BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
When writers talk about writing, they talk about isolation. It’s why Basquiat and Woolf and the Shelleys and Whitman and Holiday all created something with a vicious pursuit—as a means to connect. They needed to—you could say it was somewhere in their marrow or their spirit, or whatever it is you believe to be so deep, it can’t be separated from the human. So, if we’re talking about living with loneliness, what does this actually mean?
Living with loneliness (however trite it sounds) means having an insatiable desire to feel complete through something other than yourself, to live purposefully, to find a sense of meaning. Since humans intrinsically don’t have a sense of purpose, writing brings cohesion and gives purpose to longing. There are obviously many reasons people write—in my case, I’m seized by the urgency of the loneliness and isolation of trauma. Anne Sexton wrote well about loneliness and bravery (or the lack of); in "The Truth the Dead Know," the speaker states:
"It is June. I am tired of being brave."
Having always lived in New York City, or right outside of it, much of this isolation manifests itself in the physical landscape—the sounds of the subway coming to a halt, the graffiti in Bushwick, the taco trucks in Sunset, the bars in Greenwich Village—all circling together in the edge where sanity and madness linger. And we’re all a step away from falling into madness. New York City is a place where artists and writers and mystics come to fulfill this vocation, to connect with others, to make art in private. That duality in itself—connecting with others while creating in a solitary space—mimics trauma in many ways.
After being assaulted in my early twenties, I yearned for "real" human connection, while also yearning to delve into the safeties of solitude. In a place where you can choose to meet strangers every day, there is also the inevitable choice to remain anonymous—isolated from the world. It means you’re living in limbo, always on the cusp of what you long for, sometimes attaining it, but never feeling connected for very long. Or never getting "it" at all. Again, Sexton knows this only too well, stating from "The Truth the Dead Know:"
"My darling, the wind falls in like stones
from the whitehearted water and when we touch
we enter touch entirely. No one’s alone.
Men kill for this, or for as much."
To be thrust into a subway car with hundreds of people everyday makes you vulnerable, like writing a poem. You also have to trust other people to be fully yourself, to feel safe even if that safety is just an illusion. It’s impossible not to imagine yourself as an other—which for me, is what writing is. Isolating ordinary moments, like a subway ride or a dinner, and presenting it without its clothes—as nude. It becomes "otherized"—abstracted. In particular, subways are perfect for eavesdropping conversations that provide the perfect fodder for poems, because they try to express what we feel into symbols that we universally understand.
Writing about trauma, whether it’s physical or emotional, involves having the courage to be yourself with abandon, like riding the subway—every moment is intimate and vulnerable. Subways provide a kind of structure similar to a poetic structure—the starts and stops are like pauses. And then there’s the swaying—the idea of being perpetually in motion is like writing—the writer is always changing to learn more about their landscape and those within it.
For me, right now, I’m preoccupied with "body issues"—both as a sexual assault survivor and woman. We all have obsessions that are caused by our traumas—in my poems, images of mutilation and violence often dreamily reoccur—as a way to explore violence, and to overcome the fear associated with it. As a woman in particular, our bodies are policed by the media, told what to wear and look like, how to behave.
There is a recklessness in trying to reach the other side of fear, of exploring imperfections in the body, whether they were self-inflicted or thrust upon. The New York City landscape is ever changing and contradictory, but never in control of its own large metallic body—it is both monster and victim, witch and innocent—it both destroys and revitalizes those that live here. In "Wanting to Die," Sexton’s love poem to death, she understands this sense of duality, of wanting both a life full of passion and complete destruction:
"To thrust all that life under your tongue!—
that, all by itself, becomes a passion.
Death’s a sad bone; bruised, you’d say,
and yet she waits for me, year after year,
to so delicately undo an old wound,
to empty my breath from its bad prison."
This poem begs us to ask the most important question we’ll ever be able to answer: Who are you and who do you want to be if you stopped being afraid of being alone?
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of Sirs & Madams (Aldrich Press, 2014), The Gods Are Dead (Deadly Chaps Press, 2015) & Marys of the Sea (forthcoming 2016, ELJ Publications). She received her MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She is also the founder of Yes, Poetry, as well as the chief editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, Pouch Mag, The Atlas Review, The Destroyer, and others.