Rhode Island Notebook

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

"His spirit responds to his country's spirit...he incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes," Walt Whitman wrote these words in 1855 but they live on in the work of a contemporary Whitman, Gabriel Gudding. A poet and teacher (Illinois State University), Gudding recently published RHODE ISLAND NOTEBOOK, a truly original and inspired book dealing with the twenty-two car trips he made between Normal, Illinois and Providence, Rhode Island circa 2002-04. Driving straight through in 18-hour stints, he was mostly alone at the wheel, except for the few times that his precocious young daughter Clio accompanied him.

In RHODE ISLAND NOTEBOOK (Dalkey Archive Press) Gudding writes about the American heartland he observed and experienced during those marathon journeys. Sometimes powering down Interstates, other times poking into back roads, Gudding's eye takes it all in--the fields and rivers, the bridges and townspeople, the billboards and roadkill--and makes art out of it, thanks to his felicitous use of language, his feeling for landscape, his keen, finely-honed sensibilities and convictions. His on-the-road epic poem runs 436 pages but never flags, never becomes esoteric or dull. Gudding is too good a writer for that, too down-to-earth and human.

At turns angry, caustic, funny and hurting (the book is partially a chronicle of his disintegrating marriage), Guddup pours his heart out in RHODE ISLAND NOTEBOOK, confessing his own sins and failures, denouncing the war in Iraq, sounding off about literature (and dung), declaring his love for little Clio (to whom the book is dedicated), railing against things like "the RightWing BurmaShave signs of Champage County: 'Roses are Red, My Gun is Blue, I am Safe How About You--Gunssavelife.com."

Gudding isn't afraid, though, to bring up the mundane aspects of highway travel: mph, gas prices, toll costs, diner food, traffic jams, the boredom of driving. He also comments on the radio programs, the dj music ("I love Neil Diamond. His song 'Holly Holy' is on. It is from 1969. The year before the great war criminal Henry Kissinger truly came to power."). But above all, he focuses on the verities: the mysteries of life and love, the majesty of rivers and hills, the importance of karma, the need for humor in these bleak times: "Seems to me the clown and the saint are really close in having this detachment from their own wounds."

RHODE ISLAND NOTEBOOK is a contemporary classic, a book to be treasured and remembered.