The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Fellow Diners” is a short lyric of eight lines in free verse. The title refers to the thirteen places set for Christ and his disciples at the Last Supper.

The poem begins on a bracingly contemporary note of the modern commuter’s frustration with public transit. “Endless transfers” suggests that the journey to the communal meal, which seems to have been taken by train or bus, has been arduous, fraught with delays and detours. These transfers were “unwanted,” at least by the traveler, but perhaps both wanted and “willed” by those running the system.

In the face of so much systematic frustration, “suddenly” time itself “delays, holds back.” The merely logistical inconvenience of transit delays has now become a metaphysical delay, halting all forward progress. The oppressive authority behind the “willed” transfers is echoed in the will that “holds back” the traveler’s advance.

During this hiatus, “the dead disappear,” and those still present, the living, are actually “absent.” This phenomenon is expressed with almost telegraphic economy: “those present: absent.” The colon acts as an equal sign, showing that there is no difference between the present and the absent, the living and the dead—or what difference there is, is minimal.

In a way, then, the traveler has crossed over a boundary, from the everyday world of buses, transfers, and time schedules, into a world where these...

(The entire section is 537 words.)