"Traveling through the Dark" is probably Stafford's most popular and frequently anthologized single poem. In its broadest outline it reiterates the theme of confrontation between technology and wilderness, one which leads to the jeopardy of the latter. The poem is a narrative description of the poet's sojourn along a road at night leading to his discovery of a doe, victim of an earlier collision with another automobile. In a different context, Stafford has recalled the origin of the poem in a personal episode: "The poem concerns my finding a dead deer on the highway. This grew out of an actual experience of coming around a bend on the Wilson River Road near Jordan Creek in Oregon, and finding this deer, dead. As I was recounting the story to my kids the next day, I discovered by the expressions on their faces that I was arriving at some area of enhancement in the narrative." The poet's crisis of discovery is rendered even more acute by his sudden recognition of the unborn fawn: "her fawn lay there waiting, alive, still, never to be born." As a result, he is thrust, both literally and symbolically, between the vulnerable world of the wilderness represented by the doe and the predatory world of technocracy represented by his own automobile. The moral dilemma consequently is transferred to him: "I thought hard for us all." In its outward sense, the decision is an obvious and easy one. The dead doe and the unborn fawn must he removed from the path of traffic: "It is usually best to roll them into the canyon: that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead." This he finally elects to do. The poet's removal of the obstacle, however, is attended with irony and, through the images of the poem, a sense of self-incrimination. As he hesitates in making the decision about what to do with the doe, "my only swerving," he becomes aware of his personal relation to the animal and the larger life of which she is a part: "I could hear the wilderness listen."
The poem's imagery alone, without further obtrusive commentary, defines his personal moral stance. The doe is "almost cold," while "her side was warm" with the life of the unborn fawn. The imagery of coldness-warmth is ironically inverted through the description of the automobile in which the poet himself, innocent of the actual killing, has been driving. He sees the victim "By glow of the tail-light." The car "aimed ahead its lowered parking lights." Even the poet stands "in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red." The life of the wilderness is ironically replaced in this manner by the life of the car. The poet's self-indictment emerges through his obvious identity with both worlds. He is able to abdicate neither. Furthermore, both worlds are presented in terms of life that suggest the human. The wilderness "listens," even as the car sinisterly has "aimed ahead its lowered parking lights," during which time the "steady engine" has "purred." Personifications bring home the fact that, while neither phenomenon is itself human, both are influences on human values.
"Traveling through the Dark" recalls the Emotive Imagination through its use of personifications and images. The images, however, are not surreal, and the poem itself remains consistently an objective narration. Stafford structures the poem upon four four-line stanzas and a concluding couplet. Irregular in meter, the poem employs no regular rhyme scheme--only occasional half-rhymes: "road / dead," "canyon / reason," "engine / listen." In its formal aspects, the poem is characterized by its economy of statement. Its easy colloquialism camouflages to a degree this organization . As Charles F. Greiner has pointed out, the use of a single word can be significant. The unborn fawn is described as "alive, still, never to be born." The word "still" sustains meanings on at least three levels: (1) still as yet alive; (2) still as quiet, indeed, so silent he hears "the wilderness listen"; (3) still as "stillborn," an inevitable association with the appearance of both "still" and "born" within the same phrase.
"Traveling through the Dark" defines in trenchant terms the invasion of the wilderness by a new civilization.