Themes and Meanings

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The poem conveys Americans’ loves of the automobile, competition, skill, and freedom. The poem’s inclusion and focus on the blue-eyed driver sucking “upon” the dead cigar and on the Mercedes driver suggest that the competitive instinct extends from the middle to the upper class in American society. The strong, sometimes colloquial verbs—“ups it,” “pull back,” “pulls out,” “hit the blinker,” “veer down,” “flash by”—suggest the enthusiastic vigor of the rivalry, which also has overtones of combat, as in the poem’s title. Competition’s relation to power is suggested not only by the detailing of the jockeying for position (many of Bukowski’s poems deal with horse racing), including the poem’s last three-line numerical report, but also by the actual word “power” in the 1984 version, in the speaker’s report of crossing a traffic signal, “they make it as I power it and switch back ahead of them/ in their lane”; “power it” and “in their lane” are deleted in the same lines of the 1999 version.

Paradoxically, the competition, because of its shared emotions and artfulness in driving, creates a team: Three times the speaker uses the simile “we are as a team,” and he reports near the poem’s end “we are moving in perfect anger” (1984) or “we are moving in perfect formation” (1999). In contrast to the sort of hostile, warlike dehumanizing identification of adversaries by epithet rather than name—“blue eyes,” “the Mercedes”—the anaphora of “we are driving with skillful nonchalance/ we are moving in perfect anger/ we are as a team” near the poem’s end reinforces the idea of how the combatants have become unified.

Although the poem raises questions about the borderline between prose and poetry because of its lineation, and about poets’ revisions of the same poem and which version is final or preferable, the themes of the joy of skill and the joy of freedom are unquestionable. A relish is conveyed in the repeated technical terms of driving and in the speaker’s statement “we are driving with skillful nonchalance,” the formal level of usage of “nonchalance” suggesting the elevation from art and emotion. The speaker’s turning on and then turning up his car radio during the fray, his revelation of the wider and wide-open setting in “we are/ moving through a 1980 California July” (or “moving through a 1990 California July”), and that “now we are running 1-2-3, not a cop in sight” all express the exuberance and joyous freedom often considered distinctively American and often celebrated in the poetry of Charles Bukowski. Amid the variety in American society, represented by the empty school bus and the parked vegetable truck that are obstacles to the racers, the vehicular racers are moving through, in some sense, wide open spaces, free from the intrusion of police authority or many of the rules of the road. The speaker may have lost the dogfight, but it has been enjoyable, and as Bukowski often explicitly indicates in his other poetry, he has gotten a good poem out of the experience.

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