Original poem reprinted online here: "Traveling Through The Dark" by William Stafford
Originally read: February 17, 2013
More information about the Poet: William Stafford
I remember reading this poem a long time ago, and I didn't know what it meant. I looked straight at the narrative about a guy dumping off a still born into the river -- saving it from a harsh life. The images are nice and describe the tension of the decision. Yes, the poem means this. Past me even wrote this down to reaffirm my beliefs.
Now though, I'm looking at this poem differently. First, the poem has the form of a sonnet, but not the rhyme scheme or the meter. This adds to the incompleteness of the poem but some semblance of form is there -- form: something to reattain or discard. Second, William Stafford, for a time, was considered in the Deep Image school of poetry with the likes of Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, Louise Simpson, James Wright (I think these are poets all from the same school) and there's notable similarities -- the attention to the "dark" or shadow, the theme of nature, the "I" figure being a part of nature (versus the Romantics who were "overwhelmed" by the sublime." Does all this matter for the reading? No. The poem works in either case.
Technique wise though, I'm going to explore this poem.
So in the first stanza and in the first line, there's an introduction of the dark and the speaker traveling through it -- perhaps a reference to the shadow, but a reference is just a reference -- the focus of the stanza is the dead deer on the side of the road -- not as an emotional tie, rather how the speaker thinks of avoidance and riddance of dead deer.
In the second stanza, the focus is the speakers observation as though tempting to go to the sublime through the observation, yet in the last line, the speaker takes action in "I dragged her off; she was large in the belly." This line foreshadows the events in the rest of the poem, and also the dilemma. Also note (for Carl Jung sake) The idea and focus of the deer represent the Anima (male is about the male subject opening up to emotionality, and in that way a broader spirituality); meanwhile, the physical representation of the deer is the Animus ( animus development deals with cultivating an independent and non-socially subjugated idea of self) -- Animus in the way that the deer carried a child (representation of development). Maybe.
Anyway, the third stanza, the key phrase here is "brought me the reason" which is a phrase that turns in multiple ways. Yes, this phrase refers to the speaker figuring out why the deer was fat (baby inside); however, there's a switch away from reason (ironically) or procedural reason. There's actually a stop in thought -- a stint of emotion from the line, "I hesitated." Action, yes, movement (the speaker always in the move in this poem up to this point) no.
The fourth stanza is a bit surreal. The speaker describes (I was going to say personify) the car with "lights" which illuminates the "truth" of the situation. But ironically, the way the lights are being used in the poem is to hinder the movement of the poem -- shouldn't there be action toward the man and the dead deer next, nope, lights.
The lights are important in another aspect though -- the speaker is able to see "the warm exhaust turning red." The color is important (change in season, time, emotion) however the word "exhaust" has equal importance through pun (exhaustion of continuous action or smoke coming from the "end"). The sound line, "the wilderness listen" is juxtaposed with the idea of "reason" which, through inference, could also mean silence (reason=silence / wilderness = sound).
The volta at the end is a very vivid visual -- "I thought hard for us all--my only swerving / then pushed her over the edge into the river." In my notes I wrote "swerving -- to avoid, to to go off track." Swerving also references the first stanza where "to swerve might make more dead." The speaker is not trying to make more dead (or more of death -- stay in the shadow). and pushes the deer (note not the child, even though it's implied) over the edge into the river.
I do mention the child (a very visceral response) because it is difficult. So difficult of an image to deal with that the speaker has to focus on the her -- the deer and let it go.