Becoming Our Mothers & Other Worst Fears: Reading Sarah Satterlee's "Traveler"

by Avleen K. Mohka

Digital Poetics is a blog column to discuss, analyze, and appreciate the art of poetry. This week I am discussing Sarah Satterlee's “Traveler”, originally published in Rattle

If you have ever been afraid of becoming your parents, only to find out that you are more similar to them than you would like to admit, Sarah Satterlee's “Traveler” will strike a chord with you. For a poem named so, the piece features little physical movement. Instead, the poem places two lives succeeding one another and weaves them with threads of suppressed emotions. 

The antagonist of this piece is most notably the monotony of quotidian life. Imagery concerning routine activities—drying sponges, making pasta, writing checks, going to the store, sitting at the table—help shape the emotional setting of the poem. In the first stanza, the speaker's disdain towards the plainness of her mother's life is evident: the repetition of “sad” simply but effectively conveys the speaker's annoyance. The image of “sponges...stack[ed] in piles” allude to the idea of permanently settling somewhere—the tension between the speaker and her mother's way of life becomes tighter, and, in the stanza break that halves the poem, snaps. 

A striking feature of the poem's grammar is its imagery of affection. In the first stanza, although the speaker seems to be recalling her mother's actions, there is little interaction between the two. The various past participles (“dried," “shaken," “scrunched,”) contribute to a passive, distanced narration of the events. Through elaborate enjambment and simple repetition (“as if the numbers were making excuses / as if she was disappointed that...”), Satterlee colors the latter half of the first stanza with the speaker's underlying guilt of not meeting her mother's expectations.

The singular image of affection in the poem, the speaker's act of “smooth[ing her] hands / over the undulating spine” of disappointment, complements the speaker's anxious attachment to her mother. The speaker is a parental figure too, but she is only able to nurture disappointment. The tone in the second stanza comes across as not just dismal, but fatalistic: the speaker's fact-like declaration that she is "the kind of person who will never leave the continent" seems jarring given her prior overt dislike for routine.

Satterlee does not put the pieces together for her readers. What changed in the chasm between the stanzas, between the past (“used to think”) and the present (“Now”)? Satterlee omits the turning point in the speaker's life, only showing the change that has taken place over time. When I was discussing this poem with a friend, they said they felt that the piece never reaches a point of poetic climax. I'd argue that the title and form of the piece help create an anti-climactic nature that reflects the speaker's experiences. While the speaker aspires to be a “[t]raveler”, the poem—her quiet contempt towards her mother, and the subsequent failure to lead a life different from her mother—betrays the routine of her reality.

Satterlee also plays with tense to further evoke a sense of permanence. Initially, the image of a boy working at a gas station in the first stanza felt tangential and inconsistent to me. But the way I understand it now, being caught in bed with a boy from the gas station is a bullet of a memory, still deeply embedded in the speaker's subconscious. The diction also inconspicuously moves from the past to the present, with words such as “are bent," “who steals,” “scrapes,” “brushes,” creating a sense of continuation, like a scene in constant replay. The swift movement into the present tense heightens the sense of stagnancy the speaker fears but also indefinitely prolongs the feeling of letting a parental figure down.

Between the speaker and her mother, Satterlee creates a cycle of growing disappointments—against the backdrop of failing to meet her mother's expectations, the speaker's lonesome life feels almost inevitable. Shame is the motif of the piece, and the personification of disappointment in its latter half is hard-hitting. How do we disappoint people and still be loved? How do we love people and still dread the idea of stepping in their shoes? “Traveler” is a humbling, bittersweet reminder to be compassionate instead of disdainful to those who we fear becoming one day.

— Avleen K. Mokha is a student at McGill University, majoring in English Literature and Linguistics. She is a contributor for the McGill Tribune and a poet. She also works as a poetry editor and staff judge for Persephone’s Daughters and its film division, Girls Don’t Cry. Her work has previously appeared in Canvas Literary Journal. She splits her time between Montreal and Mumbai.