Southbound on the Freeway

by May Swenson

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Lines 1–2 This poem starts with the literary conceit, or premise, that an alien life form has come from another planet and observed life on earth. The poem is clear about not taking itself too seriously. First, the alien is referred to with the friendly word “tourist,” softening any notion of it being a hostile invader and implying a guest/host relationship. The name “Orbitville” is light, somewhat humorous: it implies small-town America, where names like Kentville, Greenville and Roseville are common. The first half of the name is pointedly un-exotic, using a word that shows an almost childish grasp of the reaches of outer space. When this poem was published, in 1963, the United States and Soviet Union space programs had put humans into earth’s orbit, and the word would have been in the news daily. The use of the name “Orbitville” sets a light, anti-intellectual, child-like tone. Similarly, the action of parking “in the air” implies that this poem is being told by someone with a weak imagination, who borrows from popular science fiction rather than establishing an internal reality within the poem. For young readers this speaker is friendly and non-challenging; more sophisticated readers are amused by the poem’s sense of whimsy.

Line 3 Line 3 refers to the earth as a “star.” A space traveller would, if it knew anything, know the difference between a star and a planet. In having the visitor describe it this way, the author accomplishes several things. The visitor’s naivete is established, making the confusion it is to feel in the coming stanzas more plausible. Also, the word “star” reminds most readers of wonder, of mystery. The emotional associations a reader has with a word constitute the word’s “connotation.”

Line 4 In Line 4, the theme of technology is introduced. It is not clear at this point in the poem what the visitor is seeing, or if it is actually Earth that is being visited. From the description given here, the reader can only tell that the visitor mistakenly uses the word “creature,” which indicates a life form, to talk about something that has been manufactured.

Lines 5–6 “Guts” is a surprisingly informal word for the visitor to use in describing the “creature’s” internal organs, but Swenson’s purpose becomes clear in the last line of the poem, where the common association of “guts” with “courage” is brought into play. In Line 6, the visitor states the obvious: anything seen within could be considered guts.

Lines 7–10 It is in this part of the poem that it first becomes clear that the visitor is talking about an automobile: only wheels are round and roll where feet would be, and the description previously given, added to the wheels, implies a car. The speaker uses two interesting descriptions for freeways. “Diagrams” implies precise drawings, and to some extent this is exactly what roads are to travellers, although they do not appear to be so from a surface- level perspective. The idea of “measuring tape” stems from the regularly-paced dashes that divide highways up the middle. In making this comparison, the visitor reverses the human concept of road travel: we think of the road as hardly significant, a detail, but if it were a measuring tape it would be the point of travelling.

Lines 11–12 Lights have often been associated with eyes, probably because the opaque clarity of an eyeball resembles an electric light’s glass casing and shines like no other part of the body. The placement of two headlights on a car in relatively the same place as eyes are located on the front of...

(This entire section contains 1150 words.)

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the face makes the visitor’s assumption in Line 11 reasonable enough. Seeing tail lights as eyes is a little more conspicuous: since we know nothing about the visitor, it would not be hard to believe that eyes in the back of the head are common to him. But it is not enough to say that this detail is here only because the author wanted to show that the visitor has a different set of assumptions than our own: if that were the only reason, she could have included countless examples, but she chose this particular one. The color red implies fire and passion, and red eyes therefore conjure an image of heated emotion. Paired with the head-lights, that navigate roads with the clarity of light, the creature of earth is shown to be a mix of reason and emotion.

The five-eyed creature is a police car, which, in the 1960s, would have had a single red globe on the roof with a bright light rotating when in the process of making an arrest. With a deadpan tone that again indicates naivete, the visitor refers to the frightening figure of authority as “special,” a term more cheerful than most people would use. Three red lights to two clear ones on this car tip the balance toward flaring emotions and away from rationality.

Lines 17–20 Here the poem’s central question of man’s intelligence is implied most clearly. From above, the behavior of automobiles in the presence of police cars seems like primitive reverence, as if they are honoring the police car, possibly because of the mutation on its roof. From the ground, slowing in the presence of a police car is an intelligent thing to do, to avoid a traffic ticket. Contrasting these two perspectives gives a fresh look at what we consider intelligence.

The detail of the police car “winding among them from behind” implies, to a driver, a cat-andmouse contest of wits and strategy between the motorist and the police car. From a visitor’s simplistic perspective, it would appear that wits are not involved, that all parties are participating in a primitive ritual.

Lines 21–22 The hiss in Line 21 implies a snake, a very low order of life, slithering along the ground: to a visitor who can float in the air, this would seem especially underdeveloped. Measuring “inches” (bringing back the measuring tape analogy from Line 9) is another way of implying the car’s smallness, fragility, or insignificance.

Lines 23–26 Referring to humans as “soft shapes” points out the vulnerability of the flesh, but in Line 24 the word “shadowy” at least admits that there is a mystery to human beings that the visitor does not understand. The question at the end uses common metaphors to examine man’s role in the age of automation: are we the intelligence that controls the machines, or are we just part of the system that makes them run? “Brains” implies intelligence; “guts” implies courage. As indicated by the example of slowing for police cars, this poem asks whether human caution is a question of courage or intelligence. The freeway is an ideal setting for making this dichotomy obvious, since cars and the road system eliminate most opportunity or need for intelligent reasoning, leaving the importance of humans only slightly higher than that of pistons and sprockets.