"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde
You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
OK then, yes, I’m lonely
as a plane rides lonely and level
on its radio beam, aiming
across the Rockies
for the blue-strung aisles
of an airfield on the ocean.
You want to ask, am I lonely?
Well, of course, lonely
as a woman driving across country
day after day, leaving behind
mile after mile
little towns she might have stopped
and lived and died in, lonely
If I’m lonely
it must be the loneliness
of waking first, of breathing
dawn’s first cold breath on the city
of being the one awake
in a house wrapped in sleep
If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning.
[From The Fact of a Doorframe]
A couple of days ago I posted a poem where we heard the narrator’s side of the conversation, and were left guessing as to the reply. In this one we only hear the reply, but we know what the question was. Again we get no clue to context or location, because they don’t matter. Adrienne Rich selects the important part of the encounter.
Somebody asked her if she is lonely (or perhaps only implied it). Her response is impatient, and her impatience succinctly shown. There is no ‘I retort,’ or ‘I answer impatiently’. Rich shows impatience. ‘OK then, yes, I’m lonely.’ This is the response of a woman who has been asked more than once, even badgered to reply. The word ‘lonely’ appears eight times in four stanzas, with a single ‘loneliness’ for good measure. The repetition serves like a fist banging on the table over and over. It appears twice at the beginning of every stanza except the last. Lonely? I’ll give you bloody lonely, she’s saying. There’s no full stop at the end of stanza 2 or 3, as if the speaker is breathless with the energy of her explanation. As she gets into her stride she repeats herself – ‘If I’m lonely….’
I have said it many times and I will say it until they carry me weeping hysterically from my last poetry workshop: Every Word Counts. That ‘If’ is essential. To the questioner, Rich’s first two replies might seem unambiguous. ‘Yes’ she’s lonely, ‘of course’ she’s lonely. But in the second half of the poem, that two-letter word takes us from indignation to mastery. IF the speaker is lonely, she’s lonely like a rowboat – not a liner steered by someone else. IF she’s lonely, it’s like a woman driving day after day, mile after mile (repetition = monotony) but finding her own way and choosing to leave behind ‘little towns she might have stopped/ and lived and died in, lonely’. She’s lonely like an aeroplane, but one which is ‘level’ and ‘aiming for an airfield’, not aimless or lost. She’s the one who’s awake ‘in a house of sleep’. Is that loneliness or is it freedom?
Each metaphor occupies one stanza. Most line breaks emphasise grand landscapes (the Rockies, ocean, country, city, shore) or states of stasis and boredom (lonely, stopped, sleep).
The title and the last three words are crucial too. A song, as I mentioned in my article on Whitman, is usually a joyful and effusive thing. One might describe wood as prone to burning, or in danger of burning, or ready to burn – each phrase gives a different emphasis. The choice of the word ‘gift’ tells us once and for all that this kind of loneliness is not a burden but a benefit. The last word, burning, is flame-fierce; it implies heat, light, a joy in playing with fire – and perhaps the temper of a woman who has been asked once too often if she’s lonely. The questioner presumably retires, shot down in flames. I feel like cheering every time I read it.