When the World Was Rear Wheel Drive by Timothy Walsh. Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2014.
Review by Tori Grant Welhouse
Timothy Walsh’s new collection of poems When the World Was Rear Wheel Drive: New Jersey Poems captures a cool, “Happy Days” nostalgia. The title is evocative of a time, place and chapter in the poet’s life. Walsh is seventeen, coming of age in 1970s New Jersey. He is hormonal, half-Irish and half-Polish; two strong cultures that manage to co-exist, although not without incident. It makes for a livening read.
The collection is divided into three sections. The first section gives us insight into his New Jersey neighborhood, the parameters of his “rear wheel drive” world where every Sunday is proscribed by a visit to an Irish grandmother in Queens or a Polish grandmother in Brooklyn. Many of the poems are written from the “we” point of view, as in “we kids.” The adults have mysterious ways and expressions that recall and keep alive the old countries, Ireland and Poland. These mysteries are revealed in poems like “Uncle Frank’s Pizza” and “Grandma Walsh’s Wake.” For Walsh, and the “kids” in his neighborhood, New York’s tunnels and bridges connect them to grandmothers and their dual heritage, “linking us to our loved ones and lost languages.”
The second section gets more personal, with Walsh writing additional poems in the first person. He survives a crash in “Baptized by Glass,” grows interested in girls in “Chalk Dust and Sarah Reilly,” and takes his first communion in “First Holy Communion.” But certain themes recur. Memory. Ancestry. In “Przybyszewski,” Walsh shares his heritage during show-and-tell at school:
Walking home, book bag slung over my shoulder,
I imagined my legs to be one Irish and one Polish,
conjoined at the waist,
one Irish foot and one Polish, my arms spanning oceans,
two eyes, two ears, two hands –
one each of Ireland and Poland,
the me in the middle both and neither,
less than whole but somehow more.
Another theme is landscape, with the larger New York sky view always in the background. But the topography of the neighborhood also carries meaning: the lookouts, the stoops, the sweetgums.
But the theme that unites the collection is the poet’s fascination with cars – admiring cars, crashing cars, making out in cars, but especially cruising in cars with friends from the neighborhood. Cruising lends perspective to Walsh’s reminiscences and observations. From “Cruising North on 9W”:
Brothers we were and brothers we are –
back then, our endless escapades always in cars –
piling in, three in the front, four to the back,
maybe somebody crosswise on a lap –
my two actual brothers, another eight or nine
honorary from the block.
The third and final section delves a little deeper, almost mythologizing the poet’s childhood by exploring the legends – real and imagined – of people and places. Walsh can’t help but be affected by the beliefs and superstitions of his elders. He believes in their talismans, addressed in poems like “Prayer Wallet, Soapstone Fish, and Fate” and “Nuns and Pens.”
A pivotal poem in the final section is “Copper and Dust.” A grandmother tells the child Walsh not to discard old metal. His grandmothers, like magi, synthesize old and new worlds for the poet. Years later the he attempts to better understand what he remembers, how he came to be.
A church bell tolling, my grandmother said,
was calling like to like.
What she meant I never knew –
perhaps that the metals within us –
infinitesimal, elemental –
the copper, iron, and zinc in our blood and bone,
magnesium, silver and gold –
perhaps that they respond to the call of bells
as birds respond to the calls of their kind.
When the World Was Rear Wheel Drive is a spirited and spiritual collection, addressing identity, religion, love and loyalty. The poems cohere as longer narratives that rewrite the immigrant experience from the point of view of a car-obsessed teen cruising around New Jersey with his “brothers” in an electric blue Buick, motor low and purring. The poems are poignant, memorable and very much look at life as if smiling in the rear view mirror.
Tori Welhouse published her first chapbook Canned in 2014. She also received honorable mention in the Spoon River Poetry Review Editor’s Contest and third place in the Kay Saunders Emerging Poet Contest. She has published in other literary journals, including Minerva Rising and Rivet. She received her MFA from Antioch University in London. She now lives in Green Bay where she coordinates the poetry reading series IMAGINE at the Reader’s Loft for Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets. Her poetry website is www.houseofthetomato.com.