Garous Abdolmalekian's "Long Exposure VI" (translated by Ahmad Nadalizadeh & Idra Novey)

Thoughts on the image of loneliness.

Long Exposure VI

You brushed my shoulder
to get off the loneliness.

What are you hoping for
brushing snow
from the shoulder of a snowman?

from Lean Against This Late Hour (Penguin, 2020)

Sometimes a poem is, most of all, an image. What does it mean to be a poet? I don’t know. There are so many labors one can make out of the imagination, and so many joys. I think of some verbs when I think of poets — see, witness, turn, dwell. I think of how light is both the act of illuminating and the fact of illumination itself. And I think of how a poem is both of those things, so often — the act and the fact. And I think of the word image, and how the word imagine holds an image in its mouth, and how an image exists, so often, because of light — both the act and fact of it.

Just the other day, while walking, I found myself caught and held by an image. There was a tree (I looked it up later, and I believe it was a maple) standing solitary in a patch of grass. What leaves remained on the tree were these red, fiery things — so many of them pointing skyward in some final act of life. The rest, though, piled themselves densely on the ground directly beneath the tree. There was a clear, distinct, visceral division between the green of the grass and the red of the leaves. As such, the tree and the leaves beneath it gave the appearance of a person standing alone in a small green field, their feet in a puddle of their own blood. I felt so struck by the image that I stood there for a few minutes and almost spoke to the tree, believing it might talk back to me, believing, too, that maybe the tree was dying and maybe it had some final words to say. That’s one power of an image: it allows for possibility, and it directs and holds our attention toward such possibility.

And it’s the image that astounds me in this poem. That final question, those final three lines:

What are you hoping for
brushing snow
from the shoulder of a snowman?

This is one of those poems that attests, truly, to the power of poetry, as cliche as that sounds. Sometimes I read a poem and feel moved by it, and I think about it briefly before the world intervenes like a wave, washing the poem away, even if I try to reach back and grasp it. And sometimes a poem lingers for a few days, but then recedes with the tide of things. This shows, I know, that reading is often a discipline — to hold something in your heart often means one must have to labor to keep it there, as much as I wish this weren’t so. 

But some poems strike once and remain. I knew, the first moment I read this poem, that I would never forget it. I knew it because of the way it translated the ordinariness of the world into something capable of conveying extraordinary meaning. It’s not just that I will never think of a snowman the same way again; it’s also that I will never think of loneliness the same way again. Both, in just a few short lines, now feel charged with meaning. This kind of transfixion begins, I think, with the image.

Abdolmalekian’s book, Lean Against This Late Hour, is filled with these moments of chisel-it-into-your-soul imagery. Consider the final two lines of “Fog Song,” which read:

I have prepared the trunk of my body

for the possibility of your kindness.

Or this moment, from “Acquiescence”:

And life

which enters from a hidden door every night

with a dull knife.

The trunk of my body. Life, sneaking in with its dull knife. These are images that offer us, their readers, the beautiful possibility of seeing the world as it is, and yet differently. Perhaps my favorite Tomas Tranströmer poem, “Black Postcards,” translated by Joanna Bankier, does this same work:

The calendar full, future unknown.

The cable hums the folk song from no country.

Falling snow on the lead-still sea. Shadows

wrestle on the dock.

In the middle of life it happens that death comes 

and takes your measurements. This visit 

is forgotten and life goes on. But the suit is 

sewn in the silence.

Come on now! Like, what! The first time I read this poem, I felt that image — the suit “sewn in the silence” — to my core. And to this day, I think about that image so often. I’ll be walking, or teaching a class, or just sitting, and then boom, there it is — the image of the suit of my death being sewn in some far off room. Perhaps it sounds like too much, and perhaps it is, but that is the beauty of a poem — it can take the magnitude of death, or anything one might possibly wonder about, and reduce it — or expand it, depending on how you feel — to such an ordinary image that you can’t help but consider it so often in your everyday life.

And sometimes a poem takes that idea of an image and then refuses it, which is also a beautiful thing — this sublime act of subversion. It’s its own act of transfixion, this rendering of the extraordinary away from the rote and back into our consideration. Andrea Cohen does this beautifully in her poem, “Refusal to Mourn”:

In lieu of
flowers, send
him back

Here, there is a resistance to the way in which our lives co-opt the image and render it into something commodifiable, something against meaning or life or love. Instead of symbols, this poem longs for life itself. And that is one beauty of poetry: it can remind us of the longing inherent within our everyday, and it can refuse the everyday to remind us of longing.

But to return again to today’s poem — a poem not just of any image, but of the image of loneliness. It feels Sisyphean, doesn’t it? This image of loneliness as so granularly a part of not just the surface of our being, but of our soul, as well — as snow is to a snowman. And that image of a snowman does so much work. Since a snowman is often considered this jolly, festive thing, Abdolemalekian’s insertion of the sorrow of loneliness into that mold creates all of this tension and energy. It subverts the ideal, forcing us to dwell a little longer in the image in order to make it make sense. But then that work pays off, and it does make sense. It’s not just loneliness that’s given a new image, it’s also the snowman — no longer jolly, but rather so sad, standing there all alone, every part of what makes him up a testament to his solitude and loneliness.

And then we, too, are transformed through this image. Our individual loneliness is no longer a temporal thing, something bound and defined by time and space. Instead, it’s holistic, maybe even eternal. It’s part of who we are. Thomas Merton writes, in New Seeds of Contemplation, that “the truest solitude is not something outside you, not an absence of men or of sound around you; it is an abyss opening up in the center of your own soul.” Merton’s point is similar to Abdolemalekian’s — loneliness, and solitude, sit at the core of our being. And, as Merton writes — echoing, perhaps, the futility inherent in Abdolemalekian’s question what are you hoping for — “this abyss of interior solitude is a hunger that will never be satisfied with any created thing.”

Though there is futility within today’s poem, and the deep, sorrowful recognition of loneliness being inescapable, wound up as it is with who we are, I think there is also something this poem wonders toward. I think this poem asks us to pay a different kind of attention to the world, to ourselves, and to each other. To recognize loneliness as something as essential to our being as snow is to a snowman is not the same as what the world often asks us to do, which is to see our loneliness briefly and then immediately combat it with those “created thing[s]” that Merton mentions. Loneliness, so often today, is not seen as something integral to our being, as something to be paid attention to and dwelled within. It’s seen as something wrong, a brief and temporary affliction that might be solved with other brief and temporary things. I think again of Merton, and how, in one of his letters to Jean Leclercq, he writes that “one cannot trifle with solitude…it requires great energy and attention, but of course without constant grace it would be useless to expect these.” Though loneliness is not entirely the same as solitude, it requires similar attention.

I often tell my students that feelings are some of the only true things in this world. They are often also acknowledgements of closely paid attention. When we feel lonely, and if we feel lonely often, such a feeling might be a testament to the world, and how it has the propensity to cause loneliness, even in crowds, even amidst so much. I’m wondering how to honor that feeling rather than try to fix it. I’m wondering how to dwell within that loneliness and acknowledge it as one way in which my heart is telling me not that I am wrong, but that the world is, and that there might be some better imagining out there, some way in which we can be so much — lonely, lovely, and more — together, rather than so lonely alone.