The Overhead Rack
By John Updike
Worst of all, and most hated by me
as I sit docilely crammed into my seat,
crammed and strapped like a psychotic in restraints,
are these bland-faced complacent graduates
of business school, trained to give each other
and the rest of the poor world the business,
who attempt to stuff their not one but two folding bags
big enough to hold an army of business suits
into the overhead rack, already crammed
with traveling crap like a constipated ox’s
intestine. The blond doors cannot lower,
the hats and bags of earlier arrivals
are crushed. Why don’t the smug smooth bastards check
their preening polyester wardrobes and
proliferating printouts, sheaf on sheaf,
at the ticket counter, or, better yet,
stay home and attend to their neglected wives
and morose, TV-mesmerized offspring
instead of crowding their slick and swollen bags
and egos onto my airplane, my tube in space, my
clean shot home? Like slats of a chicken coop
overrunning with dung are the overhead racks.
If we crash, thus overloaded, the world
will yield up a grateful sigh at the headlines:
one less batch of entrepreneurs to dread.
Oh, kill, kill, kill, I think, watching the filth
strap itself in, exhaling export beer
and nasal exchanges of professional dirt,
these fat corpuscles in the nation’s bloodstream:
oh, would I were a flying macrophage
to eat them all, their bags and all, and excrete
the vaporizing lava into space!
Taping John Updike’s “Overhead Rack” to the outside of an airport’s departure entrance* seemed like a good idea at the time. I had clipped the poem out of Harper’s magazine 15 years ago and found it funny. I admit I skimmed it then and merely skimmed it again before I left to pick up my nephew at the airport. A fortuitous match of poem to location, I thought.
If I had read the poem more carefully, it might have occurred to me that taping anything with the phrase “kill, kill, kill” at an airport is a bad idea. Let’s hope I’m not on a terrorist watchlist now. John Updike, at least, is above suspicion, being dead.
If this poem doesn’t have a place in a post 9/11 world, neither does its vitriol resonate with people floundering in the wake of 2008’s credit collapse. So many workers, white collar, blue collar, and artistic, struggle to hold on to their jobs; so while most people would share Updike’s roiling anger towards Wall Street types, there’s a sympathy towards the average Joe who’s traveling for business, perhaps coming home after a long week to that neglected, TV-mesmerized family in a house that won’t sell, which is why he’s commuting to a job that he dislikes in another state.
Just about everything about travel irritates these days, so it’s hard to pin all our discomforts on arrogant businessmen. Now that everyone is stuffing carry-on bags into the overhead bins thanks to baggage fees, the person who annoys us on flights is just as likely to be an innocent baby with an ear infection, a heavyset person squeezing into an ever-smaller seat, or even a self-absorbed writer who considers the plane his, and reclines his seat till his white head nearly reaches our bosom.
We catch Updike (or a character that Updike creates in jest, it’s hard to tell) in the middle of a rant. Rants can be fun to observe from the distance of performance or written word (no one wants to be the direct object of one), but they’re best enjoyed in timely fashion, not thirty years later. It’s not just that businessmen don’t wear hats with their suits anymore or that businesswomen don’t exist in the milieu of this poem; the overheated, overwritten language feels dated too, the humor a little tired. Maybe this is a poem best heard, not read. Then we might be amused by “preening polyester” and “proliferating printouts,” particularly if the speaker had an excess of spittle or an English accent.
John Updike was a brilliant novelist, so I’m told, an American original. (I read Rabbit Run years ago and disliked it. Probably I couldn’t get my head around the poor woman whose baby drowned in the bathtub because she was drunk.) But if “Overhead Rack” is evidence of poetic prowess, Updike made his name in the appropriate genre.**
These musings lead to the question, what makes poetry poetry? Not being a scholarly type, I leave that for better minds than mine, and can only offer a few of their definitions pulled from old textbooks and memory: the best word in the best place, emotion recollected in tranquility, and Archibald MacLeish’s dictum that “A poem should not mean/but be.”
What I do know is that poetry values an economy of words, the suggestive word or image, the stealth appeal to the subconscious. I’m not finding that here. Is “Overhead Rack” a prose piece in disguise?
Poetry sticks with me in ways other types of writing don’t, so I give Updike credit for at least one phrase that I’ll carry around and think of whenever I fly or commute in any fashion: fat corpuscles in the nation’s bloodstream. Aren’t we all.
**this statement may be completely off-base as this is the only poem by John Updike I’ve ever read.