Driving Without a License by Janine Joseph
Alice James Books, 2016; 100 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan


My undergraduate poetry professor once told me of a—and I’ll use this word loosely—“game” he and his fellow grad students used to play while they were preparing for their PhD poetry exams: put the first and last words of a poetry collection together and see if that pairing works to define the book’s theme. The game isn’t foolproof, but it does imply a demand that a collection make its argument from beginning to end.

Janine Joseph’s 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize-winning Driving Without a License can be examined through a number of lenses that help give it unity: politically as it details the life of an undocumented young woman from the Philippines who hides in the light of the Southern California sunshine; formally as Joseph weaves in a sonnet sequence, a villanelle, a ghazal among long-lined poems that stretch to fit in American pop culture and her Filipina roots; emotionally as the speaker copes with the growing pains we all face as we search for our identities. They all work to give us direction, but they’re not the center. If we take that first word from the book’s epigraph (“Home”) and the last poem’s final word (“disappeared”), Driving Without a License becomes even greater than the sum of its parts.

When home disappeared—was abandoned, in fact—for those who wanted a better life in the United States, how could a nation built on principles of inclusion and diversity refuse to accept this young girl but profit from her work ethic? When home disappeared, why wouldn’t this girl, now a woman and writer, explore different poetic shapes, different forms, different voices and languages—from Tagalog to the legalese of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s N-400 Application for Naturalization as in “Between Chou and the Butterfly”—in order to find the best way to ground her experience in place? When home disappeared, how couldn’t we sympathize with her struggle to find her self as she’s pulled by her heritage, her friends, her desire to finally fit someplace?

Home disappeared, yes, but that doesn’t mean we give up. Driving Without a License documents the search for what is always hiding right in front of us: a future worth looking forward to.