me, me, me, or the ones waiting
to write on your body with a knife.

Try it and I will not be one of those.
Try it and I’ll try to see at least one thing
through your eyes. I’ll offer you a seat,
make a little small talk (nice not
to travel alone, eh?
) then leave you
to yourself. After a while

I’ll get tired (it’s a long way, after all)
and ask if you want to drive. If you do,
we’ll trade seats. I’ll offer a tip or two
(it’s still my car, it’s got my personality
—or is that an illusion?) then curl up
and close my eyes. Now you have the wheel,

you make your own sense of the solid
and broken lines. You drive on until
there is, inevitably, a fork—will you go
this way or that? Maybe you steal
a glance back at me, try to read
the intention on my face, but by then

I’m just the question mark
dreaming in the seat beside you.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “Thumbing It”?

My first book, On the Other Hand, was quite confessional. One day after a reading, my friend Misao said to me that she could really understand what I got out of the poems but she wondered what was in them for an audience. This got me thinking about audience. So I wrote a poem about it (using the conceit of the reader as hitch hiker). I then used this as a first poem—a statement of poetics, really—for my second book, The Birdhouse, Or.

What poetic techniques did you use in “Thumbing It”?

That central conceit, obviously—an extended comparison between a reader “thumbing” open a book and a hitch-hiker “thumbing” a ride. The other really noticeable technique is the way the poem is in free verse but looks regular on the page, with lines mostly similar in length. I find myself doing this sometimes for not entirely conscious reasons. I think it has to do with wanting the form to modulate the delivery of the poem somehow, to force a certain kind of compression, rhythmic regularity. Also because there is something in the look that is more formal, maybe it’s a way of subtly elevating the subject matter (like you do when you put something into a song).

This poem “Thumbing It” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 164 (Spring 2000): 112-113.

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