Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about alone-ness, lonesomeness, and loneliness. I see all of these states as having different relationships to nature and the wilderness, and I’ve been drawn to poems that examine this relationship, especially the works of Gary Snyder and Li Heng.
In Snyder’s “At Five AM off the North Coast of Sumatra,” our speaker, “sleeping on a cot on the / boatdeck,” wakes to an alarm bell. It seems the ship he’s inhabited is headed straight for a landmass, “where we never thought island would be.” The poem works in first person singular until this moment: the shared misunderstanding. Obviously, on a cargo ship of the size implied here, there must be several humans, but we don’t see anyone else wake but our speaker. Only the “I” goes back to his cot in the end, as “the ship found its course and climbed back to full speed / and went on.”
This poem is intriguing in so many ways. First, that lack of people. We have a speaker as observer: he wakes, he shares what he experiences, and the poem ends without any human interaction, which is so interesting because this is a poem of perception. Tension is created between the land and sea, wakefulness and sleep, known and unknown. Despite all the specific information we have to begin (the title places us directly in a place and time), there are limitations to such information, and to human knowledge. Nature, it seems, has an endless capacity to surprise. In the night, our speaker neglected to consider himself in the wilderness and so it must assert itself, maintaining its authority as archetypal power, teacher, and challenge.
I’m drawn to the way this poem frames its experience because it simultaneously participates in the tradition of writing meditative situational poems of experience while shunning the idea that one must “go into nature” to do so. Our speaker is confronted by the natural world—nature, wilderness—in one of its largest forms (land and sea), and despite being surrounded by people, he experiences it alone.
I’ve spent a lot of time there this fall, focused on my own experience without really identifying with the people around me. I’ve been questioning this state—is it loneliness? Lonesomeness? Or maybe just aloneness? I’m starting to think the distinction between these states has to do with receptivity of the environment: does one enter it with expectations?
Li Heng’s poem “Autumn in an Almost-No-Town” feels related to Snyder’s poem above in more than a few ways. It too sets up a situation in the title—time and place—though Heng’s title is incredibly ambiguous. What or where is an “almost-no-town?” This poem is furious in its refusal to be both precise and elusive at once. We begin: “There are eleven shapes of autumn / moving in the wind from south to north / exchanging forty names” (58). Implausible, yet it feels like a bare truth. Such language sets up a speaker who seems so adept at understanding the world around them in such fine detail that it’s near impossible to convey in words. We’re shown specific species of trees and clouds that hang and descend, wanting “to return somewhere.” Where is “somewhere” in relation to “Almost-No-Town?” a reader may ask. I counter: does it matter?
Our speaker here too is alone; a witness. They must be in a position to watch the pedestrians walking slowly, but we readers are given no indication that our speaker walks among them (though they probably do). I read a profound loneliness in the final line: “forever hungry, forever looking upward.” Our speaker positions this line so that it is the pedestrians being described, but of course it’s our speaker, too, who is bearing witness and working so hard to render this autumn scene in the most vague, specific detail—it’s almost as if focusing on the unsayable of the environment around them allows them to not look inward.
In both poems, there is an awareness of scope: humanness and nature in relativity to the planet human can offer or participate in is nothing against the mountains eroding into hills or civilizations blossoming?
Or is it just aloneness? Sometimes it’s wonderful to stare into the void and consider how meaningless one life is against the history of our planet. Sometimes, it’s unbearable. It always feels so sudden and new and important, doesn’t it, the shift when the ocean suddenly appears on the horizon, or when the first gust of autumn arrives? The realization that this world that’s spun on without us for thousands of years and probably will do so long, long after we’re gone?
Li Heng’s “Autumn in an Almost-No-Town” was published in Republic of Apples, Democracy of Oranges: New Eco-poetry from China and the U.S. (2019)
Gary Snyder’s “At Five AM Off the Coast of Sumatra” was published in Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems (1958; 50th anniversary edition 2009)
Stacey Balkun is the author of Eppur Si Muove, Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak & Lost City Museum. Winner of the 2017 Women's National Book Association Poetry Prize, her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Crab Orchard Review, The Rumpus, and other anthologies & journals. Chapbook Series Editor for Sundress Publications, Stacey holds an MFA from Fresno State and teaches poetry online at The Poetry Barn & The Loft. Find her online at http://www.staceybalkun.com/