The personalization of specific locales always hooks me. I often wonder how our experiences of a space both converge and diverge from others, how we make homes, enemies, and/or myths of where we’ve been. Jess Rizkallah’s ‘Traveling Alone’ really leads us through specific encounters with tenacity & wit. The decapitalization of city names & the I implies a sense of familiarity. Namely, these cities are less imposing voices chiming in, but rather expand and complicate the speaker’s adventure-rolodex. Houston “siccs a rat” on the speaker’s heels; they conclude that “the future is a rat king nesting on a pile of fingers / or maybe that’s just new york city.” These emotional & logistic jumps not only tie seemingly disparate places together, but clarify the speaker. When these fingers are stripped of their tactile nature, they become unable to reach & feel. They’re padding for the rat and its independent survival, the one that feels keen on withholding, sometimes even retaliating.
It’s easy to sympathize with the speaker’s longing for connection. They’re still trying to communicate with the future that “never texts back,” still engaging all these cities, even when their environment offers little more than scorn or indifference. The speaker’s sometimes stark meditations grow increasingly apt. Givency offers “waterlilies spinning on phonograms,” which the speaker quickly twists: “maybe that’s what eyes are when / you close them or you don’t / for the last time.” Often when I see waterlilies on water, they feel endlessly caught in that moment of being perfectly perched. But the speaker points more to their lifecycle and recognizes that the flower & pad’s unfurl are but a few blinks from death. I love how the texture of petals & leaves become like eyes & eyelids, but it’s the open eye that haunts… it feels more like the water whirlpool than rest. When we shutter an eye, don’t we believe that breaking the stare means settling, ending? This settling around loss comes through in the last lines as well: “i mean to say i love you the way light / fills a city all of them”. Even to the detriment of the natural world, light becomes a city. It warms me to imagine a love that expansive…
Tiffany Mallery’s comic of this poem continues its dazzle. The recognition after Sacramento Street says, “i am the belly of the whale and you are the wick” is portrayed as one eye arising from a wave of hair and looking poised to singe, gracefully challenging the concept of being locked in. Giverny selling “faulty sunflower seeds” is paired with half a whole sunflower, the petals themselves appearing more like seed waiting for soil. They don't seem to crack easily under teeth. The actual centered seeds are black shadow mass. I can’t imagine they’d do well stomach-sitting. When we dip to “anything dead on Abrahamic land is named a martyr”, the mouth parts as if amid this calling. How many names have gone through this ritual? “Anything” feels like a large void to swim, but the movement keeps them alive. Their presences become similar to the canary pressing its weight against tongue: you can only go so long without release. Even the overarching purple that flits from deeply mixed into black to almost light lilac drenches the entire rapport in meditative dusk. We’re not truly set into pitch so the danger of traveling alone isn’t a real weight, but still lingers in each frame, similar to the match that we can barely make out over the sprawling skyline. I admire how the illustration offers a balance to the poem’s images and themes. But make no mistake, these moments already do so much work on their own. Any additions pull us more into their light. Isn’t that a blessing?