Pacing and Imagery in Bukowsky’s “Dog Fight”
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In Charles Bukowski’s “Dog Fight” (Kirszner & Mandell, pp. 790-791), we are treated to a first-person recounting of a street race through the southern parts of Los Angeles. While the story itself is interesting and (some would say) exhilarating, it is the structure and pacing of the poem’s wording that truly gives the story excitement.
Consider the very first lines of the poem: “he draws up against my rear bumper in the fast lane, I can see his head in the rear view mirror, his eyes are blue and he sucks on a dead cigar.” While the description itself is nothing special, several elements combine to make the reader’s heart beat a bit faster and the adrenaline flow. The first, and most obvious, is the universal feeling of “road rage” we as drivers all feel at one point or another, be it on the giving or the receiving end. The situation the speaker describes would be nothing worth getting excited about were it to take place at a stop light, but this happens while the two cars are cruising at a presumed high speed down an LA freeway – a dangerous place on a good day, and at normal highway speeds, to say nothing of being challenged to a race.
The speaker continues to set a high-energy pace, with phrases like “he ups it 5 mph, I do likewise, we are a team…”, signifying their mutual acceptance in this duel of wits and engines; “I hit the blinker and fire across 3 lanes of traffic, just make the off-ramp…”, an insanely dangerous move even in the best of circumstances; and “…then I see that the parking lane is open, and I flash by inside of him and the Mercedes…”, another ridiculously dangerous (and illegal) move that displays their wanton lack of consideration for safety. These phrases and the pacing of the words leave the reader breathless, feeling their own grip on the wheel, their own eyes skittering side to side looking for the imagines pedestrian or some old truck slowly backing out of a drive. Indeed, the speaker finds himself in just such a situation, “…they make it as I power it and switch back ahead of them in their lane in order to miss a parked vegetable truck…”, himself narrowly averting certain doom.
The final quarter of the poem falls back a bit, and gives the reader a sense of watching these three cars bobbing and weaving through traffic, as from above, in a chase helicopter; the imagery called forth with “we are driving with a skilled nonchalance, we are moving in perfect anger, we are as a team, approaching LAX, 1-2-3, 2-3-1, 3-2-1” giving the impression of watching an Indy Car or NASCAR race from a safe distance, the lead positions constantly shifting, the cars moving towards one unspecified goal as if working together in a team. This delivers a powerful image to the reader to wrap up the occasion, an open-ended ending, one that ends with the dance of machinery and men moving off into the distance on a crowded highway.
One interesting trick of this poem is the speed with which the words flow, giving brief description to the driver’s surroundings or details as to how they found themselves here in the first place. All that matters here is the thrill of the chase, the speed, the rush of wind over steel, the squeal of tires against tarmac…all imagined, never spoken, but relayed to the reader quite skillfully through the shape of the scant few details we are shown in the maddening rush. Constant signs of impending dander and certain death are flashed by us: “…blasting past the front of an inflammable tanker…we veer down the ramp in separate lanes to the signal…make the green as the Mercedes and blue eyes run the yellow into the red…” While we aren’t shown the specifics of these encounters, it is enough to know that they were there, present and gone again in a flash, forgotten for the moment so that all eyes can concentrate full ahead, scanning for the next danger, the next calling of a fiery death.
The emotions and imagery called forth in “Dog Fight” are breathtaking in their speed and simplicity. It is hard to imagine that this poem could be told in any other fashion, utilizing any other combination of words and jargon to so keenly relay the sense of danger and adrenaline rush we see here. Bukowski masterfully crafts a gripping tale of road warriors dueling to a mutually-unknown victory along the open road.
“Dog Fight”, Bukowski, Charles; Literature: Reding, Reacting, Writing, 7th
Ed., Kirszner & Mandell, 2011