I woke up on New Years alone, just like I had gone to bed, alone at 10pm, waking briefly to watch Berlin explode into fireworks at midnight. I padded into the kitchen, filled a pot with water to make tea, and made a quick wish for email, for something to be left behind after the several minutes spent deleting spam. Ah, something. A link to the New York Times website, a subject line of “Sad”. I clicked as I fiddled with my container of tea leaves, and saw an obituary notice for Rachel Wetzsteon. Suicide suspected. “That name, I know that name,” I mumbled. The obituary continued, folding in her poem “Sakura Park.”
some rules of conduct: refuse to choose
between turning pages and turning heads
though the stubborn dine alone. Get over
“getting over”: dark clouds don’t fade
but drift with ever deeper colors.
Give up on rooted happiness
(the stolid trees on fire!) and sweet reprieve
(a poor park but my own) will follow.
I knew her work, a little. A few poems in the Paris Review, some elsewhere. And I think the poems were too true, steely odes to single women making a lonely go at living in cities, and so I left them where they were. Maybe one day, when I’m on solid ground, when I am completely surrounded by love at all times, I will feel strong enough to examine that thin line between solitude and loneliness, and how it disappears at 3am, or during firework displays, or when filling the blank that follows “Emergency Contact Name:”. It felt slightly ghoulish later, prowling online vendors for her works. I wasn’t the only one. The price of her out-of-print books jumped from $7 to $70 in a few days. As if we were trying to keep her company in the afterlife, like some sort of Egyptian rite, by keeping her name on our lips.
I only know that sometimes when the flames are cool enough to walk through
I will risk the shame of being found out by my keeper
and the worse shame of never being noticed.
They study loneliness now, with charts and graphs and statistical analyses. In the 1950s, Harry Harlow isolated baby monkeys and discovered that without contact with others they self-harm and grow sickly and weak. Deborah Blum’s Love at Goon Park recounts the experiments and the ideas they disproved — B.F. Skinner’s theories about childrearing, the notion that isolation somehow created self-sufficiency or that even children should be neither coddled nor kissed so that they can grow up to stride into the world confidently and independently. Writers and poets have been studying loneliness forever, experimenting only on themselves and leaving the monkeys out of it. Loneliness in fiction appears to be the territory of women. Male loneliness takes the form of a song sung in a craggy voice, but female loneliness is a Jamesian heroine, staring out a window filled with yearning. I imagine writers responded to these startling scientific revelations about the corrosive qualities of loneliness by lifting their collective head and answering back, “Duh.” Or, “Dear scientists, have you read any Henry James?” (A writer once justified never having read James by telling me, “I don’t think he knows about people. He died a virgin. Don’t you think sex is something a writer should know about?” I shrugged. “Who better than a lifelong virgin to understand longing?”)
Rachel Waring from Stephen Benatar’s Wish Her Safe at Home, and the title character from Lore Segal’s slightly surreal novella, Lucinella, know intimately the shame of never being noticed. (These books, too, were written decades ago, but recently rescued from the out-of-print purgatory by thoughtful publishers.) When the books open, each woman has set her sights on a goal and pours herself into achieving it. In each case, it is a desperate last attempt, not only to find happiness but to find something to sustain life. The middle-aged and virginal Rachel imagines a world like one of the musicals she loves so much, where the woman you had counted out finds her true love and the picture ends as the lovers embrace and the orchestra swells. Lucinella envisions a world of poetry. Her poems will be respected, she will find a community of like-minded intellectuals and they will respect what she has to say, and she will be invited to all of the right parties. The books open with glimmers of hope: Rachel inherits a house in Bristol and uses it to escape her dreary life in London, and Lucinella is accepted into Yaddo and the male poets there want to get into her pants.
Lucinella is writing a poem about buckets that lonely people carry with them from party to party “to collect the odds and ends of love — attention, flattery, a proposition or two, a little rape.” Only the bucket has no bottom. “Say someone wants to marry you. In the act of putting him into the bucket, he’s already fallen out the other end.” Likewise, nothing seems to feed Rachel. The most alarming revelation in Harlow’s experiments was finding out that a creature who has become too accustomed to being alone cannot cope at being reintroduced into society. He or she will lash out at others. Bitterness sets in. Rachel sabotages herself again and again, rejecting others before they reject her so that she can maintain the self-delusion of being superior. Flinging yourself around desperately, you’re likely to miss the subtle cues of welcome, not to mention set the flock to scatter.
But how else to function when you’re out there on your own? One rejection seems to be a total rejection. One error or setback is utter failure. The world folds in on itself, and the possibilities narrow to two. Either this works, and all will be well, or it fails and I might as well step in front of a train because that is it. Neither woman has a steady platform to stand on. Rachel has abandoned her only friend back in London, but can’t bear to see her as she is the only person who sees through the fantasy. Lucinella runs into a younger version of herself at a party and assures her awkward new aquaintance that in ten years, she will have loved a man, figured out what to do with her hair, and published a poem. The younger Lucinella wails. “The decade… feels to her like a drafty waiting room without a clock, when you’re not sure the trains are running.” Rachel, I’m sure, would have killed for such a reassurance from an older self. She tells herself these are the years she will someday look back fondly on, yet, disappointed too many times, she gives up and instead retreats into a world she can control — her imagination — and decides not to come out again.
Deborah Blum wrote, “How much can we actually bear? Everyone can take some loss and some loneliness, but there seems to be a point, different for each, when the burden becomes too much.” Rachel reaches her breaking point quite early on in the novel, although I didn’t see it on my first read-through. The chemist she had set her hopes on reveals he is married, and “it was like being sealed in a glass cylinder at the bottom of the sea.” She gives up on flesh and blood men to become fixated on a man in a painting. Her fantasy world bleeds out into daily life, and imagination becomes hallucination.
Neither woman is able to find the thing that saves them. Despite Lucinella’s life being an endless series of parties and panels, there is always a party she’s not invited to, always a poet who does not want to get into her pants. She catches a glimpse of her future self at one point, and she is horrified to discover she is alone, going to the same parties, and considered a minor talent. She rejects the projection and collapses into her relationship with a man she neither likes nor respects. Lucinella and Rachel do not come to good ends. It’s not the the spinster nightmare of dropping dead, your body discovered only because of the smell, not because anyone missed you. Yet somehow it’s sadder, this willful retreat, this rejection of potential futures. It’s too easy, to live out your life in your head. Indeed, the real optimism comes from the scientific experiments. Harry Harlow was able to rehabilitate his monkeys with compassion and patience. It’s a tenderness that we would wish for Rachel and Lucinella, and lonely poets everywhere.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Bookslut.com.