Traveling Through the Dark

by William Stafford

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“Traveling Through the Dark” is Stafford’s most famous, most often anthologized poem. It is somewhat atypical, as it tells a story about a real experience in a fairly straightforward way. Yet in its underlying concern with nature—in this case, a deer found dead in the road—with humans’ invasion of the wilderness, and with the individual’s responsibility to do what is right “for us all,” the poem reveals some of Stafford’s abiding themes.

“Traveling Through the Dark” achieves its power by subtly blending the symbolic and the real and by seeing underneath the surface event to its larger consequences. The title suggests not so much a drive on a mountain road as a spiritual journey through unknown territory. At the same time, something quite real has happened. Stafford has “found a deer/ dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.” That he names the road specifically gives the poem the feel of authentic experience.

Roads and paths, for Stafford, often symbolize the ongoing process of life, and here he must confront a dilemma that involves his deepest relation to all of life. At first, he realizes that he should roll the deer into the canyon to protect other drivers who come after him; he notes that “to swerve might make more dead.” When he examines the deer, however, he discovers that it is a pregnant doe; its fawn is still alive, waiting to be born. Suddenly, the choices are much more complicated. Should he try to save the fawn, or do as he originally intended?

He must act quickly, but the poem does allow the suspense to build. Where other writers might have treated this crisis sentimentally, Stafford shifts the focus from what he is feeling to a vivid, pulsing description of the scene:

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;under the hood purred the steady engine.I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning  red;around our group I could hear the wilderness  listen.

The car lights point the way ahead, and the engine purrs as if it too were alive, waiting. The warm exhaust fumes “turning red” in the glow of the taillights suggest the blood that must now be flowing on the ground and cast a ghastly coloring over the whole scene. Most important, the poet can “hear the wilderness listen.” To hear something listen is to listen carefully indeed. That it is the wilderness that is listening attributes an awareness of nature that is characteristic of Stafford’s poetry; it also implies that his decision matters not only to the fawn and to the speaker but also to the whole of life, which waits to see what he will do.

The decision is not easy, nor does the speaker say how he arrives at it. He simply says that he “thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,/ then pushed her over the edge into the river.” “For us all” here can mean the poet, the doe, the fawn, the wilderness, and, by implication, all living things. His thought swerves, as a car would have done, but he acts as he feels he must. By deliberately leaving out the precise nature of that thought, Stafford forces the reader to imagine the difficulty of the choice and thus puts the reader, retrospectively, into his dilemma.

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