Lonely: IV. Strangeness Made Sense
In Belfast, the poet Philip Larkin claims to have found a comfort that eluded him in his native England. It was, he suggests in “The Importance of Elsewhere,” the very otherness of the place that set him at ease, the otherness of the place or his otherness to it.
Lonely in Ireland, since it was not home,
Strangeness made sense. The salt rebuff of speech
Insisting so on difference, made me welcome:
Once that was recognized, we were in touch
The lyricism of these lines is more thematic than formal. Holding the speaker at a distance, the ends of the first two all but rhyme in their refusal of proximity. “Not home” and “salt rebuff” cast sideways glances at Larkin, stamping his passport without granting him residence. This dynamic is not undone in the second half of the stanza, but advanced to the point of inversion. “Made me welcome” and “we were in touch” mirror their antecedents, and in mirroring reverse them. It is precisely because he is a stranger in a strange land that he can make sense of strangeness. Loneliness, Larkin suggests, prescribes its own antidote.
I was not lonely during my own trip to Ireland, but I saw myself in the loneliness of its landscapes, most of all on Inis Mór. A little over seven miles long and two miles wide at its broadest, Inis Mór sits just off the Galway coast. Geologically, its terrain is an extension of The Burren, a desolate and rocky region that covers parts of Western Ireland. Tourists swarm the island during the day, crowding its narrow roads with rented bicycles. At night, after the visitors return to the mainland, the emptiness of the palce asserts itself. You are reminded that small as it is its population is smaller still.
Its population is small, yes, but not new. Climb the slow and steep hills at the center of the island and you’ll find yourself on a strip of rolling cliffs that stand three hundred feet above the ocean. With my legs dangling over the lip of one in a gesture of forced ease, I could feel my shoulders tightening. Perched over the Atlantic, I was acutely aware of how small I am, how fragile. You know the feeling: We do not want to jump when we stand on the edge of the world, but we worry that we might. Confronted with something infinitely larger than ourselves, we fear we are no longer our own masters. In the way waves collide with the sheer rock, in the pillars of spume that shoot up, we see a causal system that exceed us in every way. How can I control my own limbs when the world moves so powerfully around me?
Was it this sentiment that led the first residents of Inis Mór to begin Dún Aonghasa some three thousand years ago? Stone Age in the most literal sense, Dún Aonghasa is a fort built almost exclusively of large black rocks piled atop one another to form massive concentric circles. In places, the walls are supported by buttresses of more recent vintage. Elsewhere, pale concrete blocks fill gaps in the rampart. Nevertheless, Dún Aonghasa remains improbably primeval, a suppurating wound in time that leaks pure history.
This much-studied monument guards its secrets as assiduously as it once did its ancient architects. Why did they place it atop this bluff? Why do its outer walls gape open where they meet the edge? Facing away from Ireland and the continent beyond, Dún Aonghasa looks out on endless ocean, a watchtower against unimaginable threats from nowhere. Standing inside, I imagined its builders raised these walls not to keep others out but to hold themselves in. Standing inside, they faced the enormity of the ocean and steeled themselves against it.
Dún Aonghasa is a lonely place, lonely in the way we always are when we attempt to master our world. As soon as we seek to buffer ourselves against forces we cannot control, we shut out everything beyond our walls, and thereby stand alone. We lose the possibility of contact and love by the very gesture that allows us to restrain risk. Accordingly, one last reason cancer makes us lonely: A seed sprouts in us, a seed we never planted. Angry, we strive to ensure nothing will grow again, so we salt the earth. We should not fault ourselves for this inward turning aggression. Finding no responsibility within for the disease that wrongs us, we feel cancer has stolen our power. In struggling for control, we merely attempt to reclaim it. And in struggling for control we make ourselves lonely.
But loneliness, we know, prescribes its own antidote. Ireland appealed to Larkin in part because he needed make no excuses for his lack of self-control there. In 1955, he left Bristol for good to take a job in Hull, a move that might have prompted the lament that closes “The Importance of Elsewhere”:
These are my customs and establishments
It would be more serious to refuse.
Here no elsewhere underwrites my existence.
Home again in England, Larkin finds himself castigated for behaviors that were dismissed in Ireland. On one reading, what he ultimately celebrates in the poem is not elsewhere as such, but the pleasures of irresponsibility. Ireland allows him to delight in not being held accountable for his every action. In the libraries and living rooms of Bristol he languished in his lack of control – over himself as over his world.
Was Larkin responsible for the esophageal cancer that took his life in 1985? If he wasn’t, was he any less a poet? Cancer makes us lonely because with it we are no longer at home in ourselves. In our loneliness, the world becomes strange, but in strangeness there may be a certain sense. I think of a shattered stone wall that I saw on the coast of Inis Mór. Battered by the sea, it can neither contain nor restrain. And yet it stands.
(With gratitude to Nigel Alderman)
-June 28th-July 7th, 2014, Washington, DC and Ilion, NY