Loneliness is not an accident or a choice.
It’s an uninvited and uncreated companion.
It slips in beside you when you are not aware that a
choice you are making will have consequences.
It does you no good even though it’s like one of the
elements in the world that you cannot exist without.
It takes your hand and walks with you. It lies down
with you. It sits beside you. It’s as dark as a shadow
but it has substance that is familiar.
It swims with you and swings around on stools.
It boards the ferry and leans on the motel desk.
Nothing great happens as a result of loneliness.
Your character flaws remain in place. You still stop in
with friends and have wonderful hours among them,
but you must run as soon as you hear it calling.
It does call. And you climb the stairs obediently,
pushing aside books and notes to let it know that you
have returned to it, all is well.
If you don’t answer its call, you sense that it will sink
towards a deep gravity and adopt a limp.
From loneliness you learn very little. It pulls you
back, it pulls you down.
It’s the manifestation of a vow never made but kept:
I will go home now and forever in solitude.
And after that loneliness will accompany you to
every airport, train station, bus depot, café, cinema,
and onto airplanes and into cars, strange rooms and
offices, classrooms and libraries, and it will hang near
your hand like a habit.
But it isn’t a habit and no one can see it.
It’s your obligation, and your companion warms itself
You are faithful to it because it was the only vow you
made finally, when it was unnecessary.
If you figured out why you chose it, years later, would
you ask it to go?
How would you replace it?
No, saying good-bye would be too embarrassing.
First you might cry.
Because shame and loneliness are almost one.
Shame at existing in the first place. Shame at being
visible, taking up space, breathing some of the sky,
sleeping in a whole bed, asking for a share.
Loneliness feels so much like shame, it always seems
to need a little more time on its own.
From Second Childhood (Graywolf Press, 2014) by Fanny Howe. Copyright © 2014 by Fanny Howe. Used with permission of the author.
It is not good to think
of everything as a mistake. I asked
for bacon in my sandwich, and then
I asked for more. Mistake.
I told you the truth about my scar:
I did not use a knife. I lied
about what he did to my faith
in loneliness. Both mistakes.
That there is always a you. Mistake.
Faith in loneliness, my mother proclaimed,
is faith in self. My instinct, a poor polaris.
Not a mistake is the blue boredom
of a summer lake. O mud, sun, and algae!
We swim in glittering murk.
I tread, you tread. There are children
testing the deep end, shriek and stroke,
the lifeguard perilously close to diving.
I tried diving once. I dove like a brick.
It was a mistake to ask the $30 prophet
for a $20 prophecy. A mistake to believe.
I was young and broke. I swam
in a stolen reservoir then, not even a lake.
Her prophesy: from my vagrant exertion
I'll die at 42. Our dog totters across the lake,
kicks the ripple. I tread, you tread.
What does it even mean to write a poem?
It means today
I'm correcting my mistakes.
It means I don't want to be lonely.
Copyright © 2010 by Jennifer Chang. Used with permission of the author.
If light pours like water into the kitchen where I sway with my tired children, if the rug beneath us is woven with tough flowers, and the yellow bowl on the table rests with the sweet heft of fruit, the sun-warmed plums, if my body curves over the babies, and if I am singing, then loneliness has lost its shape, and this quiet is only quiet.
From Haywire by Rachel Contreni Flynn. Copyright © 2009 by Rachel Contreni Flynn. Used by permission of Bright Hill Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Never get a husband. They never will make cheese plates without a fuss. Get a dog with thumbs. Sometimes when my husband does the dishes, I rampage. I rampage when for some reason the glasses look dirtier than before a washing or I remember a loneliness. I shape that loneliness into a broom. I use it to sweep away happiness, a state that quite often can lead to complacency, and also to fly off the broom’s handle inside me. We maybe all are holograms, a reputable scientific journal proclaims, and I tell the husband so after dinner. But why does this particular projection have small consciousness that wishes to sit in a straight-backed chair and recall reciting “Friends, Romans, countrymen” in high school and this little hologram goes to market and this little hologram hits zero stoplights all the way home? Also, as a projection, I wonder at my own need to touch. Is light drawn to light? Desire light? Why should this little light become inconsolable over the silliest— Oh, why is there so much of me in me? Maybe this is easy science: Each hologram an imagining light thought to construct, in which one furry projection drinks from the toilet, one projection sprouts leaves that fall annually and never improves at leaf-retention, and my husband— an invisible who may not exist in the kitchen behind me if it weren’t for his singing.
Copyright © 2015 Lindsey D. Alexander. This poem originally appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Spring/Summer 2014. Used with permission of the author.
The hurt returns as it always intended—it is tender as the inside of my thighs, it is as blue, too. O windless, wingless sky, show me your empire of loneliness, let me spring from the jaws of what tried to kill me. Let me look at your face and see a heaven worth having, all your sorry angels falling off a piano bench, laughing. Do you burn because you remember darkness? Outside the joy is clamoring. It is almost like the worst day of your life is ordinary for everyone else.
Copyright © 2019 by Ruth Awad. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on March 5, 2019, by the Academy of American Poets.
I've pulled the last of the year's young onions.
The garden is bare now. The ground is cold,
brown and old. What is left of the day flames
in the maples at the corner of my
eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes.
By the cellar door, I wash the onions,
then drink from the icy metal spigot.
Once, years back, I walked beside my father
among the windfall pears. I can't recall
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But
I still see him bend that way-left hand braced
on knee, creaky-to lift and hold to my
eye a rotten pear. In it, a hornet
spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice.
It was my father I saw this morning
waving to me from the trees. I almost
called to him, until I came close enough
to see the shovel, leaning where I had
left it, in the flickering, deep green shade.
White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas
fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame
oil and garlic. And my own loneliness.
What more could I, a young man, want.
Li-Young Lee, "Eating Alone" from Rose. Copyright © 1986 by Li-Young Lee. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd.,
Where are the loves that we have loved before
When once we are alone, and shut the door?
No matter whose the arms that held me fast,
The arms of Darkness hold me at the last.
No matter down what primrose path I tend,
I kiss the lips of Silence in the end.
No matter on what heart I found delight,
I come again unto the breast of Night.
No matter when or how love did befall,
’Tis Loneliness that loves me best of all,
And in the end she claims me, and I know
That she will stay, though all the rest may go.
No matter whose the eyes that I would keep
Near in the dark, ’tis in the eyes of Sleep
That I must look and look forever more,
When once I am alone, and shut the door.
This poem is in the public domain.
The sun drags worlds behind it
planets at its ankles
it hauls you out of bed
into the kitchen where
spoon by spoon the sun
draws itself through your body
this goes on and on one foot
after another through the usual rooms
while stars are dropping off the map
the sun drags the pen across the page
and out the sides of your eyes
the sky spins your tears
into a poem that falls back
on graves of lovers
and gardens of strangers
the sun without fail
pulls the coat of loneliness over your arms
as you walk in your own footprints
until you reach the place
where we can read these words together
From The Afterlives of Trees (Woodley Press, 2011). Copyright © 2011 by Wyatt Townley. Used with permission of the author.
Who means what it is to be human
and is scarred by childhood.
Thick and neckless. Your head shaped
like a gravestone.
A smile opens across the knuckle and disappears
every time you lift a tumbler of scotch.
Who holds a pen and lies.
Who holds a chopstick
in the language of still-twitching fish.
When you think of the past you form a fist
until a heart beats.
Once removed by a chisel. Then reattached.
You stiffen in the rain and dream
of pudding—a smooth, boneless lake.
Who butters morning toast
while wearing a butter hat.
Who fingers the ad for beef, grows numb
while talking to a girl on the phone.
Useless while typing. Useless
tool who only worships space.
A stump. A blackened stamp.
Your own private map of loneliness.
Who always leans to one side. Detached.
Distant from all others.
Copyright © 2017 by Hadara Bar-Nadav. “Thumb” was published in The New Nudity (Saturnalia Books, 2017). Used with permission of the author.
everything feels afterwards,
stoic and inevitable,
my eyes ringed with the grease of rumor and complicity,
my hands eager to hold any agreeable infatuation
that might otherwise slip away.
it’s evening and the lights up and
down the street appear hopeful,
swollen as they are with ancient grievances
and souring schemes. The sky,
and aloof, eager to surrender
its indifference to our suffering.
Speaking of suffering,
the houses—our sober, recalcitrant houses—
are swollen with dreams that have grown opaque with age,
hoarding as they do truths
untranslatable into auspicious beliefs.
upon which so many laws are based,
continues to consume everything.
regardless of what the gods say,
the present remains uninhabitable,
the past unforgiving of the harm it’s seen,
the future remains translucent
in its desire to elude us.
Copyright @ 2014 by Philip Schultz. Used with permission of the author.
If you could know the empty ache of loneliness,
Masked well behind the calm indifferent face
Of us who pass you by in studied hurriedness,
Intent upon our way, lest in the little space
Of one forgetful moment hungry eyes implore
You to be kind, to open up your heart a little more,
I’m sure you’d smile a little kindlier, sometimes,
To those of us you’ve never seen before.
If you could know the eagerness we’d grasp
The hand you’d give to us in friendliness;
What vast, potential friendship in that clasp
We’d press, and love you for your gentleness;
If you could know the wide, wide reach
Of love that simple friendliness could teach,
I’m sure you’d say “Hello, my friend,” sometimes,
And now and then extend a hand in friendliness to each.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on March 7, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.
In the last hour of night, I lean into
a book that multiplies its pages.
A settling and a continuum:
bedding down of a sedentary body
and a story of an expanding universe.
For nearly three months I’ve not walked
out into the evening, my skin un-kissed
by summering breeze, wafts of ghost
fragrances of wisteria and gardenia.
A virus has leapt
into another species, and a plague roams
the globe, locking down its best predator.
Health: spatial matter and loneliness.
I’m not reading the book,
thumbing its leafing, fanning pages.
In bed I prefer to be hostile
and, rather, host my own
breathing. In the distance, sirens
like a continuous Nina Simone dirge.
As water through granite,
I let myself dream of an archipelago
where I began, a scattering both
of isolation and attachment.
Originally published in Los Angeles Review (March 2021). Copyright © 2021 by Joseph O. Legaspi. Used with the permission of the poet.
Oh, solitude, where is the sting,
That men ascribe to thee?
Where is the terror in thy mien?
I look, but cannot see.
Where hidest thou, that loneliness
The world pretends to fear?
While lying on thy loving breast
I find my sweetest cheer.
They do not understand thee, no,
They are but knaves or fools,
Or else they must discern in thee
Dame Nature’s queen of schools.
For in thy care, with naught but books,
The bards and saints of old,
Become my friends and to mine ear
Their mystic truths unfold.
When problems and perplexities
Of life becloud my mind,
I know in thee, oh, solitude,
The answer I can find.
When grief and sorrow crowd my heart
To breaking, with their fears
Within thy arms, oh, solitude,
I find relief in tears.
And when I weary of the world’s
Deceits and cares and strife,
I find in thee sweet rest and peace
And vigorous new life.
My garden never is complete
Without a blooming rose,
Nor is my life, oh, solitude,
Without thy sweet repose.
This poem is in the public domain. Published in Poem-a-Day on August 1, 2020 by the Academy of American Poets.
The human heart has hidden treasures,
In secret kept, in silence sealed;—
The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures,
Whose charms were broken if revealed.
And days may pass in gay confusion,
And nights in rosy riot fly,
While, lost in Fame's or Wealth's illusion,
The memory of the Past may die.
But there are hours of lonely musing,
Such as in evening silence come,
When, soft as birds their pinions closing,
The heart's best feelings gather home.
Then in our souls there seems to languish
A tender grief that is not woe;
And thoughts that once wrung groans of anguish
Now cause but some mild tears to flow.
And feelings, once as strong as passions,
Float softly back—a faded dream;
Our own sharp griefs and wild sensations,
The tale of others' sufferings seem.
Oh! when the heart is freshly bleeding,
How longs it for that time to be,
When, through the mist of years receding,
Its woes but live in reverie!
And it can dwell on moonlight glimmer,
On evening shade and loneliness;
And, while the sky grows dim and dimmer,
Feel no untold and strange distress—
Only a deeper impulse given
By lonely hour and darkened room,
To solemn thoughts that soar to heaven
Seeking a life and world to come.
This poem is in the public domain.
Who searched for lovers
In the night
Has gone the quiet way
Into the still,
Dark land of death
Beyond the rim of day.
Now like a little lonely waif
An endless street
And gives her kiss to nothingness.
Would God his lips were sweet!
From The Weary Blues (Alfred A. Knopf, 1926) by Langston Hughes. This poem is in the public domain.
When I had no roof I made Audacity my roof. When I had No supper my eyes dined. When I had no eyes I listened. When I had no ears I thought. When I had no thought I waited. When I had no father I made Care my father. When I had No mother I embraced order. When I had no friend I made Quiet my friend. When I had no Enemy I opposed my body. When I had no temple I made My voice my temple. I have No priest, my tongue is my choir. When I have no means fortune Is my means. When I have Nothing, death will be my fortune. Need is my tactic, detachment Is my strategy. When I had No lover I courted my sleep.
Copyright © 2011 by Robert Pinsky. Reprinted from Selected Poems with the permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.