Travel broadens the mind, they say, the experience of different sites and cultures. Flynn’s poem explores this idea, finally pinning down where the value lies. She is quite playful with form: while the four-line stanzas are each composed of two rhyming or half-rhyming couplets, line lengths are varied, from 11 words to a cheeky fraction of a word, splitting ‘anony/mity’ into two in stanza 3 to provide two separate rhymes.
The poem is peppered with references to international locations – ‘Krakow’, ‘Zagreb’, ‘Siberian’, ‘Lithuanian’, ‘Madison’, ‘Milwaukee’ – and the simile of the curve of the spine in the first stanza, ‘like a meridian’, also contributes to the range of references to the globe and distances across it. The ‘rucksack’ of the first line creates an image of youthful gap year or university vacation travel, with the idealism of mind-expanding journeys:
‘I thought: Yes. This is how
The limitations of this idealism when faced with reality are suggested by the twist to the conventional phrase in ‘On the beaten track’. The idea of ‘destiny’ becomes associated with ‘restlessness’ rather than destination. For all the references to ‘airports’ and the American ‘Greyhound’ bus, to money transfers through ‘Western Union’ or the ‘post office’, there is no exploration or presentation of any of the places mentioned, however distant or exotic. Instead the focus is on the small domesticity of ‘stuffing smalls/hastily into a holdall’.
The sense of deflation recurs in the latter stages of the poem. Unlike the widespread ‘scattered airports’ and the idea of ‘some kind of destiny’, there is ‘routine’ and ‘overdue laundry’. Even the findings are residues: the ‘pants’ do not belong, it is remnant cinema ‘stubs’ rather than tickets and the ‘comments’ are ‘throwaway’. The optimistic idea that ‘Yes. This is how/To live’ has been brought down to earth by time and experience.
However, in the penultimate stanza which picks through those random objects found in the travel bag, the ‘alien pants’ and ‘a tiny stowaway/pressed flower’ assume some significance. The speaker considers these to be her ‘souvenirs’; these are the significant mnemonics of travels, more important than the actual destinations. While they are largely insignificant in themselves – ‘cinema stubs’ or an ‘unravelled/ sports sock’ – they are the links to people and shared moments which provide the true significance of travel: the ‘furthest distances’ are not between places, whether ‘Zagreb’ or ‘Milwaukee’, but ‘between people’.
Listen to Leontia Flynn reading the poem.