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Karl Shapiro's "Auto Wreck"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Karl Shapiro

Introduction and Text of "Auto Wreck"

The speaker in Karl Shapiro's "Auto Wreck" is offering the impressions and the images that he experienced while watching the aftermath of an automobile accident. His imagery often slips into the realm of surrealism which results likely from the welling up of emotions that overcome his thinking.

Auto Wreck

Its quick soft silver bell beating, beating,
And down the dark one ruby flare
Pulsing out red light like an artery,
The ambulance at top speed floating down
Past beacons and illuminated clocks
Wings in a heavy curve, dips down,
And brakes speed, entering the crowd.
The doors leap open, emptying light;
Stretchers are laid out, the mangled lifted
And stowed into the little hospital.
Then the bell, breaking the hush, tolls once.
And the ambulance with its terrible cargo
Rocking, slightly rocking, moves away,
As the doors, an afterthought, are closed.

We are deranged, walking among the cops
Who sweep glass and are large and composed.
One is still making notes under the light.
One with a bucket douches ponds of blood
Into the street and gutter.
One hangs lanterns on the wrecks that cling,
Empty husks of locusts, to iron poles.

Our throats were tight as tourniquets,
Our feet were bound with splints, but now,
Like convalescents intimate and gauche,
We speak through sickly smiles and warn
With the stubborn saw of common sense,
The grim joke and the banal resolution.
The traffic moves around with care,
But we remain, touching a wound
That opens to our richest horror.
Already old, the question Who shall die?
Becomes unspoken Who is innocent?

For death in war is done by hands;
Suicide has cause and stillbirth, logic;
And cancer, simple as a flower, blooms.
But this invites the occult mind,
Cancels our physics with a sneer,
And spatters all we knew of denouement
Across the expedient and wicked stones.

Reading of "Auto Wreck"

Commentary

Shapiro's "Auto Wreck" is focusing on the human mind's inability to comprehend and compute the wave of emotions that well up in contemplating such a catastrophic event.

First Stanza: The Approaching Ambulance

Its quick soft silver bell beating, beating,
And down the dark one ruby flare
Pulsing out red light like an artery,
The ambulance at top speed floating down
Past beacons and illuminated clocks
Wings in a heavy curve, dips down,
And brakes speed, entering the crowd.
The doors leap open, emptying light;
Stretchers are laid out, the mangled lifted
And stowed into the little hospital.
Then the bell, breaking the hush, tolls once.
And the ambulance with its terrible cargo
Rocking, slightly rocking, moves away,
As the doors, an afterthought, are closed.

The speaker opens his descriptive montage by painting a picture of the approaching emergency vehicle. The bell sound of the vehicle seems to be beating on the speaker's and the other observers' brains as it approaches fast, maneuvering with necessary speed.

The speaker, who is observing this chaotic scene, takes in the imagery that accompanies it. The vehicle itself seems to be floating, as the confused speaker tries to get a grip on his emotions.

Resembling a bird, the vehicle seems to have "wings" that "curve" as it maneuvers among the crowd of people, who have gathered around and stand staring at the activity in the aftermath of the crash. Some folks will, no doubt, offer their assistance, while other, out of morbid, idle curiosity, will just stand gawking at the blood and gore.

After the ambulance has come to a halt, the emergency workers step out of the vehicle. The light inside the vehicle seems to come pouring out like water. The paramedics are now carrying out the stretchers, onto which they will quickly place the injured bodies of the crash victims. The medical workers then "stow[]" the crash victims "into the little hospital." Finally, the sound of the bell commences again as the vehicle pulls away to deliver the maimed and injured to the actual hospital facility.

Second Stanza: Observer Derangement Syndrome

We are deranged, walking among the cops
Who sweep glass and are large and composed.
One is still making notes under the light.
One with a bucket douches ponds of blood
Into the street and gutter.
One hangs lanterns on the wrecks that cling,
Empty husks of locusts, to iron poles.

The speaker exaggerates a bit, claiming that he and the other observers "are deranged," but they are, no doubt, disturbed as they are walking among the cops. The cops are cleaning up the broken glass and other debris left by the wreck, for example, they "sweep glass," as they write down notes.

One of the cops is washing into the gutters the pools of blood that have accumulated. One cop has placed lanterns on the parts of the vehicle that are still smashed up against the pole. Those remains looks like "[e]mpty husks of locusts" to the speaker. The reader now if informed of the nature of the crash—the car smashed into a pole.

Third Stanza: What the Observers Must Be Feeling

Our throats were tight as tourniquets,
Our feet were bound with splints, but now,
Like convalescents intimate and gauche,
We speak through sickly smiles and warn
With the stubborn saw of common sense,
The grim joke and the banal resolution.
The traffic moves around with care,
But we remain, touching a wound
That opens to our richest horror.
Already old, the question Who shall die?
Becomes unspoken Who is innocent?

The speaker then continues to speculate about the emotions the people must be experiencing. He moves on with his description of the feelings of the other observers. He claims that their "throats were tight as tourniquets" and their "feet were bound with splints." The speaker is employing medical metaphors to underscore how deeply the observers are now sympathizing with the injured victims of the crash. The observers themselves have become victims of the crash that they have been merely watching, and now they seem to require their own convalescence as they make unwarranted and likely stupid quips about the situation.

The emergency vehicle, now holding the injured victims of the crash is leaving, moving out from the crowd. As it moves, it seems to rock slowly back and forth as the doors are closed. Even the closing the doors seems like an "afterthought" because the emergency medical workers are in such a hurry to get the injured to the hospital.

Traffic then finally begins to move beyond the wreck, but still many in the crowd remain and continue to stare. Their minds cannot let go of the spectacle. The speaker again speculates about what the others might be thinking: how did the accident happen? is someone to blame? are there innocent and guilty parties? what might those responsible deserve? will anyone die? or be maimed for life?

The observers appear to be throwing out through their bland smiles only clichés and other drivel. Their remarks sound grossly out of place. They are too numb and befuddled to come up with some original fresh insight into this terrible ordeal; some of them even attempt to offer jokes, but they remain darkly thoughtless and unsatisfying. Then there are others who seem to want to offer some justification for such a disquieting event, but those justifications remain merely "banal resolution[s]."

Questions abound in the startled and overwhelmed mind of those who observe such destruction. And all of this speculation, however, is arising in the mind of the speaker. It is, in fact, only the speaker who is raising such possibilities. He is not interviewing his fellow observers; he is merely musing about what they may be musing.

Fourth Stanza: Philosophical Musing

For death in war is done by hands;
Suicide has cause and stillbirth, logic;
And cancer, simple as a flower, blooms.
But this invites the occult mind,
Cancels our physics with a sneer,
And spatters all we knew of denouement
Across the expedient and wicked stones.

Death by automobile crash haunts the mind and heart as it seems so random and unheralded. For example, people engage in war with deliberation and for a purpose. There seems to be no purpose in dying in a large can of steel that plows into a pole. The speaker's philosophical musing about the causes of death, like his others effusions, is likely brought on by the trauma of the event he has just experienced.

It seems that only "the occult mind" may hold the reasons for such a strange and disconcerting event. The speaker has learned only that he can describe the event, he can speculate about how it was caused, and even what might happen next, but he is helpless and totally without the power to comprehend what that "occult mind" might know. Hell, he can't even be sure there is such a mind!

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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