A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of talking about playwright Sarah Kane’s work as part of the brilliant ‘Dead Women Poets’ series in Sheffield. I discussed the poetry inherent in her writing, how Kane wanted to be a poet originally before deciding it wasn’t the right medium for some of her thoughts and feelings. In 1998, she wrote that she was attracted to the stage because:
“…theatre has no memory, which makes it the most existential of the arts… I keep coming back in the hope that someone in a darkened room somewhere will show me an image that burns itself into my mind”.
As part of ‘Dead Women Poets’, I was also invited to read some new work. After attempting a monologue from Crave (the runaway, obsessive passage that begins: “And I want to play hide-and-seek and give you my clothes and tell you I like your shoes and sit on the steps while you take a bath and massage your neck and kiss your feet and hold your hand and go for a meal and not mind when you eat my food and meet you at Rudy’s and talk about the day and type up your letters and carry your boxes and laugh at your paranoia…”) I was nervous about what to share. I made a rule for myself – I would only read poems of my own that had been composed in a state of extreme anxiety. I ended up performing a piece called ‘The Script’ which riffs on the idea that ‘happiness writes white’, imagining what colour loneliness would write in if it could. I remember scribbling it down in a pub in Leeds earlier this year as a stay against confusion, a stay against fear.
This week, I’ve been absorbed by Melissa Lee Houghton’s astonishing, tender and bleak Penned in the Margins collection Sunshine, which opens with an epigraph from Kane herself, drawn from 4.48 Psychosis:
“I thought I should never speak again but now I know there is something blacker than desire.”
Sunshine is a beautiful, brutal book. The writing in it is unflinching, each poem taking the reader a bit further than they thought they were going when they began. But it is also wry, funny and self-aware. There are so many poems in it I admired, from ‘I Am Very Precious’ (shortlisted for this year’s Forward Prize) to the dazzling title poem (“mother / hold out your hand / and pray for mine”) but the piece I keep coming back to the most is a prose poem called ‘Loneliness’.
The narrator in ‘Loneliness’ is talking about their partner and the poem bristles with acutely-observed detail, from the way he tastes ( “When he’s thirsty, I know by the smell of his breath…”) to the way he looks and gestures (“His / slender legs straight up and down, how I have more hair / than he does on his arms…”). It’s a brilliant, appropriately complicated love poem which circles around how alone it is possible to feel with someone else (“If it was as easy as to say I love him, that / would be my choice of words, but it is not that easy now that I’m sad, and / exhaling sadness into our room at night…”). The ending haunts long after the poem is over:
…For now, God it feels terrifying to touch him. Our noses rub, our lips
meet, we always kiss lightly, don’t open our mouths, our love never
sleeps. In the morning our son wakes us and he forgets what it’s like
to be alone. But I don’t – my love – I don’t.
I remember taking my poem ‘The Script’ (which you can read below if you want to) to a workshop not long after I wrote it, jittery and agitated. Amongst the feedback I received, one writer commented that he wasn’t sure the poem could be a convincing portrait of loneliness because it was too confident, too seemingly-articulate. I didn’t disagree, but I was initially puzzled by the end of the comment, because the idea that apparent confidence and loneliness should be incompatible was strange to me. Sometimes, loneliness speaks very loudly, speaks with precision. ‘Crave’ is a play that illustrates that with startling clarity, through competing voices.
Happiness writes in white on a white page
– Henry de Montherlant
Loneliness writes in expensive blue.
Loneliness writes hastily at midnight and presses send
and takes it all back in the morning. It uses
a fountain pen that it will never own.
Loneliness goes to a bar where it once drank
and scribbles this on the back of a beer mat.
It writes how the trees write under Stanage
with their shadows, tangled and undone.
Loneliness writes short stories where strangers
meet and fuck in cheap hotels. It speaks with the voice
of the man begging by The Rosebowl –
I’m not drunk and my dog isn’t drunk either.
Loneliness is a child taking the register
when the teacher is away. Loneliness writes
your secrets carefully and folds them up
and slips them in the minutes for the next meeting.
Loneliness sends you a text with four kisses
and deletes it straight away. It writes
the night is a cup and you cannot fill it.
Loneliness inks your body with a needle
and when it’s finished, says
isn’t this what you asked for?
Loneliness has a pen name and it is your name
backwards, on windowpanes in the town
where you grew up. It keeps a diary
but you aren’t allowed to read it. Loneliness
runs out of stamina before the good part.
It writes the end of the novel before it writes the start.
Loneliness gives you the script –
you take it and you read it. You’re reading it now.