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Unlike most of Stafford’s other poems—which hail the reader from a quiet and nonpartisan place—“Peace Walk” actively embodies the collective “we” as a group of war resisters on an “un-march.” The poem represents a peace walk that defies the conventions of protest and collective action. Yet though the poem clearly situates its identification with the demonstrators, its ambiguity and self-critique render it a “quarrel with ourselves”—what William Butler Yeats saw as that which distinguishes poetry from rhetoric. Stafford self-effacingly points to the limits of the demonstrators’ vision (both physical and metaphorical) and of the walk itself; “We held our poster up to shade our eyes” suggests a desire to flee both the protest and the judging gaze of the bystanders.
Despite the fact that any ideological placard narrows a person’s perception, Stafford does not condemn the demonstration or demonstrators. The final lines contain in their lonely description of the protest’s dispersal a vision of egalitarian society. It would be easy to read the final couplet simply as the failure of the demonstration, of Stafford’s poetic skepticism of a public protest. Yet the fact that “no one was there to tell us where to leave the signs” forces the individual demonstrators and not some authority figure to decide what to do with the “signs”—not just the physical placards, but also the things they signify: the dangers of nuclear testing, the resistance to warfare, a vision of the beloved community.
We wondered what our walk should mean
taking that un-march quietly;
the sun stared at our signs—“Thou shalt not kill.”
Men by a tavern said, “Those foreigners . . . ”
to a woman with a fur, who turned away—
like an elevator going down, their look at us.
Along a curb, their signs lined across,
a picket line stopped and stared
the whole width of the street, at ours: “Unfair.”
Above our heads the sound truck blared—
by the park, under the autumn trees—
it said that love could fill the atmosphere:
Occur, slow the other fallout, unseen,
on islands everywhere—fallout, falling
unheard. We held our poster up to shade our eyes.
At the end we just walked away;
no one was there to tell us where to leave the signs.