Lecture on Loneliness | Claire Schwartz | Granta

Lecture on Loneliness

Claire Schwartz

The first woman was not burdened with firsts, only was.
Not yet bound by a name, uncalled for.
Only history makes her lonely, only after makes her first.

Of course this is an origin story –
lonely as any birth.

Loneliness: the distance
between history and what history might have been.

The thread unspools.
The umbilical, severed.

‘Why do your books
clog the doorway to the past?’

A blanket of yellow petals.

The rain: little fists
beating back the dead
who want only to braid your hair.

You built a world against such softness.

You arranged an alphabet against loneliness.

‘I scale your walls. That is my practice.’

In the schools, children line up, chant:

To be                alone, among
To be               without, among
To be               among, without
To be               without, alone

To trade your wonder for knowing, gladly.

To confuse the loss of nothing with the loss of nothing.

You knew. Then you knew more.
You diminished the world with your knowing.

The distance between you and your quiet grows.

A ladder, receding into the sky.


The first woman of your life
stitches her face into your sleep
like your grandmother
stitched coins into the lining of her coat, and ran.

You wake. Run through the woods, jingling.

The sound of your skirt accompanies you.

You forget your sisters.

You make of the hour a horse, ride off.

‘I’ve ridden those horses, your lost hours.’

The children lick honey from the letters.


The righteous man climbs the tree.
On the first branch, he cuts off his hair.
At the top, he discards his body.

A person can be with a word like they can be with a body:

Wash it.
Accompany it.
Be changed by its nearness.

The woman lays all the lavender at your feet.
The browned fields balk.

You scatter flowers along the sidewalks,
paint a mural of a rain forest in a prison.

The years ascend the mirror
like sea level.
A face breaks off like an iceberg.
It is your mother’s.

The years add.
The years subtract.

You are always wrong.

‘Take me with you!’

You populate your memory with her scent and her language.
You remember so little.

You are in bed.
In a room down the hall:
words exchanged in the dark.
Distance sands the words to noise.


The room is the world.

Three daffodils later, and you’ve shed your memory like a skin.

No matter how much you water it, the stone refuses its flowering.

You strike the stone.
It withholds the river.

The letters are lanterns
and lead to no house.

The townspeople emptied their language
and could no longer meet each other there.

‘Was the language empty?
Or was it open?’

The truth lost its coordinates.


A weathered man, dusting snow from the ridge of his year.

The name of an old lover assails him.
No! The light hurts.

He closes her name like a book.

‘If you excise me from your memory,
I will enter your blood.’

Little capillaries, little trees.

Little heart governed by a solitary rain cloud.

The only laws:

Be radiant.
Be heavy.
Be green.

Tonight, the dead light up your mind
like an image of your mind on a scientist’s screen.

‘The scientists don’t know – and too much.’

In the town square, in the heart of night (a delicacy
like the heart of an artichoke), a man dances
cheek-to-cheek with the infinite blue.

Of course, his mother’s death blooms
so much larger in his life
than her life ever did. An endless flowering,
what is gone. Scant still against what will
never be. No language
for the engulfing mouths of the not-become.

After you, no one asks.

Look how you shredded the quiet with your promises.

Look how you lost her, anyway.

Look, now – no quiet to accompany you.

Your words are sisterless.

No, no one asks after you.

‘I am
the one who is asking.’

A finger plumbing the depths of your night.


It rained in your room.
You mistook the ceiling for sky.

The rain allots you just one glass.
It has to last your life.

The rain extinguishes summer.

You behead the flowers.
You forget their names.

To share what you love with one you admire,
and be scorned: fingernails along your
innermost parts.

Every embrace, a rehearsal of separation.

Your mother’s life, halved like a peach,
the stubborn pit exposed to weather.


One morning, in a shop, you meet someone who wears your hair,
who speaks your name like the one who named you.

The bells on the door clink as you leave with your butter.


To be suspended between oneself
like the man who balanced on a wire between mountains
then tumbled toward death like a helicopter seed.

‘A burial is
a seed planted in the wrong season.’

To be the wrong season.
To work all your life in the name of family.

Each labored hour a brick
in the road leading you away.

‘A name is not a leash.
I will be in the field
watching the tulips grow.’

The women come with aprons full of hours.

The world aches, unpassed over by the eyes of the dead.

The dead have no eyes.

Lonely, lonely living.

‘Do all of your antics recover the radiance, and was it worth it?’

Go on, hang the stars from the sky.
This world is a pageant of your making.

The hour of forgetting is a brown hour.

The house of forgetting looks like any other.

The trees are dark and full of language.
The trees speak, but not to you.

First, the year without music.

Then, in a minor key, in a dead language, the woman sang this song:

We were the last people on earth.
We made a world between us.
We spent the earth.
I made my body a cloak and took you in.
In all that you, I lost myself.
I traveled the length of my interior, and there I wasn’t.
My language was a symptom of a history I couldn’t touch.
I petitioned the dead for company.
No one came.
The butterflies fell like autumn leaves.
The shells washed up on the beach, empty as G-d’s ears.
We were the last.
I called this life.

Here, a door.
And like that, we went.



Photograph © uncoolbob


Claire Schwartz

Claire Schwartz is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection Civil Service and the poetry editor of Jewish Currents. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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