In these days of self-isolation and sheltering in place, the word “isolation” itself has been charged in meaningful new ways. And while the charging and refreshing of language with new meaning has been one of the enterprises of poetry from the start, when life takes on this work for us in a way that startles and discomforts, it is ultimately poetry that is able to show us that what feels new is often familiar enough.
I’m brought to these thoughts by this week’s poem “In the Hush” by Susan Woods Morse (below) which in its own way explores isolation as both verb and noun. The speaker begins by sharing that she is “contemplating the meaning of “now”.” By doing so, she is, in fact, isolating the present moment as something to be known further. Yet, despite this focus, the speaker admits to being unable commit to the endeavor, at least not when compared to, first, a cat, and later a bird in the second stanza. This inability to get at the meaning of “now” moves us into the noun sense of the word isolation. Even with the second stanza ending as it does with admiring confidence toward a swallow, the image of something making itself distant from the speaker implies the second sense of isolation.
There’s then another compelling turn of isolation and self-awareness in the following stanzas. First, a casual walk to a bar with a partner is described. While the speaker shares that they “[tell] ourselves we want the exercise,” she goes onto confide that “but I think it is also because the phone rarely rings.” This quick admission implies an isolation felt similar to that of the first two stanzas. This poignant, passing insight is echoed in the closing stanza’s final image of a field whose “false luminescence…plays tricks” on the speaker by bringing up memories while in the present moment “in that field a cow chews its cud, indifferent / to the consuming interests of the heart.”
This closing confluence of memory and image drives home the tension of the poem. While the speaker has been making efforts to isolate the present, the same effort reflects back a sense of isolation. This isolation is simultaneously rich in the details and insights offered but also reflects the cold of “indifferent” nuances. In this way, the speaker, as much as the poem on the page, makes her way to seeing “the consuming interests of the heart” clearer.
Susan Woods Morse
In the Hush
I sit on our deck, hands clasped behind my head,
contemplating the meaning of “now.”
I want to loll like our cat and bask in the heat
with his easy ennui,
only mine would be determined detachment,
not the same thing at all.
Instead, like him, I listen to the birds.
We both watch a swallow beat, then rest,
beat, then rest its wings against the paleness of sky.
And I think that is how to do it,
that is how to climb
a long tunnel of hollow air.
Tonight you and I will walk to the neighborhood bar,
telling ourselves we want the exercise,
but I think it is also because the phone rarely rings.
We will each drink one beer to tide us over
for the quiet walk home. We are just
occasional visitors there, unknown.
And for a long time after your snoring has begun
I will gaze through the dormer window
knowing that somewhere in a field
which has a certain false luminescence,
the green that plays tricks when I remember
being young and in the moonlight,
in that field a cow chews its cud, indifferent
to the consuming interests of the heart.
Susan Woods Morse’s chapbook In the Hush can be purchased from Finishing Line Press.