Poem for One


in Archive



I’m unbearably lonely. Can you help?
— John B., Chicago, Illinois

Well, you’re in good company: It’s cold outside, and the only thing this last Valentine’s Day did for those without a partner is jab little daggers into their hearts.

But aren’t we all lonely, really, in our little worlds, with each click of the keyboard, with each thought that goes unexpressed? No matter how big our mental space, no matter how peopled our social sphere, no matter what kind of a romantic partner we have — real or imagined, we are all lonely for a majority of the day. We are in that space between the ears, dreaming, waking, drinking coffee, passively reading the latest news, and not engaged in a verbal, physical, or spiritual exchange with someone else. Maybe Stephen Dunn’s poem “Loneliness” will help you:

So many different kinds,
yet only one vague word.
And the Eskimos
with twenty-six words for snow,

such a fine alertness
to what variously presses down.
Yesterday I saw lovers
hugging in the street,

making everyone around them
feel lonely, and the lovers themselves –
wasn’t a deferred loneliness
waiting for them?

Your brand of loneliness, whether it’s the kind that wakes you up at 3 a.m. or the kind that propels you to open another tasteless novel, presents a formidable challenge to overcome, but everyone must do it sometimes. Dunn’s poem continues,

There must be words

for what our aged mothers, removed
in those unchosen homes, keep inside,
and a separate word for us
who’ve sent them there, a word

for the secret loneliness of salesmen,
for how I feel touching you
when I’m out of touch.
The contorted, pocked, terribly ugly man

shopping in the 24-hour supermarket
at 3 a.m. – a word for him-
and something, please,
for this nameless ache here

in this nameless spot.
If we paid half as much attention
to our lives as Eskimos to snow …
Still, the little lies,

the never enough.
No doubt there must be Eskimos
in their white sanctums, thinking
just let it fall, accumulate.

But no matter what we call it, it will find us, owed to that distinctly human combination of an over-developed brain and an unenlightened mind. I suppose there are those who would advise yoga or meditation, and maybe you should try that, but I can only vouch for acceptance. You’ve got to accept life and all its faults, as life accepts you and all of yours. Of course it’s going to be lonely and cold sometimes, but the good thing is that it’s always in flux. Here’s Victoria Chang’s “Before”:  “Each year my horoscope says/ it’s my year for love, as I walk// through rooms, tall and white/ carried by some current.” You can bear loneliness, John. Think of this time as a lesson in humanity, and please don’t give up. • 2 March 2009