Critical Interpretation of Jim Daniels “Wheels”

Critical Interpretation of Jim Daniels “Wheels”



            In the two stanza, forty-seven line poem “Wheels,” Jim Daniels, uses symbolism to poignant representation, irony through sarcasm, indifference in tone, and free-flowing style to pass time quickly. Our author makes a striking assertion about his inability to cope with his emotions, due to an over-powering masculine self-image. He cannot bear to reveal his true feelings, instead he manifests symbols out of cars and cameras, masculine and sturdy, and he mechanically and ironically passes time, always stepping around the painful regret until the end. Finally he embraces the tragedy, exclaiming through powerful visualization the regretful loss of his brother. Daniels deals with his own fearful self image; toying with memories, as we all have, but not allowing himself to display, cope and let go of himself.

Daniels uses symbolic objects such as the “camera” to allude to emotions; more specifically regret while dealing with the loss of his brother. He systematically recalls memories and then records them with(internally) the camera(a representation of himself). Third stanza final line, “no camera to save him” materializes the author’s struggle with not being there to save his brother. (Daniels) Painful memories are distinguished as mechanical objects such as cars, and rags; the objects separate the pain from the author, making it easier for him to compartmentalize emotion. I interviewed another reader of the poem, a human intelligence operator in the United States Marine Corps (USMC) with eight years of experience in analyzing human emotional patterns, and he stated “This author is trying to deal with issues of masculinity.”(Stimson) The authors attempt at dealing with a masculine portrayal of emotion elevates the symbolic representation of “pictures,” ”cars,” and “motorcycles;” the objects protect the author’s image. They are masculine, emotionless and timeless. They further allude to the author’s personification of guilt and his desperate use of symbolism to take the focus off him-self.

To further the idea of Daniel’s struggle with emotion, he represents ideas like “my brother’s feet rarely touched the ground” poignantly; as if moving too fast is regretful, or that his brother or the idea of his brother was a selfish one. In the last stanza separated by double space to pass time he describes the fatal moment, characterized by the lines “hold on,” “face pressed to the wind.” These statements were all made in the context of his brothers’ death, begging the question. So what of the author? He regretfully takes on the paternal role of the protector, imbuing him-self as the “camera” or the holder of “pictures” (ideas).  It is important to the author that we see his sibling as the quintessential All-American-Man, “holding rags,” “leaning over” or protecting, “with his wife on the back,” submissive in her role behind him. Why bother with these representations of characterization? To steer the reader away from Daniels inner throngs of pain, evoking a perceived weakness he cannot, or more likely will not deal with. The authors perception of his brother passing down paternal traditions in the first stanza, line thirty-two “with his own steering wheel”, and line thirty-four “and they are,” imply the brother and son are poignant reminders of passing; passing traditions, passing on and passing away.

The author uses sarcasm in tone to ironically affect a puzzled response from the reader. Why would the author use a sarcastic tone when speaking of his dead brother? It takes the focus off of his inability to cope with emotion. Jim Daniels uses phrases like “on his Honda 750 with the boys,” “holding a beer,” and “wearing a baseball hat backwards.” (Daniels)Those phrases mixed with the dramatic death of his brother create irony. The story takes us from an immature little brother with his hat backwards drinking beer with the boys, to a protective father leaning over his son and spending time with his spouse, and back to adolescence, which ultimately killed him. Sarcasm can easily be interpreted as humorous, in the case of “Wheels”, Daniels is using it as a defense mechanism.(Ekman p 234) Daniels uses humor to cover up more painful feelings of regret and loss, these coping mechanisms can be commonly misconstrued as true sarcasm, as is the intention of the author.

Throughout the poem the tone ranges from sarcastic, to indifferent, where the former is describing actions which played a party in the ultimate tragedy of death, and the latter progresses time methodically, like he does not see the impending doom. Or he does not care about the impending doom. The author would like you to believe he is indifferent, logical. He then writes, “leaning over him” referring to mans responsibility to protect, this line tells us more about his idea of how he should feel and act. He then quickly changes the stance to an old truck, and oily rags, (commonly masculine objects). This allusion to deeper thought and emotion, builds the action towards the death, where the tone takes an ironic turn, from indifference, to sarcasm, and finally vividly shaken, solemnly stating “no camera to save him.” This imparts a truer sense of anguish and guilt; these words were meant to evoke a sense of hopelessness in the reader. Now, the question is how does he deal with this feeling? Loop the poem from end to beginning, as if the poem never ends and the answer repeats itself. He talks about cars, life, and cracks jokes all the while solemnly holding on to these “pictures” of his brother waving.

The author tells his audience of the brevity of life, using a free-flowing structure. Punctuation only marks the beginning and end of the poem, birth and death. This provides emphasis on these key moments where the reader should pay close attention. In the first stanza, third line “pictures of every motorcycle car truck:” he uses a colon purposefully, signifying a very important list to come. Following the colon he begins the list, rhythmically placing the motif “waving” about every third line. Waving is also meant as the passing of time. To compliment the passing of time he uses vehicles almost every fourth line, or directly after “waving.” These vehicles are capitalized and referred to in a logical make and model mode of reference, giving structure to an otherwise formless list. If you replaced every third stanza with “passing” and every fourth with “through life” the poem would have the same intended meaning and rhythm. Choosing masculine objects such as; cars, trucks, beer, and boys, further asserts the authors message of his inability to relate to less brutish feelings of regret and grief, due to an assertive masculine image. His ego does not have time for the little things instead it is just passing through.

Daniels takes us through a summary of life rapidly, drawing attention only to major life events using a list format. This assembly line style moves very rapidly from one line to the next, formulating quick and responsive word styling which expresses his desire to move quickly.  Stylistically Daniels is trying to draw in a wide breadth of readers, drawing attention to the assumed “motor city madness” flying through the lines. Once the unsuspecting reader is strapped in, ready to blast off tires squealing down the track, the reader is taken on another ride, one of powerful regretful loss. It is interesting for our author to use form in such a way, tricking his audience. He would have his readers embody the subject of emotionally repressed men, who have experienced loss and refuse to let go. Instead of the latter he calls out to his readers not to fly down the track, not holding onto stigmas of what men should be.

Daniels free-form and rhythm give way to change, specifically where he details the son “with his own steering wheel”. In the first stanza lines thirty-one through thirty-five, he breaks up the rhyme scheme by adding an extra line. This change in rhyme places greater emphasis on this area, it demands further review. Each word was chosen carefully, delicately, and deliberately while separate from the main idea. First, we have a specific reference to the passing of paternal ideology to the next generation of “car guys.” Line thirty-one “with his own steering wheel,” and line thirty-four “they are,” the son takes on his father’s views, and then becomes his father. These lines build the rising action, adding an emotional connection to the man whose death is imminent and unknown by the reader at this point. The author makes the connection of passing on, and the permanence of memory through the son, this boy will hold on to the memory of his father. He will go onto make his own memories: in his first car, with his girlfriend, waving.(Daniels) Although the author paints a picture of a man or himself incapable of expressing true emotion, he juxtaposes that man with a compassionate loving father passing on all he knows to pass on. Such an impactful few lines blends right back to the father holding onto rags, and a “shammy”, moving to draw back the tears, the dutiful father unwavering, linear and logical. The characterization of the brother adds, impact to the brothers death, substance to his list(referring to free-form), and places an emphasis on the true devastation he feels, but will not reveal in fear of change in his manly form.

Our author poises the question. Was it worth it; hiding behind masculine objects, racing through life, only to be abruptly halted with no one to save you? His expression of time implicitly gives us the answer: No, it was not worth it, life is too short, quickly ending like the final stanza of this poem. The reference from the “old Ford pickup” to his first old car the “rusted out Impala” alludes to the brother’s return to adolescence. The brother never grew up, and clung onto his macho image until the bitter end. Behind the muscle mask is a scared little boy holding onto the steering wheel, under the wing of his father. (Biafra) The ideas expressed about our paternal order, beg for discussion. Is it right? Is it wrong? Why? Our dutiful author struggles throughout with expressing emotion superficially.  

Daniels chooses to mask a story of masculinity, time and self expression behind the death of a father, husband and brother.  “His wife riding on the back,” is that her place? Is that the authors idea, is he saying we are just misogamist thrill-seekers hell bent on our own demise? Unable to deal, unaware of time and its effect on our lives, so self absorbed that our lives can be summarized by the cars and jobs we have had? Jim Daniels exploits such avenues boldly stating the frailty of the male ego, and the machines that define us will ultimately be our demise. He calls to his chosen audience, cliché, macho car guys. Stop for a second! Look around; there are those who rely on us, who need us. Mr. Daniels wants his readers to recognize the importance of men to their family. The family does not care about your image; they just need your love and connection. Set aside ego and your perception of “how men should be” to connect with the ones who love you before it is too late.  In the end no one will care what cars you owned or how fast you went.


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