What jumps to mind when you hear the phrase "bike poetry"? Probably it's the old refrain "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do..." But bicycles built for two aren't the only ones that inspire verse, as Burlington poet David Cavanagh demonstrates deftly in his new book, Cycling in Plato's Cave Poems.
The title may sound heavy, but Cavanagh has a light touch, as readers of his previous collections Falling Body and The Middleman know. Even when this Montréal native writes about facing disease and death, he alternates sober observations with brisk, buoyant humor. That's all the more true here, as Cavanagh devotes himself to chronicling a practice and a culture he clearly loves, along with its attendant artifacts and tools. Take his two poems about hating and then learning to accept a "skinny butt-buster" of a saddle: "Nasty. / It noses like an F-16 or pterodactyl on the hunt. / ... / Already your butt is numb. Hours of miles later, not."
There are poems here about fixies, stationary bikes, bikes built for two ("Sometimes two women. / Hardly ever two guys"), derailleurs and brakes. There are joyfully coasting minimalist poems and poems that take ambitious hill rides into Big Issues. And there are unfussily evocative photos of bikes and bike parts contributed by Cavanagh's nephew, Ben, and his brother, Pat.
What there isn't in this book is overt preaching about the virtues of two-wheeled transportation. Cavanagh handles that issue with characteristic dry understatement in the poem "Bike Politic," which opens thus:
Without doubt good
for the environment.
At least we think so.
Seems likely. At least
it isn't bad. Good
enough to go on.
Good enough for a spin.
If Cavanagh isn't convinced bicycles can save our wasteful world (for that it may be "too late," he notes), he is nonetheless fascinated by all the possible connotations of the deceptively casual-sounding "spins" we take on them.
Cycling offers one more set of metaphors for elaborating an age-old philosophical conundrum: Is life a straight line, pure mutability, or is it a circle, a repeating cycle, an eternal return? A wheeled conveyance naturally evokes the latter idea: "I circle and am circled / by circles within circles," writes Cavanagh in "Hub." Yet each ride offers a strict linear progression of landscape. Trying to double back can have disastrous consequences: "Who knows / What happens in the past?" he writes in the collection's title poem. "If I turn to look / for longer than a blink, I'll end up in a heap / or hospital."
Riding forward means losing sight of roadside curiosities almost as soon as they appear, but who wants to pedal and get nowhere? ("Sisyphus meets Bill Murray in Groundhog Day" is how Cavanagh sums up that sensation in "Stationary Bikes.") Everyone who's learned to ride a bike remembers the exhilaration of achieving stable forward motion for the first time. For Cavanagh, that childhood "thrill" is an emblem of life itself, in which we gradually realize that the destination matters less than the journey: "forward is just the means, / and whirling wheels plus some / unknown are what we really need" ("The Bike Upright").
As always, the poet steers such observations out of the realm of sunny platitudes by not shying from the shadows of fallibility and mortality. The journey may be what we live for, but, as Cavanagh writes in "Hub," "the ride is short and finally done alone." We lull ourselves with images of eternally spinning circles, but "Infinity is a lie with a far, dark end."
It's quite a jaunt Cavanagh takes us on in these poems, from a kid's first ride to the universe's demise. But wherever he travels, he always comes around again to his reverence for the humble, ubiquitous, extraordinary contraption that is the bicycle: "In the beginning, at the end, / One small truth abides: / I love to ride."
Talking Cycles and Ideas with David Cavanagh
SEVEN DAYS: Why did you decide to write poetry about cycling? Or did it just sort of happen?
DAVID CAVANAGH: A few of the poems just happened and were part of another book coming out next year from Salmon Poetry in Ireland. Then I noticed that there were several of them and started to wonder if I could mine that vein a bit. I started to see that cycling might be a way to get at a number of issues and topics that are important to me.
SD: How did you first connect cycling with Plato's thought?
DC: Among other things, the story of Plato's cave is about our limited perception of reality, or what we think is reality. I wrote the title poem about riding down a road, noticing trees and fences, etc., and wondering what happens to those things once they're behind us, in the past; wondering how much I was missing as I rode past, and wondering if I was really seeing reality or just the little bit that I let myself see. The phrase "cycling in Plato's cave" came to mind, and it became the title. I also just thought it was funny, the idea of someone riding a bicycle around inside a cave, especially the cave of an ancient Greek philosopher. I don't mean it to be heavy.
SD: Tell me about your history as a cyclist.
DC: I've been riding bicycles regularly since I was a little boy in Montréal. In the past 15 years, I've become sort of obsessed with bike riding as a way of keeping in shape, as a stress reducer (a lot cheaper than therapy), as a form of meditation, as environmentally sound, as a very practical means of transportation and just a lot of fun. I do long rides, short rides, commuting rides, rides to the grocery store or downtown for an errand or a beer. Although I work for [Johnson State College], my office is at [the Community College of Vermont] in Winooski, and I commute to it from Burlington most of the year.
I have five bikes at the moment. The oldest is a 40-year-old 10-speed; the newest one is a very fancy road bike that is a marvel of technology, though in basic design it's not much different from the "safety" bikes that became a craze in the 1890s — well over a hundred years ago.
SD: Do you think bikes have an important symbolic status in our culture right now, like swords and horses in Plato's culture? Or are they just bikes?
DC: They're not quite like swords and horses, but they are seldom "just bikes," either. They are gaining a certain romantic stature and sometimes represent a kind of lifestyle. Depending on the person, they represent freedom, self-sufficiency, simplicity, an alternative to cars and a fossil-fuel-based culture, economical transportation, a healthy way of living, and probably a bunch of other things. For me they are all those things, but, as one of the poems says: "one small truth abides: / I love to ride."
SD: What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of current local cycling culture?
DC: I love how more people of all kinds, including whole families, are riding bikes, and for all kinds of purposes. I love the wonky, personalized bikes that young people whiz around on.
Least favorite aspects would be the guy in the pickup last week who buzzed by me too close and yelled at me to get off the road, and that Burlington and Vermont in general have a long way to go in making bike riding safe for people to do for fun and transportation. We're making progress, but for such a progressive city, we're way behind what other cities in the U.S., Canada and Europe have done.