Old Roads, New Stories: Downhill Switchbacks Ahead, by Rob Carney

Downhill Switchbacks Ahead

By Rob Carney

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Old Roads, New Stories: A Literary Series


To anyone outside of Washington, my hometown is un-pronounceable: Puyallup. Heck, I even hear outsiders mispronounce Spokane (sounds like can not cane), so good luck with my town, stranger. But I actually lived outside the city limits, in Pierce County, so to make it easier I’ll just say I grew up on South Hill and then tell you about two ways we used to get down. One was Woodland Avenue, a straight shot down to Pioneer Way in this mile-long, 40-degree angle. The other was 128th, I  think, but that far out—to the cliff edge over the Orting Valley—who really knows?

The roads out there were more of a memory map than a system of signs with street names, and unlike Woodland, the road to the Orting Highway was more like a snake’s dream of dancing. It wound through the trees, so no sightlines. And no streetlights. And one time no headlights either since the car I drove was an antique T-Bird with corroded dust for wiring; the lights just cut out at random. Wicked scary. My point is, I loved those downhill turns, even while suddenly blind, so writing sonnets was probably inevitable.


Yes, sonnets. Yes, those poems with all the quiz-able rules. Don’t worry, though, I not going to drill you, and the rule I like best is the simple one anyway: Somewhere between the middle and the end, you have to turn.

In the piece I wrote a couple weeks ago, I brought up iambic pentameter, so hopefully talking about sonnets now makes sense. I’ve actually written gobs of them, though I hadn’t imagined writing any beyond the one we were all assigned in high school, and I think it’s got something to do with that road I used to love to drive: every line like a cliff edge, and no clear vision of what’s coming, then a turn in the middle, then a switchback, then you’re there—just across the railroad tracks at the stop-sign-final punctuation, where you look out across the valley at Mt. Rainier. Not bad for 14 lines, and sometimes worth the trouble.

Here’s what I mean:

Some Things Have One Meaning, Some Things Don’t:

“I do,” for instance, is conditional;
the truth, it turns out, is political;
and equal means that most have equally less.

But words are like elastic, and unless
you’re careful not to stretch too far, they won’t
snap back….

                            I know what it is to be in love,
and no one has the right to disapprove
of who I love. They might, but they’d be wrong.

What else? Our lives are loaned to us. Not long.
And not to pile up money. Not for power.
And how we pay that loan back does matter:

with interest, yes—with being interested;
by promising and keeping promises;
by caring more and minding much less instead.

Does it turn? You betcha. There’s the word “But,” for instance, right there in line four, which is a pretty important word in English since it signals a contrast or foreshadows tension. In this case, though, it isn’t really the turn (it’s more like a shimmy). The turn comes two lines later, after the words “snap back,” and I apologize to anyone for whom that’s already obvious (I call out during football games too, even though the refs can’t hear me; in the Utes’ game last year versus the Huskies, I called out, “That’s a clip!” three times on the Huskies’ go-ahead punt return even though everyone else could see them clipping too… everyone, that is, except the referees and Huskies fans). There’s the rhyming, of course, and the use of meter, and sometimes enjambment past the ends of lines so things don’t stack up like 14 boring dishes, and if that’s just a bunch of jabber to you, I understand. The gist is this: sonnets are like puzzles, and puzzles are cool.

Also, they’re similar to argumentative essays, but succinct as a fist. What do I mean? I mean their structure is familiar already, drilled into us by composition classes and all the essays we had to write in school: Thesis ~ Antithesis ~ Synthesis; or, Question ~ Redirect ~ Return; or, Sweep right ~ Counter-trap left ~ Play-action pass to the tight end over the middle. Or if chess is more your metaphor, then sonnets are like 64 squares within in a square, but just as full of possibility. Plus, the meter and rhyme can amp up the impact, even be memorable, which makes them pretty effective as a way to make a point. But the thing I like best, as I’ve mentioned already, is the formal requirement to turn, to swerve, to switchback, yet still wind up in the right place (or a better place) by the end.

Here’s another sonnet to round this out that hopefully comes close to that:

Failing at Math

I do all my spatial figuring
in football fields. It’s easier that way.
The old Packard plant, for instance, in Detroit
is sixty-one football fields, which is a lot,
the biggest abandoned warehouse in the States
with underbrush inside now, a few trees,
even rabbits, and rabbits’ bones, and coyotes
adding their new sound to Motown…. Let’s say
further that I want to know the size
of Crater Lake: twenty-two eighty-eight
football fields times four. That deep, blue eye
in Oregon looks back across the years.
Was it warmer when it used to love the moon,
or always cold like this? It can’t remember.



Rob CarneyRob Carney’s fourth book, 88 Maps, was published by Lost Horse Press (distribution by University of Washington Press). Previous books and chapbooks include Story Problems and Weather Report, both from Somondoco Press.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in Terrain.org: 6th Annual Contest Finalist, 4th Annual Contest Winner, and Issue 30. And listen to a new radio interview with Rob Carney, and here’s an older radio interview.

Header photo of Packard plant in Detroit by Simmons B. Buntin.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.