A Car Wreck in Slow Motion

September 7, 2015

Contributor’s Marginalia: Kathleen Winter on “more or less” by Lauri Anderson Alford

Besides gun violence, no disaster is as essentially American as a fatal car crash. Combined with the near ubiquity of car ownership and the automobile industry’s more than century-long national prominence, we have the car wreck deaths of cultural icons James Dean, Jackson Pollock, Wallace Stegner, Bessie Smith, Jerry Rubin and David Halberstam, among scores of others. We’re frequently assured that everything from flying in a commercial airplane to bungee jumping is significantly safer than driving. And our vernacular includes a few well-worn colloquialisms related to automotive accidents, for instance: “It was like watching a car wreck happen in slow motion” and “crash and burn.” Yet, reading Lauri Anderson Alford’s “more or less” for the first time this July Fourth, I felt hopeful after my initial impulses of dread, because this poem expresses—and perhaps inspires in some readers—profound compassion toward the driver-killer, who is the father of the poem’s speaker.

Like some of my favorite contemporary poems, Alford’s unpunctuated free verse blend of lyric and narrative modes relies extensively on sound qualities of word and line to transform commonplace language through deft manipulations of rhythm and repetition. Although the poet discloses the roadway death event in her second line, drama and energy build throughout the single narrow forty-line columnar stanza. With each short line the poet’s focus tightens on the matter of how an accident fifteen years before has affected the driver, and by extension, his adult child, the narrator. The line speed markedly increases in the last quarter of the poem as Alford’s regular sentence structure breaks down in a barrage of short clauses, internal rhyme, and rhythmic repetition of the words “more” and “less.”

Depicting how the fatal accident persists with continued immediacy in the driver/father’s consciousness, this short poem effectively conveys some of the intense force and trauma of having accidentally taken a human life. The driver “knows the date the time/ to the minute/ the pattern on the man’s shirt” and “lately he’s been repeating himself/ calling to tell me the same things/ over and over again.” The poem mirrors the anguished father’s repetitions with its own relentless iterations of the phrase “more or less,” as well as that phrase’s key components. Through its smart vacillations, the poem represents the burden and urgency of a responsibility that won’t ever dissipate.

“More or less” suggests that even a loving observer can only consider the significance of this disaster from a self-protective, gently ironic distance. But like the driver himself, the speaker can’t let go of the accident: “more or less or more/which is it I want to know/because a thing like that/can never be both.” Some of this poem’s poignancy and despair arise from the poet’s implicit acknowledgment that “a thing like that” is so devastating, singular and unswerving that it can only be understood, very imperfectly, by the surviving killer. The generosity of the speaker’s attempt to deeply consider the father’s suffering—without blaming him—transmutes some of the horror of his experience and makes “more or less” a poem I’ll read over and over for many years.

Kathleen Winter is the author of Nostalgia for the Criminal Past (Elixir Press), winner of the 2013 Texas Institute of Letters Bob Bush Memorial Award for a first book of poems.  She teaches at the California State Maritime University.

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