Southbound on the Freeway

by May Swenson

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Technology Versus Human Intelligence May Swenson’s “Southbound on the Freeway” is a poem that is frivolous on the outside and serious on the inside. Its whimsical premise of a naïve alien from “Orbitville” parking his spacecraft in the air above an American freeway is deceptively simple. But the humorous aspect should not obscure the underlying theme of human intelligence and human control pitted against the machines mankind has created. This is not, of course, a new or unusual theme, but Swenson’s treatment of it in this poem is a bit curious. Here, she scrutinizes humanity through the eyes of an inhuman being. This allows for a more objective—albeit, funny and skewed—look at one of the most poignant questions to arise from the age of technology: are humans still in control or are we just trying to hang on for the ride?

Ultimately, the poem leaves that question unanswered, but the lack of resolve only adds to the disturbing assertion put forth by it. To the tourist from outer space who has never before seen an Earthling, all those things racing by below must be the inhabitants of this world or the “creatures of this star.” His mistake, of course, is recognized soon enough by the reader who knows that what he is actually describing are vehicles, not people. Cars and trucks, however, are the dominant objects in the alien’s sight, so his confusion is not difficult to understand.

The fact that there are so many of these objects reinforces the notion that technology appears to be running amuck. Americans love their automobiles, and, to the unknowing tourist, they are their automobiles. In addition, Swenson cleverly blurs the distinction between man and machine even more by assigning roles and a hierarchy among the cars, much like that of human society. The police car, or other kind of emergency vehicle, “with a red eye turning / on the top of his head” is shown respect by the other cars who slow down or move aside to let him pass. This creature, the tourist assumes, is someone special.

The most significant address of the technology versus human intelligence theme in “Southbound on the Freeway” comes at the end of the poem when the purpose of actual human beings—“Those soft shapes, shadowy inside”—is questioned. Are they the guts or the brains of the “hard bodies” in which they ride? Before one hastily responds that of course they are the brains, perhaps a little pondering is in order. While it is true that cars and trucks and microwave ovens and computers would not exist without the creativity and know-how of the humans that brought them into existence, it is also true that many, if not most, humans have now become dependent on those inventions, among others.

Americans in particular equate driving with freedom, whether it is to travel across country on vacation or across town to go to work. Ask high school or college students today to complete all assignments without the use of a computer and the dropout rate would soar. Swenson’s poem was written before much of contemporary technology was as widespread as it is now, but the automobile— perhaps the most sacred of twentieth-century inventions— was already an object of adoration and necessity in 1960s America. One must wonder, then, just how much power has been relinquished from the inventor to the invented. For the tourist from Orbitville, it is a moot point. After all, he cannot distinguish between the two.

Perception and Reality Swenson makes a clever point in “Southbound on the Freeway” regarding the blurry line between what is real...

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and what is only individual perception. The speaker in the poem may be from another planet, but often human beings on Earth vary widely in their “take” on what they see or hear. While one may be quick to judge the tourist from Orbitville as naïve or even foolish, he is actually calling it as he sees it. Note how sure of himself he seems in describing the “creatures’” body parts: they are made “of metal and glass,” the “feet are round,” they have “four eyes,” and they “all hiss as they glide.” These are straightforward, matterof- fact details that any real human being would say have nothing to do with facts. But from the alien’s perspective, they make perfect sense.

Swenson drives home the idea of miscued perception by having the speaker of the poem elaborate on what he thinks are the eyes of the strange inhabitants of this new world. He surmises that the red light on top of the emergency vehicle is a fifth eye and that the behavior of the regular four-eyed creatures indicates that the five-eyed one must be an authority figure, someone revered. He sees cars slow down or pull over for the police car or ambulance, but the visitor has no idea that they are simply obeying the law of the land and, hopefully, of human conscience. He has no reason to suspect that what he witnesses—and, therefore, what he believes—is anything other than what he has described.

The value in this theme, of course, is not to point out that aliens from outer space would be clueless in understanding what real life on Earth is like or what real Earthlings are made of. The obviousness of that would hardly be worth calling attention to. But its importance comes to light when the tourist’s experience is transferred to that of ordinary human beings. Two people watching the same sunset or the same ballgame or the same crime being committed rarely describe what they have seen in the same way. Often, their reports are completely contradictory. Perception, then, appears to carry as much weight, if not more, than reality itself and even causes one to ponder what is real. Swenson’s poem cannot answer that question, but it does a good job of tempting the reader to ask it.




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