Hotrod Golgotha by W. Joe Hoppe
In this collection, the Austin poet delivers a high octane paean to cars and all that makes them cool
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Jan. 1, 2021
As someone whose car ownership has consisted almost exclusively of Toyota Corollas and Volvo sedans, and who is more likely to be found driving under the speed limit than over it, I may be exceedingly ill-suited to the task of reviewing a poetry collection in praise – rapturous praise! – of the automobile, its mechanics, and its ability to achieve blinding, thrilling speeds. But I am a child of car culture's heyday. I was there for drive-in burger joints and theatres; drag strips and speedway races ("Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!"); the Beach Boys' "Little Deuce Coupe" and Jan and Dean's "Dead Man's Curve" topping the charts; the Corvette, Mustang, and Camaro rolling out of Detroit; Ed "Big Daddy" Roth's Kustom Kars; Bond's Aston Martin; Bullitt's Mustang Fastback; the Batmobile! I mean, I still have a set of original Hot Wheels. So I get it, this automotive allure, this roadster rave. Thus, you can trust me when I say that opening up W. Joe Hoppe's Hotrod Golgotha – the title's lifted from Allen Ginsberg's Howl, and Hoppe clearly takes some inspiration from the Beat king – felt like easing behind the wheel of a car I'd driven many times – and very fast – a car that's alive with a monster V-8 that shakes your frame, rattles your bones, thunders under you, rumbles roars explodes.
See, Hoppe's poems are fueled by verbs, the gasoline of activity. He's always doing something, though given his passion here, it's often not what you'd expect in the places you'd think. For the most part, the poet isn't revving engines, burning asphalt, gunning accelerators, shifting gears, or roaring down streets, strips, highways. He's not even in the car. He's in the junkyard, scrounging for spare parts; in the garage, chipping paint, grinding rust, soldering wires, welding metal; under a tree, brushing red Rust-Oleum on the interior of a 1968 farm truck.
It isn't that Hoppe doesn't relish the power and velocity of these vehicles – his deep-seated love for everything about cars is evident in every line – but in these poems he's helping us understand "what makes these cool cars go," as he says in one piece, insisting that's something "you've got to know." To that end, he dives under the hood to show us what we never see, what the turning of the key sets in motion, what it ignites – starter relays, ballast resistors, wires shooting "tens of thousands of volts/ straight to the spark plugs," throttle cable, carburetor, crankshaft, pistons, tappets, pushrods, intake manifold, exhaust valve – all are covered in his tutorial explaining "the suck squeeze bang and blow." "You've got to sing it," he says, and he lets us hear how in his aria, his rhapsodic aria, on internal combustion and the other elements that make cars cool.
But even though Hotrod Golgotha spends relatively little time on the road, the chapbook is a journey. It begins in Hoppe's childhood, before he could get behind the wheel himself, when his early enthusiasm for the automotive takes the form of Hot Wheels, Mattel's beloved line of miniature die-cast cars. In his home, he makes them race along elaborate roadways that he's built with their orange track slats, ones running from the dining room table under the sofa to his bedroom and down the basement stairs, while in his father's car, he holds them out "to glide them along balustrades and balconies, bridge cables/ billboards, the sleek silhouettes of other real cars/ you knew you'd never ever ride in." It extends to his Carter-era adolescence as he joins his angsty teenage pals in sneaking into an abandoned racetrack and running their lame vehicles – "our parents' Vista Cruisers, Estate Wagons, Safaris/ our own Novas, Ramblers, Darts" – around the oval dirt track "until somebody crashed/ or we ran out of gas." And it reaches its endpoint in middle age as the older, more patient Hoppe undertakes the restoration of a 1951 Plymouth Cranbrook – one of those hefty, rounded, postwar models out of Detroit. His painstaking efforts pop up here and there through the poems (one is simply a to-do list of work he has to do on the car), and the chapbook ends with his account of a short spin in the Cranbrook, ending at Bartholomew Park on the Fourth of July, 2016. It's four years into the project, and he knows, in the words of another poet, that he has miles to go before he's done. But that's the way of all things, Hoppe notes; there's always more to do. And what comes through is the idea that when the car is a good one, what sticks with us isn't the place we end up as much as the drive. In Hotrod Golgotha, Hoppe has rolled out one sweet ride.
Obsolete Press, 36 pp., $10