J Jessica Greenbaum

For a Traveler by Jessica Greenbaum

‘For a Traveler’ by Jessica Greenbaum explores how you can come to love a location, maybe even then the people that fill it. Returning to a place that has held so much personal history, Greenbaum is accepted by the place, basking in the comforting beauty it holds and represents.

For a Traveler by Jessica Greenbaum

 

Summary

Jessica Greenbaum’s ‘For a Traveler’ begins conversationally, the poet explaining how she does not have much time, but wants to share a story. She continues, explaining the history of a location she used to frequent with her lover. She, ‘their son’s girlfriend’, would cook meals, harvest dinner from the garden, and feel ‘loved’ fitting into their family. Greenbaum then describes what she would cook, the many different vegetables lining up like soldiers as she ‘brought [them] to the cutting board’. The poet then moves forward in time, returning to the same location but ‘a decade later’, and by herself. Although it seems she is no longer with the ex-lover, she still holds the memories of that time close and is still in love with the place in which everything took place. The final note of the poem focuses on this, with Greenbaum suggesting that maybe there isn’t any ‘more to love’ than loving a place – with the memories, people, and ideas they can hold.

You can read the full poem here.

 

Structure

‘For a Traveler’ is written in free verse, the poem lacking any division or separation into stanzas. The free form allows Jessica Greenbaum to approach her poem in an almost conversational manner, the lack of a strict structure reflecting how she is sharing stories with the reader – as if she were simply recounting a tale. It is a poem of 23 lines, with a varied use of enjambment and caesura. This furthers the conversational sense of the poem, with the starting and stopping of the meter reflecting the natural variance of speech. Much of the poem is designated to the descriptive language of the setting and activities that took place there, with the harmonic discussion of nature furthering the beauty of the place she has come to love.

 

For a Traveler Analysis

Lines 1-5

I only have a moment so let me tell you the shortest story,
(…)
all accessories of the genuine summer years before, when I was

The poem begins in the first person, the use of ‘I’ enacting the sense that the poem is going to be a personal one, recounting the poet’s experiences. The conversational tone of the poem, beginning with ‘I only have a moment so let me tell you’, with a colloquial ‘so’ and general mannerism of speech, furthers the sense that Greenbaum is telling the reader a story – she is going to recount a personal history, it will not be long, but it will be rich with retail.

The sibilance that carries across ‘shortest story’ furthers the sense of her tale being ‘short’, with the repeated sounds accelerating the meter of the poem and propelling it forward, reflecting the idea that it will not take much time for Greenbaum to tell us this story.

Alliteration is continued on the second line, with ‘long loved’ emphasizing Greenbaum’s quality of loving the ‘house of friends in Maine’. This furthers the metrical acceleration began in the first line, ‘long loved’ and ‘shortest story’ both helping to push to poem quickly along.

The detail that it is ‘of friends in Maine’ suggests that her relationship with the ‘ex-lover’ has now dissolved, considering otherwise Greenbaum would write ‘the house of [a lover] in Maine’. This is the first detail we are given that suggests they are no longer together.

The beauty of the ‘lawn of wildflowers’ begins a tradition of focusing on the natural beauty of an area, a quality that Greenbaum furthers later in the poem.

 

Lines 6-13

their son’s girlfriend and tied an apron behind my neck, beneath
my braids, and took from their garden the harvest for a dinner
(…)
minions, and I even remember the garlic, each clove from its airmail
envelope brought to the cutting board, ready for my instruction.

These lines of ‘For a Traveler’ reveal why Greenbaum has come to this location, with an ‘apron behind my neck’, she is cooking for the family of her boyfriend. The focus on ‘their son’s girlfriend’ seems to alienate Greenbaum from the family structure, perhaps feeling that she doesn’t totally fit in. She makes the dinner ‘alone and serves at their big table’, the isolated task and the lonely image of a ‘big table’ combined with the idea of service and the definition of ‘their’ suggests that she is indeed not part of their family dynamic. She seems on the periphery, there to help out and serve, but not really part of the social atmosphere.

Yet, within this unfamiliar atmosphere, Greenhaum presents the idea that she found something that she loves, with the ‘gladness of the found, and loved’, the feels like she has started to belong to this place.

 

Lines 14-21

And in this very slight story, a decade later, I came by myself,
having been dropped by the airport cab, and waited for the family
(…)
to gather me in his arms. That day the lupines received me,
and I was in love with them, because they were all I had left,

On the 14th line, Greenbaum shifts ‘For a Traveler’ from the distant past into ‘a decade later’, when she returns to this location. The difference is that instead of coming with her boyfriend, this time ‘I came by myself’, making her way back to the house alone. She ‘waited for the family’, with the notion that no one is there to greet her perhaps revealing the fact her arrival could be a surprise.

Greenbaum walks into the garden, the overgrown state of it being comforting in the bright ‘June’s afternoon light’. The ‘lupines received me’, the graceful welcome back to the place which she loves being emphasized through the halcyon beauty of the scene.

She focuses on the state of her self, ‘a displaced young woman… no place to which I wished to return and no one to gather me in his arms’, revealing that she is now single and has no home to go back to. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, Greenbaum has returned to the site of where ‘I was in love’, referring to her connection with the landscape.

 

Lines 22-23

and in that same manner I have loved much of the world since then,
and who is to say there is more of a reason, or more to love?

The final two lines of the poem suggest that Greenbaum has loved and relied on many places since this first moment of connection. She resolves the poem by focusing on the purity of love for location, asking the question is there any ‘more to love’, than the love for a place. Places hold intricate memories of people, ideas, and experiences, all being contained within a little plot of land. Greenbaum finds beauty in this, having ‘loved much of the world’ in her travels.

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About
Jack is undertaking a degree in World Literature and joined the Poem Analysis team in 2019. Poetry is the intersection of his greatest passions, languages and literature, with his focus on translation bridging the gap.
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