Themes and Meanings

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“Auto Wreck” reveals what its author considers to be the terrible secret of modern life: the creeping indifference toward technological determinism, the simple violence of machine against human being in which everyone participates by failing to be troubled or moved by such disasters as automobile wrecks. Humanity sees but does not see; what is inherently unnatural or antihuman—traveling at high speeds in mechanical monsters that threaten both drivers and pedestrians—becomes the commonplace, the expected, and the normal.

One witnesses horrors and quickly dismisses them as part of the world one inhabits, a world that no one can control or understand fully: “We speak through sickly smiles and warn/ With the stubborn saw of common sense.” Were one to understand it, the poet surmises, one would be even more horrified; hence, the better alternative is to register the horrific as the “official version” of an otherwise unbroken line of human catastrophes. It is not evil that should surprise one, but good; not failure, but success; not ugliness, but beauty; not revenge, but mercy; not despair, but hope.

The world of “Auto Wreck” is thus a sinister realm of everydayness. The details of horror are intensified by the images the poet chooses to portray his readers’ response to that horror. Their “throats are tourniquets,” their feet, “bound with splint,” the badge of initiation into the labyrinth of stunned adulthood.

Whatever one chooses as tools for understanding become tools of ignorance, invitations to the deferral of meaning, preludes to the renunciation of “sense.” One trusts one’s senses but betrays one’s mind; the longing for redemption or release from the mundane is but cruel illusion—a mocking and macabre invitation to either intellectual suicide or mad self-deception.

The “large and composed” cops in line 15 indifferently make “notes under the light” or “douche” “ponds of blood/ Into the street and gutter.” Thus the threatened end of human life is transmogrified into the simple custodial task of sweeping the life source into the bowels of the city.

This thematic underscoring of a recurrent trait in Shapiro’s poetry catches even the casual reader by surprise: Diction, image, metaphor—these must all be calculated to evince the proposition that in the modern world everything is arbitrary. Although things might have been otherwise, they are, in fact, not—indeed, they cannot be in a world run by machines. “Auto Wreck” thus becomes Shapiro’s prototypical accusation against a world that is bereft of the transcendent values that give human life meaning and purpose.

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