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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Fellow Diners” appears in a volume entitled Muted Poems (1972), the tone of which, as Edmund Keeley writes in Modern Greek Poetry: Voice and Vision (1983), is “muted in its terror.” The dramatic situation, a Last Supper, is that of imminent betrayal. The false note of reassurance—“Nothing’s wrong”—in the center of the poem arouses one’s suspicion, which is heightened by the disembodied voice of the host informing the guest, quite calmly, that there is no floor. That suspicion is confirmed when he just as calmly instructs the guest about what one must do to dine comfortably there. His matter-of-factness is the source of the poem’s muted terror.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of “Fellow Diners” is the effortless juxtaposition of the miraculous with the everyday. Transfers and table settings give way to a room without a floor and diners who eat their own wings. Yannis Ritsos is a master of this surrealist technique. What distinguishes him from other more strident surrealists is the quiet way he goes about his work. His language is simple and direct. He dispenses with metaphor, simile, and other devices of poetic embellishment, opting instead for poetic economy. The clipped, fragmented sentences of the first six lines—expressing the hurried chaos of transfers and delays, as well as the fragmented society the poem addresses—finally roll out in the fluid, if perplexing, image in the last lines.

The perplexing image of the diners eating their own wings is stated as factually as the number of glasses on the table. This tone is appropriate, since in the surrealist view there is no clear distinction between the rational and the irrational or between reality as one commonly thinks of it and that super-reality that is grasped through imaginative apperception.