Written with a Hand of the Tremor
Christian Peet:: Big American Trip:: Shearsman Books
Christian Peet’s Big American Trip (Shearsman Books, 2009) is entirely composed of poems “hand-written” on imagined postcards by an “alien” of unknown nationality, ethnicity, and gender traveling across the United States (according to his biographical note, Peet has driven across the U.S. numerous times, camping in all but five states). The book’s format opens like a book of postcards; in addition, the book invites the reader online to view video interpretations of the poems performed by various artists (bigamericantrip.blogspot.com).
The main themes in this book are language, nation, relationships, travel, and work. One postcard opens with expository discourse: “Raspberry fields, Lynden WA, Washington State leads the nation in red raspberry production. In 2004, Washington raised 60.3 million pounds of red raspberries valued at $46.6 million.” Many of the postcards contain some sort of informational heading, following the postcard genre convention to provide some kind of description of what is depicted. Peet’s poems that follow the description, however, are completely unexpected:
“That” is the defining, or restrictive, pronoun,
“Which” the nondefining, or nonrestrictive
—Washington State Raspberries, which
are harvested by illegal aliens, are delicious.
—Washington State Raspberries that
are harvested by illegal aliens are delicious.
This postcard, addressed to the “Washing State Raspberry Commission,” captures what lies beneath the touristic description of Washington’s famed raspberry production. Peet shows that language and grammar does not change the fact that “illegal aliens” are depended on to harvest the fruit. Another postcard, addressed to the “Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors National Headquarters,” addresses issues of translation and immigration:
Entienda Mal = Missverstehen Sie
Misunderstand “the sage as brush”
Misunderstand “the horizon as longing of length and depth”
Misunderstand “barbed wire as absence”
Misunderstand “presence as absence of barbed wire”
Misunderstand “we” as “in this together”
Misunderstand “conflict” as “conflict”
It’s interesting to imagine Peet writing these postcards and deciding whom to address them to; it’s also fun to imagine the individuals/organizations receiving such cryptic postcards. These postcard meditations call into question what America means by “we,” and why many feel that the presence of immigrants means there isn’t enough barbed wire to keep them (“us”) out.
While Peet’s syntax feels “alien”—as in somewhat grammatically “incorrect”—many of the postcards are also written in “Plain English.” Addressed to a Montana Senator, one poem reads:
Dried snake on the roadside.
Sage brush in gray rock.
Best estimation is 50 miles in front of me:
Three postcards are entirely composed of pasted clippings: the first is a job listing of “Available Non-Management Positions,” the second is an article about a group of U.S. soldiers in Iraq who named their camp in Iraq after a KOA campground, and the third is a description of a Michigan Law Enforcement course called “Spanish for Criminal Justice Response Professionals.” These poems testify to the complex, formal range of Big American Trip.
While much of the book deconstructs the various discourses of nationhood that the speaker encounters, the other strand of this project is to document. This becomes clear in a postcard addressed to no one, but designated “[for purposes of documentation]”:
Twenty miles to Fargo
or the time is disappeared.
Road Sign: Test Sites Next Three Miles
This is ‘Explanation.’
Throughout, Peet questions the dominant narratives and discourses of American empire and culture in profound ways.
One of my favorite pieces in Big American Trip explores what it means to “drive” (addressed to the “Recreation Vehicle Association”):
The drive is “welcome to” and “thank you”
The drive is bison disappear to the hills
The drive is abandoned, condom in the rest area
The drive is no backyard hill or stump
The drive is find the long definition home
The drive is steel & tar & oil & gas & coffee
The drive is under the weather as under the law
The drive is beyond me
The drive is heartland into stone
The drive, always beyond the poet, drives the traveler to “find the long definition home.” This long definition, of course, can never be fully defined in language because there is just too much mistranslation, misunderstanding, and weathering. However, Peet seems to suggest that the important thing is the driving and not necessarily the final definition. In a series of three postcard-poems titled “Hand in the Matter,” he describes his own poetics as searching for the “tracks / of the surface of underlying processes.”
In a sense, there is no single narrative, but “between lithosphere and atmosphere / of imitation, is this ‘lyric’ ‘body’ of ‘work.’” Of course, Peet questions even the linguistic designations of lyric, body, and work because words don’t capture the complete atmosphere of their referents. Finally, Peet notes: “the ‘lyric’ is // written with a hand of the tremor.” Indeed, the lyrics of Big American Trip are written with a hand of the tremor—a tremor caused by the unstable surfaces and underlying forces that constitute the history, language, politics, economy, and culture of the nation.
Christian Peet:: Big American Trip:: Shearsman Books