Analysis of "Perpetual Motion" by Tony Hoagland

Highway, Road, Markers, Travel, Journey, Asphalt

Perpetual Motion
Tony Hoagland

In a little while I’ll be drifting up an on-ramp,
sipping coffee from a styrofoam container,
checking my gas gauge with one eye
and twisting the dial of the radio
with the fingers of my third hand,
Looking for a station I can steer to Saturn on.

It seems I have the traveling disease
again, an outbreak of that virus
celebrated by the cracked lips
of a thousand blues musicians—song
about a rooster and a traintrack,
a sunrise and a jug of cherry cherry wine.

It's the kind of perceptual confusion
that makes your loved ones into strangers,
that makes a highway look like a woman
with air conditioned arms. With a
bottomless cup of coffee for a mouth
and jewelry shaped like pay phone booths
dripping from her ears.

In a little while the radio will
almost have me convinced
that I am doing something romantic,
something to do with “freedom” and “becoming”
instead of fright and flight into
an anonymity so deep

it has no bottom,
only signs to tell you what direction
you are falling in: CHEYENNE, SEATTLE,
WICHITA, DETROIT—Do you hear me,
do you feel me moving through?
With my foot upon the gas,
between the future and the past,
I am here—
here where the desire to vanish
is stronger than the desire to appear.

My Take:

The narrator of the poem is going to start on a car journey. He wants to go very far -- he says he wants to go to Saturn. Perhaps he just wants to escape his life, his now. He just wants to go. It's a feeling that he has no control over. It's like a disease he has contracted. Perhaps he is inflicted by pessimism, because it is an outbreak that is celebrated by so many blues musicians.

He is so pessimistic that loved ones have become strangers. Thats an interesting point because we often hear about how optimism -- the walt whitman kind of optimism -- the optimism that can convert strangers into friends. Pessimism converts loved ones into strangers -- another clue that thats what has happened to the narrator.

He tries to escape his life, his friends, his loved ones, his now. And instead befriends the highway. A new path.  A renunciation, a sanyasa. This new path looks enticing, sexy -- like a girl with comfortable, air-conditioned arms. Phone booths which can be used to call his friends now appear like jewelry -- present not for the sake of connecting with the old loved ones, but as show pieces merely present to decorate the new enticements.

The radio helps in the escape. The songs playing give the false feeling that the narrator is not running from life, but being free. Doing something romantic -- something connected with love and passion. The narrator is moving.

The last few lines are beautiful:
Do you hear me,
do you feel me moving through?
With my foot upon the gas,
between the future and the past,
I am here—
here where the desire to vanish
is stronger than the desire to appear.

This is one of the poems about traveling where the metaphor is the path of life. Just like Robert Frost's poem about "miles to go before I sleep:"

But instead of rushing into activity, the narrator is trying to escape activity. Escape the future and the past, and all the people he knows -- all he wants is the highway

This character of Tony Hoagland's poem, "Perpetual Motion" talks about how he, disgusted by his life and loved ones, sets off on a journey, a perpetual journey to nowhere. The only love in his life is the highway. He loves the path and forgets everything else. He is moving between the past and his future, and despite being in the now, he is obviously diseased by pessimism. 

It creates a beautiful picture, and it is metaphor worth digging into: perpetual motion of the mind into nothingness.  Perhaps, when one is unhappy with life, one thinks of giving up everything to be happier. 

But are you happier really by renunciation? I doubt it. That is like shutting your eyes and assuming no one can see you. If you shut down your eyes, if you forget your past, and you don't dream of your future, it does not change where you are. I am not sure one has to renounce their past, future, friends and family to be in this perpetual motion. His desire is to vanish is really a desire to relinquish his ego - to disappear. And the title confirms that this motion -- this desire to move away from the past and future -- to here. And there is a perpetual motion needed for this. Sort of a constant reminder as in Guru Arjan's Saas Saas, every breath. It is perpetual motion into the desire to disappear. 

So my reading of this poem is metaphorical. It is not really a real trip. It is a perpetual motion of the mind into a state of the present, even if it seems like it is unattainable like Saturn. And then it makes a lot more sense. There is peace and pleasure in acceptance. As Guru Gobind Singh says in Re Man Aiso Kar Sanyasa, the true renunciation is of the mind. True peace is in accepting. 

The true spiritual pathway is inclusive of all. It includes a path, a highway. But it also includes loved ones. It's not about the blues of life. It's about a celebration. A colorful celebration. The purpose of life is to sing.