We’ve been studying Sylvia Plath in Year 11 Literature, reading too much into her work, perhaps and trying to avoid linking every poem to the one tragic thing everyone knows about her. The truth is, Sylvia was smart, worked hard, she crafted her poetry carefully, attended creative writing classes. She cared about what was happening in the world around her, she was a mother, she questioned society’s expectations. She wrote poems on good days and she wrote poems on bad days. Her poetry represents all of these things.
I’ll be launching my third collection of poetry in Wellington on Monday. It represents good days and bad days too; tough decisions, optimism and disappointment. It ends just before everything in my life fell astoundingly into place. All my poetry is personal, but in this collection, I feel like I’ve achieved a kind of honesty I’ve avoided all my life.
So, I’ve been nervously wondering if readers will notice.
One of the poems that looks least personal is ‘Building consent’, in the section Shift. I genuinely wrote it because I always had a dream of buying an old house and doing it up, but saw a renovation in progress and decided it looked exhausting, loud and messy. I like the poem. It says what I wanted it to, but as I read through it in the context of this book I realised I’d missed my own metaphor.
The poem represents a shift in my dreams: what once excited me just looked like hard work at that point. I was in the middle of trying to make an unfixable relationship work, a relationship I’d travelled miles to be in. Making it work was my dream, but sometimes you just have to know when to quit.
On one level, the poem’s not a metaphor at all. I looked at the physical labour going into the renovation and had no capacity to embark on such a task myself. I was tired and anxious from my situation. Doing up a house was far from my mind.
On another level, it’s creeping into metaphor – homes represent a kind of stability, a decision couples might make together, a project to establish partnership. My relationship was nowhere near that point of joint purchase and effort.
On yet another level, it’s all metaphor. The house is the relationship. Pure and simple. It was time to give away my desire to fix things that are so obviously a broken mess…
Or am I giving myself too much credit here?
The romantic notion of buying a rundown clapboard villa
pouring heart and soul into doing it up by hand
spending all of your time loving it
back to life – gutting out the back half, sourcing
sustainable surfaces for breakfast bars and just the right shade –
is quickly debunked as I walk past a weathered
rusted bungalow, boards rotted through
shirtless men shouting across the trampled front garden
propped with piles of Bunnings purchases
and a ‘dunnys R us’ in pride of place
sounds of dropped steel and hammered edges
everything shifting slightly in the relentless
heat of yet another day on this damned project
too many chiefs, too many cooks and not one chef in the kitchen
that currently looks like a workshop
sawdust lining surfaces and can’t even make a cuppa
with all this mess
all these people coming and going
traipsing through our idealised disaster.
I saw you. Sunday 4pm, old hood
until then I hadn’t known for sure if you’d stayed on
although sometimes I’d find selfies framed with the familiar
white walls of a kitchen we briefly shared.
I knew what you were doing. Sunday 4pm
rounding the corner with your reusable shopping bag
well-trod path to TT Mart, well-browsed aisles of not-quite-fresh-enough bread
potato chips whether on special or not, the endless search for kale.
Most days we would laugh, dance down those aisles
criticising pop that blared through shop speakers, but falling for it too.
Wasn’t that always your way? The world is awful, you’d say
and move to its beat nonetheless.
Sunday, so perhaps you were headed for apple pie
to stand in front of the freezer door
staring into reflected childhood traumas
explaining away the guilt you felt at wanting dessert.
Deep-dish psychological reasons why
no one in your adult life should deny you your desires.
You could talk yourself into anything
with those qualifications of yours.
I don’t remember bad times at the TT Mart with you
but there were moments when neglecting to go
resulted in empty cupboards. I copped it.
And at least once we walked home in blue-stone silence
your face sinking to the shadowy state
that made my stomach flip and clench, my whole system in a holding pattern
until it could work out what I’d done wrong. Always searching for
that mysterious thing I’d done wrong.
Cobbled silence reached crescendo back in the kitchen
you hurled the filled bag at white walls, settled into that hollow place of yours
while I cleaned up scattered vegetables
smashed mushrooms, broken bottles.
Sunday 4pm and we were driving past your corner
on our way to play tennis. I hadn’t held a racket in years
six of us piled into my boyfriend’s car, a week’s worth of news
bursting to tell them we’re moving in together.
My new friends had heard all about you
so when I pointed to your shape moving along the footpath
they joked unrepeatably.
Jason kept an eye on you from the rear-view mirror
but I knew exactly where you were headed
walking solo with your empty bag.
Last week I spotted my ex in the neighbourhood we used to live in together. I hadn’t seen him in over a year and had at times been curious as to how I would feel if I did. I wrote this poem to show how that simple walk to the supermarket could be a microcosm of an entire confusing, anxiety-provoking and often emotionally abusive relationship. It felt so perfect that I was happily crammed into a car with some of the lovely new people in my life, being driven by a much calmer, kinder man when we saw him. Everything’s symbolic, of course, but it’s also just how things are now: safer and better; far less lonely and much more fun.
In the 80s bikes were
handed down from someone taller
back pedal braking
I rode so slowly I
ended up on the ground
daily lessons in
the way a knee-scab dries, lifts
from the outside edges in.
90s bikes faux mountain bikes
Shimano gears a point of pride
fluorescent touches on the frame
double towbar car rack family weekends
there have always been bikes.
The red one that moved
house to house with each break up
makeshift shelter beneath outside stairs
or leaning against a laundry wall
still so much to learn
about hills and hearts
about maintenance, about holding on.
Red was my favourite
my next bike was blue
after I changed my life
for a love that matched in hue
I fell off into a rosemary bush
smelt amazing, sure
but that feeling of betrayal
again and again
forever loosening the brakes
so a buckled wheel can still turn.
A couple of months ago I was looking up my book, Lonesome When You Go (as you do), and was directed to a Loneliness Quiz. It was the end of a tough year having moved to a new country and struggled to make meaningful connections or feel at home. I scored very highly on the quiz and my results suggested I should be concerned for my well-being. It made me feel even sadder, but prompted me to really examine the issue – what is it that makes me such a solitary creature? Am I okay with it? Will it pass? And why, in this huge city full of writers, musicians, artists and people with similar backgrounds to me have I continued to find connection and friendship so elusive and difficult?
During that tough year I found myself reading about all sorts of things, from Synchronicity to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; books on Mastery, depression, loss, love. Both fiction and non-fiction books seemed to be all about searching for meaning and understanding ourselves and our relationship to others.
Most pertinent of all of these was The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. With the subtitle ‘Adventures in the Art of Being Alone’ and a purple night sky cover (a similar image to my phone’s background: the sky I snapped on my 35th birthday, as it happens), this book was already a favourite.
Laing ruminates poetically on some of my own queries and, in particular, the nature of loneliness through her own experience of living heartbroken in New York in her mid-thirties. She ponders the way society views loneliness and questions the belief that “our whole purpose is as coupled creatures, or that happiness can or should be a permanent possession.” I often hear it said that humans are social creatures, our purpose is to connect with others and thus be fully realised ourselves. The fact that this isn’t always possible can be troubling, but I found comfort in Laing’s acceptance of this state and discussion on how it can serve a purpose of its own. She asks “What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being?”
Quoting Virginia Woolf, Laing writes, “Woolf described an inner loneliness that she thought might be illuminating to analyse, adding: ‘If I could catch the feeling, I would: the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world.’” Suggesting that there’s more to this feeling than a lack of something. It can perhaps be used to enhance our experience of reality.
Through her solo exploration of New York City, Laing focuses on the artists who have walked and documented the same streets. Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz all feature heavily and are connected through their shared experience of difficult childhoods, being outsiders and making art that examines loneliness felt amid a crowded city. The link between art and loneliness is strong and Laing’s fascination turns it into an art form itself.
Sometimes a book comes along that makes you feel better about being the you you are. Just as Susan Cain’s Quiet cemented my understanding of my own introversion some years ago, The Lonely City made me feel remarkably less alone; less worried about a state that, whether or not it’s fundamental to my very personality, will come and go and always lead to something creative or examinable. I’ve definitely been working on it, but see it now as less a failure to experience and more an experience all of its own.
(I just did the quiz again and have gone down from extreme loneliness, to moderate loneliness. I’ll be okay.)
We feel strong and independent, in control because we earn our own money, make decisions for ourselves, take charge, have friendships, maintain good relationships with our families, make time for the things that nourish us, but until we stop indulging and forgiving the following behaviour from men I don’t see how the patriarchy will ever be smashed:
- The ex who takes liberties with your child’s custody arrangements
- The younger brother who decides not to pay you rent because you earn more than he does
- The friend who calls himself a feminist, insists on mutual respect, but also flirts with other women behind his partner’s back, sometimes sleeps with them
- The friend who doesn’t believe in feminism
- The man who broke your heart, but you stay friends with because that’s what he wanted
- The guy who messages you daily, trying to form a connection even though he’s in a relationship with someone else
- The guy you keep responding to out of politeness
- The father who never visits, but expects you to want to visit him
- The partner you tip-toe around because his reaction to your feelings will be worse than your feelings.
I haven’t always done the right thing in some of these situations and I can see how damaging that is for all women and it sends completely the wrong message to the men involved. So smash with me!
- Hire a lawyer and lay down the law on that ex
- Insist on a fair contribution, since the younger brother enjoys many other benefits from a society geared towards men
- Call the friend out on his behaviour
- Never accept misogyny
- Cut contact if your heart is still hurting or set your own terms for a friendship
- Tell him to stop, he has no right and it’s not fair on the other woman
- Stop. You don’t owe anyone “politeness”
- Ask him to make the effort this time
- Make it clear to him that your feelings are valid and if he can’t hear and hold them, he can’t be with you.
It’s easy to listen to the excuses and apologies and slip back into our well-trained ways of putting up with things we’re not comfortable with to keep the peace, but women keeping the peace while men do whatever they want is exactly what needs to change.