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Linda Pastan's "Traveling Light"
I’m only leaving you
for a handful of days,
but it feels as though
I’ll be gone forever—
the way the door closes
behind me with such solidity,
the way my suitcase
I’d need for an eternity
of traveling light.
I’ve left my hotel number
on your desk, instructions
about the dog
and heating dinner. But
like the weather front
they warn is on its way
with its switchblades
of wind and ice,
our lives have minds
of their own.
The speaker in Linda Pastan's poem, "Traveling Light," uses preparation for a short journey to dramatize the guesswork involved in prediction. The poem offers a brief glimpse into the tumultuous conflict of emotions a person feels when having to travel from home and leaving a loved one, even for just a handful of days.
First Cinquain: "I'm only leaving you"
The speaker addresses her loved one who will remain at home while she takes a short trip; she tells him that although she is going away for only a few days, it seems as if she will be gone forever. She then begins a brief explanation for the feeling, which reaches its conclusion in the next cinquain.
Second Cinquain: "behind me with such solidity"
Two things make the speaker feel as though this trip might last longer than she plans: the way the door closes // behind me with such solidity and the way her suitcase has been packed to take absolutely everything she needs for short trip, which she calls traveling light.
The phrase "traveling light" deserves some special attention here because it evokes two meanings. First, it means not packing many items, keeping the suitcase relatively light. But it also implies the act of light, as in sunlight, that is moving. If light is moving, to where does it move and from where?
Of course, light does not actually travel. Light is the basic unit of matter that gives birth to all creation. The speaker says that her suitcase contains everything she needs "for an eternity / of traveling light." The conflict of an eternity of traveling light vs. an eternity of light traveling becomes a conundrum of universality that gives the poems its depth of meaning.
The speaker's plan is to be away for a specified short period, and she has packed accordingly. But being gone for only a few days cannot be understood as an eternity, except in the realm of uncertain consequences, which the speaker will address in the fourth cinquain.
Third Cinquain: "I've left my hotel number"
Breaking from her dip into profundity about intention and eternity, the speaker inserts the mundane details of leaving her hotel's phone number and household instructions on her loved one's desk.
As she did between the first cinquain and second cinquains, she begins her thought in the third but waits to finish it in the fourth. Both such breaks indicate that a universal musing will be forthcoming.
Fourth Cinquain: "they warn is on its way"
The speaker then caps her predictions and stickling for household details by likening her actions to the predictions of a weatherman. Despite weather tracking, the weather seems to have a mind of its own, and the speaker avers that like that weather, "our lives have minds / of their own."
She cannot control whether her journey will be short or not, even though her plans are for such—in fact, she knows that she may not return at all, and she cannot keep her household running by leaving instructions on the desk of her beloved, even though she strives to do so.
The speaker's awareness of the multiple possibilities for the ways lives turn out informs the universal nature of the poem. Instead of remaining merely a poetic comment on leaving for a short trip, the poem makes a profound statement about life's every tentative moment.
Linda Pastan reading three poems at the 2006 Dodge Poetry Festival
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes