Please email all questions you would like poetry to answer to firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Spinster’s Almanac” in the subject line.
My unhappiness and depression have accumulated so much that they have blown up my life. I go out for long walks at night when I can’t sleep to think about all my passive self-hatred has taken from me, and try not to let it lead me into the nearest river. I feel so alone. Who are the poets of loneliness and failure? How will I make my life okay again?
Reader, I would like to join you on your night wanderings a little ways, if I might. The night is long and empty for too many of us whose screaming brains and broken hearts would fill it up with our numbered failures. I would like to take your hand. Into it, I would like to press this poem, which came to me at just the time I needed it myself. I will also hope that your river is a metaphor, but if you think you may harm yourself and need concrete urgent assistance, please seek out resources that can help.
I write a lot about loneliness of one kind or another in this column. Partly because it’s what wells up in my bag of questions, partly because it’s a feeling I’ve known in many guises. The world is often unkind to women making their way in the world alone—single or sick or estranged or resistant (of course it is unkind to men too, and today’s poem is by a male poet, but I am writing this to you, lonely wandering witches of The Toast). I’ve written about grief and passion and pragmatism, all which have their place. But today I would like to write about tenderness. About learning to be kind to oneself in the absence of love for oneself. About Franz Wright, and his extended hand in the darkness: “To Myself.”
You are riding the bus again
burrowing into the blackness of Interstate 80,
the sole passenger
with an overhead light on.
It’s a simple descriptive opening, but evocative of the sadness your letter describes: unglamourous transit, solitude, hiding, darkness. I find the description melancholy but almost soothing in its familiarity. The overhead light comes after the pause of the first stanza break, and snaps like a spotlight: Wright’s “you” (the narrator’s own self) and the reader’s “you,” finally noticed. The progressive tense gives the lines the sense of ongoingness, emphasizes the long passive morasses that often characterize depression. Here you are; you have always been here.
When I first read this poem, the title and second-person address seemed unremarkable; many poets address the narrative “you” as a personal self in contemporary poetry. But now Wright introduces a first-person narrative to speak the “you”s: “And I am with you.” It’s literal, of course; the poem is “To Myself,” but it also feels religious, Christ-like in its personal intimacy, God-like in its expansive observation of the landscape:
I’m the interminable fields you can’t see,
the little lights off in the distance
(in one of those rooms we are
It’s a complicated comfort, isn’t it? The endless distance, the hidden and isolated nature of the individual, but also the lights, far and small as they might be, where the voice in the back of the head resides along with the body. If there is anything spiritually nourishing in the world, it feels very far away, and yet it persists, trying for companionship through the darkness.
Reader, when you take your night walks, does your depression come in like a nasty little voice somewhere behind your temples? Is it that voice you are living with in your head, giving voice to what you see along the streets or fields? Wright’s voice knows this:
and I am the rain
and the others all
around you, and the loneliness you love,
and the universe that loves you specifically, maybe
Wright uses this lovely flourish of metonymy to affix the narrator of the poem (and therefore the “you” as well) in the reality of the world. He counters the isolating effects of depression that can divide the individual from the wider world by ascribing divided speaker to its features, troubling but lovingly rendered. He emphasizes the unity of the self, the natural world, and humanity, while acknowledging the narrator-you’s isolation. Do you cultivate noxious affections for the feral cats or empty lots on your trajectory? Wright is patron saint of those affections, the familiarity one clings to in the absence of anything warmer.
But what if the universe “loved you specifically”? What if you had a voice in the dark to hold your hand through the world of things that hurt? Wright’s divided speaker cultivates that kindness between the fragmented lonely self, even through “the catastrophic dawn, / the nicotine crawling on your skin,” his visceral descriptions ground him in the physical world, and prevent the poem from flattening into limp platitudes.
It’s a poem that is interested in how depression feels, not just in the heart or the ego, but in the troubled body, stuck but in motion. Are you aware of how your depression feels, reader? Can you channel a few moments of your nocturnal walks to meditate on what your sadness and isolation feels like, in your breath, your muscles, your habits? This is a useful skill to cultivate for therapy, for friendship, but also for your relationship with yourself. It will help you know what you need, how others can help.
It is valuable to create relationships based on such observation and empathetic reaction. Just as you would offer tissues to a congested or weepy friend, you can offer yourself kindnesses to ease your pain. This is what I find so beautiful about Wright’s poem: the climax isn’t pain or suffering, but tender care in reaction to pain and suffering. He reassures himself: “when you begin / to cough I won’t cover my face, / and if you vomit this time I will hold you.”
Take note that he specifies “this time.” You might have failed yourself a hundred times before, but it doesn’t preclude you from being present and kind and helpful this time. You can look at the river and think I will walk home, I will take a hot shower, I will cover myself with a warm soft blanket. Wright embodies his subject with physical symptoms that the poem’s speaker responds to in emotionally significant physical gestures; instead of dividing the I and the you of the poem with shielding hands to the face, he unites them in a promised embrace, the fractured self giving and receiving comfort.
The coming together of the self might suggest future healing of its painful fractures. The poem concludes with abstract hope bolstered again by concrete action. The speaker is soothing: “everything’s going to be fine // I will whisper. / It won’t always be like this.”
I know this may seem hollow. Who can promise that it won’t? I’ve yet to hear a kindness that a depressive brain couldn’t poke a dozen holes in, but Wright immediately resolves in the poem’s final line with “I am going to buy you a sandwich.” It’s such a small everyday promise, but carries with it connotations of comfort, sustenance, and camaraderie. Wright’s sentiment distills embellished and fraught modern self-care ritual into a simple self-kindness: the means to nourish the body so it can keep going a little further. It’s a small tenderness that is more manageable that cleaning the whole apartment and more affordable than a spa weekend. It is, at its root, separating one’s empathetic nature from the depressed brain long enough to say someday I will be more okay and get into the shower, eat a banana, or make myself a strong sweet cup of tea.
You asked for the patron saints of lonely failing poets, and reader, there are dozens. We’ve talked about Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” before, with its reminder that one does not have to be good, and about Karen Solie, queen of lonely highway motels and rocky promontories. Rachel Wetzsteon set her loneliness off with a sharp eye and an unrepentant discipline. Poetry Foundation ran a roundup of poems on loneliness and solitude here. I have no doubt that readers will add more in the comments. All these poets will have things to tell you about absent lovers, empty rooms, and fear, but I want to equip you chiefly with this poem of Wright’s because I want you to know you are worth caring for. I want you to have his shaky roadmap toward tenderness. I want to whisper in your ear: “It won’t always be like this.” I want to slip you the cash to buy your own sandwich.
This column is gratefully dedicated to the memory of Franz Wright, 1953-2015.
Marika Prokosh is a writer from Winnipeg, Canada. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Fire, Existere, Rip/Torn and at The Toast. She reads, writes, and eats in an old blue house, and tweets about books and cooking mishaps.