Drowning the Streets in Red
In the poem “Auto Wreck” Karl Shapiro executes strategic imagery, figurative language, and enjambment to transform humanity’s position as passive voyeurs.
The poem begins with a description of an ambulance zooming to the scene of a car crash; the medical vehicle is steadfastly scooping up the victims to be rushed away.
The remaining stanzas explore the emotions felt after the car wreck from a witness’ perspective.
Foremost, Karl Shapiro injects “Auto Wreck” with a concoction of keen, yet vivid imagery to breathe life into the unforeseen voyeuristic tragedy. The poem begins with “the quick soft silver bell beating” symbolizing the ringing of an ambulance’s siren as it rushes to the wreckage scene (Shapiro 1).
The use of the word “quick” conjures up a vision of rapidity and chaos on the streets; the ambulance sped towards the scene to scoop up the living, attempting to avoid the dead, and drowning the streets in red, the deep shade of blood.
In the preceding line, Shapiro then mentions a “ruby flare” suggesting the intense pulsing of a human heart, which hints at the anxiety of the witness and all those involved including the ambulance driver, paramedics, and even the victims; their hearts beat in unison to the tense situation (line 2).
Although, humanity pumps as a giant organ in such hard times, still, there remains pandemonium on the streets, highlighted when the “brakes speed” and the “bell…tolls” (lines 7 and 11).
This chaos reflects the witness’ whirlwind feelings of uneasiness and uncertainty towards what he has just seen with his very eyes; a spillage of blood on the city streets and an outpour of questions: “Who shall die…/Who is innocent” (lines 31-32)?
The witness lists in his mind the various causes of death such as cancer, suicide, war, and murder; yet, the possibility of death from a car wreck baffles him.
The tragedy “invites [his] occult mind” and “cancels [his] physics with a sneer” (lines 36-37). In other words, Shapiro is suggesting that logic is canceled out in the human mind during such a tragedy, an event that shakes our perfunctory lives.
After dissecting Shapiro’s imagery, one can observe that it is beautiful when we don’t expect it and equally ugly when we don’t expect it; his imagery is wonderfully ironic. This subversion of images is evident in “stretchers are laid out, the mangled lifted” (line 9).
First, by using the passive phrase “laid out” the reader might feel less threatened by the image of a brutally injured car-wreck victim, yet we are startled by the arbitrary use of the grotesque word “mangled” that sharply pinches us, unexpectedly.
Yes, the line starts off delicate, then enters a dark place, and ultimately is “lifted”. Similarly, the author likens cancer to a blooming flower.
Also, The lines of the poem vary with imagery ranging from gross statements like “a bucket douches ponds of blood” to delicate ones like “And down the dark one ruby flare”; the reader mingles with opposites, with blood and jewels (lines 18 and 2).
Shapiro disorients the voyeur’s perspective by using a subversion of beauty and ugliness to mirror the disorientation experienced by the brain and heart during a lamentable event, calamity, or sudden death.
In addition, Shapiro delivers humans as passive voyeurs to a tragic situation via the wide spectrum of figurative language.
For instance, simile is used in “Pulsing out red light like an artery” where the light violently emitting from the emergency vehicle’s siren is likened to an artery, a fit comparison and medical reference for a poem about a life-threatening injury (line 3).
The ambulance is traveling through traffic, trying to navigate streets or the veins of the highway. Moreover, the actual wreckage is described as “empty husks of locusts, to iron poles”; in other words, the crippled cars are likened to the skin shed by insects; the cars are vacant shells now and contain no humans (line 21).
By using the refrain between “Into the street and gutter” and “across the expedient and wicked stones”, Shapiro is comparing the splattering of blood and angst to the splattering of reason (lines 19 and 39).
The witness sees this event as an “open[ing] to [his] richest horror” and as a warning concerning life; that life can be cut short by an unforeseen scalpel (line 30).
This scalpel can open up a gaping gash, a moving event that the onlooker likens to “touching a wound”; in other words, this metaphor means that the witness marks the voyeuristic experience as a deeply affecting, magnetizing one that transforms him into a convalescent (line 29).
Also, the entire second stanza of “Auto Wreck” contains a plethora of poignant comparisons that capture the witness’ fleeting sense of security and safety, that in turn leaves the reader just as weary.
Beginning with “Our thoughts were tight as tourniquets”; the onlooker is full of unsettling thoughts, cannot speak, and is all bound up and constricted as “tourniquets” or compressing devices used to control the circulation of veins (line 22).
The witness’ “feet were bound with splints”; he was frozen by the grim sight of the wreckage, figuratively immobilized by the medical device of a “splint” (line 23).
As the poem progresses, the onlooker describes how we (victims of fate) reconcile with our feelings and attempt to detach and crop ourselves out of tragic scenes in “Like convalescents [stage of medical recovery] intimate and gauche [awkward]” (line 24).
Finally, in “We speak through sickly smiles and warn” the onlooker and reader come to grips with the idea that death deals an unyielding hand and that very hand serves to remind them of their fate (line 25).
Shapiro also employs strategic enjambment to achieve the poetic dissonance and chaos associated with tragedy in his 39 line poem.
For example, in “Into the street and gutter” the sentence is end-stopped, which is important because it shows that as life and blood are sucked from the scene, so is reason and logic; they are forced down the drain by the lamentable event of a car wreck.
The volta beginning in line 29 reading “our physics [our calculations]…/…spatter all we knew…/Across the expedient and wicked stones” also reminds us of this universal detachment from reason in the state of tragedy, a lacking of harmony.
In conclusion, Shapiro’s strategic imagery, figurative language, and enjambment really disorient readers, which is precisely what tragedy does to the human mind.
When the rational rules of the orderly universe falter, when logic and reason are throw out the car door and shatter into worthless pieces, the deafening, dizzying disbelief begins to buzz in the brain.
When we experience a tragic situation such as a car crash, we enter that nether-place where we can’t function normally and our thoughts are a jumbled bombardment of flashing images.
Shapiro, Karl. “Auto Wreck”. Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 4th ed. Ed. Edgar V. Roberts. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2008. 841-842