‘… those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travellers.’
C. S. Lewis
On our way back from the beach
we stop at the village graveyard
and find people we knew
who we didn’t think were dead
and still we’ve not got a good
word for many of them.
The stones face each other
in rows like booth-style
compartments in old trains.
Most of these people lived half
a mile from here and now they
couldn’t be further away,
but they’re all arranged as if
they’re just trying to get home
and the train is waiting on a signal.
I walk between them, an inspector
in the aisles who has realised
all of his passengers are riding
with expired tickets, but who
is also too scared
to call them all out.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2020. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2020 was Janette Ayachi.
The tight trio-lit stanzas pose the poem as a prayer so I bowed my head to read. And suddenly, the image of a cowardly conductor between the tombs; how authentic and astounding! That flip of death on its head, a journeying that does not realise that it has reached its destination so each carries on in spirit not knowing that it is too late. And what would happen, if the dead were called out, tossed from earthly carriages, left in the middle of nowhere when where exactly was life placed after all, what stop was alighted at – when did they die, not that much of that matters when the inspector on board follows no rules. Just wonderful!
Although it carries an epigraph from C. S. Lewis, the idea for this poem partly came from the 2013 film Nebraska. There’s a scene where the protagonist’s aging mother visits the local cemetery. She’s surprised to find the grave of a ‘boring’ high-school contemporary who had a crush on her and hitches up her skirt to show him ‘what he could have had’. We are told to not speak ill of the dead, but the urge to gossip and joke is eternal. Small town life is often a struggle to reconcile the compulsion to fit in with the desire to be an individual. To write poetry is to make yourself a bit of an outsider. No Fellow Travellers is the title of a 1972 documentary about the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. In MacDiarmid’s own words, it is necessary for the poet ‘to go all the way and there are no fellow travellers’.