Poetry Centre

Adrienne Rich, Song

  • Introduced by Liz Robertson, Careers Consultant, Careers Service, Oxford Brookes University


    You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
    OK then, yes, I’m lonely
    as a plane rides lonely and level
    on its radio beam, aiming
    across the Rockies
    for the blue-strung aisles
    of an airfield on the ocean.

    You want to ask, am I lonely?
    Well, of course, lonely
    as a woman driving across country
    day after day, leaving behind
    mile after mile
    little towns she might have stopped
    and lived and died in, lonely

    If I’m lonely
    it must be the loneliness
    of waking first, of breathing
    dawn’s first cold breath on the city
    of being the one awake
    in a house wrapped in sleep

    If I’m lonely
    it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
    in the last red light of the year
    that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
    ice nor mud nor winter light
    but wood, with a gift for burning.

    Adrienne Rich

    I cannot recall where I first heard this poem, but I do remember asking a well-read friend if he knew of a poem which mentioned a wooden boat on a shoreline and the phrase ‘a gift for burning’. He walked across to his bookshelves and pulled out a collection of poems by Adrienne Rich, flicking straight to the poem ‘Song’.

    I love the positive slant she gives a part of the human condition which is often seen as a negative. I feel that her loneliness is all about possibility and being comfortable with the state of being alone. I travelled a lot in my late teens and early twenties around a number of different countries, much of it on my own. I would join up with new people in stopping places, be part of their lives for a while, then move on. Some of those I met are still part of my life now, others are not.

    People asked at times whether I got lonely when I went off travelling by myself. A few questioned why I would put myself in that situation, since it seemed that they felt it was to be avoided. Travelling alone allows you to be yourself and can also include the opportunity of being someone other than the ‘self’ others (friends, family, colleagues) may expect you to be. Every now and again it provides those magical moments that are entirely yours, whether that is being immersed in a natural landscape or in the quiet of early morning; the presence of another can sometimes 'clutter' those experiences. This poem makes me think fondly of my travels which are now decades in the past and prompts the recall of an eclectic jumble of memories.

    This poem is reproduced by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.