Throughout this poem, the poet provides readers with insight into her personal life. She spends a great deal of this poem focusing on her father, who passed away when she was twenty years old. Now, at thirty years old, she’s considering her life in a seaside town and what he would’ve made of it.
Explore Traveling Light
‘Traveling Light’ by Alice Fulton is a vast and deep poem in which the poet describes her life, her relationship with her father, and alludes to feelings of isolation.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker describes the off-season resort town in which she lives. She returns to this place at the end of the poem, but, for now, she moves on to speak about her father, who died ten years ago when she was twenty years old. The two appear to have a close relationship, but the poet reveals that she did not know her father as well as she now wishes she had.
Later in the poem, she describes seeing her father for the last time in the hospital and hearing him tell an embellished story that she likely heard numerous times throughout her life. She turns them to speak about how she lives now, evoking deep feelings of isolation, but also, there’s a feeling of peace. She ends the poem with a scene next to the ocean with powerful waves, book-like seagulls, and a sense as though she has “nothing to fall back on.”
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Traveling Light’ by Alice Fulton is an eight-stanza poem that is divided into uneven sets of lines. The first stanza contains seventeen, the second: eight, the third: fourteen, the fourth: twenty-two, the fifth: five, the sixth: fourteen, the seventh: fourteen, and the final stanza: eleven. (Totaling 105 lines.)
The poem is written without using a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This is known as free verse. The lines of the poem, such as “softwood,” “smudgefires,” and “dusk” in the first stanza do not rhyme. Despite this, there are examples of half-rhymes, like “umbrellas” and “shells” later in the first stanza that does provide the poem with a rhythmic feeling. Additionally, the use of internal rhyme (half and full) can also be seen. At one point, the poet uses “umbrellas,” “we’ll,” “shells,” “sells,” “tells,” and “tales” in two lines. The repetition of the same or similar sounds creates a feeling of rhyme without using a specific pattern.
Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Simile: comparisons that utilize “like” or “as.” For example, “Christmas / trees like pathetic closed umbrellas” in the first stanza. Fulton uses this literary devices a number of times. She also employes metaphors.
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “ tell” and “tales” in line eleven of the first stanza and “blank beautifully” in line three of the final stanza.
- Caesura: occurs when a poet inserts a pause in a line of verse. This could be through the use of punctuation or through a natural pause in the meter. For example, “over all? Or this salt breeze” in stanza one and “fluted clams. His hair branches and his skin” a few lines later.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting and effective descriptions. They should inspire the reader to imagine the scene in the greatest detail as possible. For example: “leaving me odd / wisdoms concerning clip joints, / gypsies, toeroom, elocution, / and traveling light.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of stanza two as well as lines two and three of stanza three.
Every restaurant boarded up in softwood,
bars strung with tipsy blinkers, smudgefires
against the dusk-
like day: who could have imagined the light
toppling down, song you can see
over all? Or this salt breeze,
vital and teary as a drunken wake.
of smuggling, of price wars over apple coral,
fluted clams. His hair branches and his skin
hardens as he speaks: part baobab, part pirate.
His shells—little bandana prints, green turbans—
are lovely, “droll” might be the word,
but tropical, not from Cape Cod.
The first stanza of the poem is seventeen lines long. It begins with the speaker providing some exposition, in this case, details about the setting. She creates an intentional juxtaposition between how the street with “every restaurant boarded up” appears at night and what it looked like during the day, or during the prime season, when “the light” was “toppling down.” There is also a great example of synesthesia in these lines when the speaker says it’s possible to “see” the song all over.
In the next lines, the speaker provides more details about her surroundings and what “we” see there. They are speaking for themselves and others, perhaps family or friends. They note the “kite store” and the old Christmas trees that create a dreary and un-Chrismas-like sight. They also speak about a man who “tells us tales.” This is suitable for the image-dense nature of this poem.
The poet introduces image after image, requiring the reader to see and feel a great deal in every line. For example, the man is described using a tree metaphor. He’s compared to a baobab tree in the way his “hair branches and his skin / hardens as he speaks.” He is also “part pirate,” the speaker says. He sells shells and is part of the shell trade, something he tells “us” about.
It was ten years ago this season
technician with few discernible skills.
The speaker transitions into a first-person perspective to describe an intensely personal experience. Against the backdrop of the town, readers now have an idea of how this person sees their everyday life. They inform the reader of the fact that it was ten years ago when her father died. When he passed away, the speaker was twenty years old and “up to” her elbows working as a “microfilm technician.” Her father left her a few things, including “odd wisdom” on how to travel light. It’s here that the title is introduced for the first time.
There is a definite difference between the first stanza and the second. Aside from being far shorter, it also uses shorter lines, fewer details, and a clearer style of diction and syntax. But, it still provides readers with numerous images that can inspire a great deal of investigation.
What would he have made of this off-season
resort? Though he never lived to see it
like you, I never really knew him.
The third stanza is fourteen lines long. It’s here that the speaker merges their descriptions of the “off-season resort” in the first stanza with their depiction of their deceased father in the second. The speaker poses a rhetorical question, asking what their father would’ve made of the state of the “resort.” She answers her own question, adding that her father never lived to see it, but the speaker believes she knows what her father would’ve said.
It is also at this point that the poet reveals that, at least to some extent, she is describing their own experiences. When they relay what they believe their father would’ve said, they include the nickname “Al,” a clear shortening of “Alice.”
The speaker tells the reader that her father told her that if her poetry did not take off, then he would buy her her “own beauty shop.” This does not bring to mind, for the poet, a series of entirely positive images. There is a tackiness to the following descriptions that may suggest the poet isn’t entirely sold on the idea of owning a beauty shop.
The final lines of this stanza are about her father but then add that there are many things she didn’t know. The poet addresses “you,” the reader of the poem, or a specific person to whom she’s addressing the lines. She knows that “you” didn’t know her father well either.
On the last visit I ambled to his room
with my dignified mini hiked up
in the back, flashing
to take care of you. There will be no charge.’ ”’
There will be no charge
The fourth stanza of the poem is twenty-two lines long and is the longest of the eight. Here, the speaker recalls what her last visit to see her father in the hospital was like. She uses clear images, some of which are surprisingly included alongside descriptions of her dying father, such as that of her mini skirt “hiked” up in the back.
Within the stanza, the speaker includes her father’s “befuddled” understanding of what’s going on around him. She describes how “he thought he remembered,” a close called many years ago when his “jalopy” broke down in a storm in Saratoga. He was taken to the hospital by troopers, and later, the nurses told him that he didn’t need to pay for his hospital care. Here, readers can interpret a fantastical story of the past, retold with all required embellishment.
for the light or the sea’s
The repetition of “there will be no charge” at the end of the fourth stanza leads into a short fifth stanza. Here, the speaker returns to the lyrical language found in the first seventeen lines of the poem. They describe what there is truly “no charge for” in life. That is, the sea moving in the light of the day or how the moon softens the scene with its own “peculiar politeness.” This is a wonderful example of personification that creates a peaceful and uplifting image. This helps lighten the mood of the entire poem, or at least this section after the speaker has described what her father was like during the last days of his life and the dreary feeling “off-season resort” town in which she lives.
After years of plea-bargaining
with a snooty muse, I’ve landed
out sideways, thoughtless as a torn seam.
In the sixth stanza, the speaker moves away from descriptions of her father to what her life is like now. She lives along the sea, and “gifts fall into her hands” as though the “three Fates” are shining on her. She can spend her days looking at the dunes, taking in the color of the sea, collecting shells, and watching how the “tide rips itself” during a storm, “thoughtless as a torn seam.” This is one of several similes that the poet uses throughout the poem.
And people find things here I’ve heard:
Portuguese dolls, once encased in airy
anyway upon it, as if he never meant
to let it go. Saltboxes appear and disappear
The speaker continues her description of what her life is like now. She describes how, where she lives, people “find things.” It takes several lines after this to understand exactly what the poet means when she describes finding things. She notes, for example, that people find “Portuguese dolls” with mouths still “red and pouting.”
There is a certain atmosphere present in the small town that inspires her to imagine seeing “hostile mermaids” and “stranded miscreants,” among other things. She’s even “half prepared” to see her father rise up away from the world in which he struggled as if he never meant to let it go. This is a skillful way of weaving her memories of her father along with the images of her town. The place inspires her to imagine everything possible. She sees her father born again, relieved from the stresses of the world, which gave him nothing without a “struggle.”
in the slurry fog. Gulls open
against the sky like books
with blank beautifully demanding pages,
I will always have
to fall back on.
In the final stanza of the poem, the poet begins with another simile comparing seagulls to books with “blank, beautifully demanding pages.” She is describing herself out along the shore, seeing the gulls in the sky, the “solid ocean” behind her, and interpreting each of these things as having a greater meeting. The ocean “stares down the clouds,” and the last light reminds her of the “nothing” that she will always have to fall back on.
Here, the poet refers to an image in the second stanza in which she recalled her father’s offer (jokingly or not) to buy her a beauty shop. Her father is passed, and now all she has left is her poetry to succeed with. She has “nothing to fall back on.” But, this line also suggests a feeling of isolation. Throughout the poem, the poet mentions no other family members. This may suggest that she sees herself as alone in the world without anyone who could support her, financially, emotionally, or mentally if the fates stopped smiling on her. She began to struggle as her father did.
As the lines progress in this poem, it becomes clear that the speaker is the poet herself – Alice Fulton. She describes her own home, the death of her father, and her understanding of her father while he was still alive. He refers to her by the nickname “Al” in the second stanza and the last name, “Fulton,” features later on in the poem. Both of these help the reader understand the poet is revealing personal features of her life.
The tone is informal and accepting. The poet spends the 105 lines of this piece describing her relationship with her father, her seaside town, and providing readers with incredible images that help convey her emotions. Throughout, she describes her father’s death, her relationship with him, and more. These features of her life are informally provided to readers and are not overly passionate, mournful, or distressed. She is simply describing her life as she understands it.
Although it is not certain, it is possible that Alice Fulton wrote this poem in order to explore connections between her past and present. She may have unresolved emotions in regard to her father’s death and her relationship with him (seen through the suggestion that she didn’t know him very well). At the same time, she suggests a feeling of contentment and consistent amazement at her seaside town, what she can find there, and her interpretation of the natural elements around her.
Readers who enjoyed this piece should also consider reading some other Alice Fulton poems. For example:
- ‘Babies’ – describes the different ways that children and adults understand the world.
Other related poems include:
- ‘Neither Out Far nor In Deep’ by Robert Frost is a thoughtful and philosophical poem. It satirizes human folly and the desire to escape from reality.
- ‘To My Father, Who Died’ by Dawn Garisch – about the relationship of the poet’s father with the sea. It depicts the cycle of life and death through the metaphor of the sea.