No Loneliness is a hauntingly lyrical (with apologies for the, nevertheless accurate, cliché) first collection by the American poet Temple Cone and winner of the 2009 FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize.
I confess I was almost put off by the back-cover blurb which seemed to liken Cone to every writer under the sun including Thomas Hardy, Dickens, Rilke, Horace and James Wright, whom Cone name checks himself. That’s quite a list to live up to and could make for some pretty indigestible poetry, but I am pleased to say that Cone is true to his own single voice and No Loneliness is a cohesive collection embedded within the natural world of the American wilderness tradition.
Cone uses the environment around him to meditate upon life: birth, death, the father-child relationship, the promise of the soul and the human legacy of words. His work is noticeably shaped by the birth of his daughter, his Christian faith and his fascination with nature; for example in the title poem “No Loneliness”, in which he has a vision of his daughter “years from being born”, the poet is
“. . . snowshoeing five miles into a yellow birch wood
in the Ottawa National Forest,
walking on water. . .”
The book is permeated by the concepts of mercy and grace, but if this means that there is an underlying theme of hope, (these are, after all, poems written by a man who expressly believes that “someone cares”) there is plenty of shadow to counterbalance the sunshine. To experience the positive you have to “reach through” the pain, as in “The Dream of Meanings”,
“grasp what was hidden, never mind the cuts, they are part of the whole,
hardship joined to peace, suffering wed to joy,”
This is a motif that appears time and again, most explicitly in “In Passing” where,
“. . . the proof of happiness is that it’s brief.
We mix cakes with salt, listen to sad songs,
squeeze a bit of lemon into our tea,
for no tongue can savor sweetness too long.”
It is not surprising, therefore, that although the book is a meditation upon life, it is haunted by the presence of death, both in the eventuality of personal death and the death of loved ones,
“That tick at your wrist?
and in the death of wild things, more often than not delivered by the hands of man. Cone’s poetry is at its most visceral, striking for such a meditative poet, when he is contemplating the indiscriminate death of an animal: the calf he kills in “Calf-Bearer”,
“. . .I gripped above the hoofs,
waiting for the tendons to tense, flinch, buck, kick,
but no struggle came.”
or the death he observes in “Witness”,
“I have seen an arrow pass through the heart/ of a deer, and the deer, with a flinch,/ continue nosing the moss”
or the car struck deer in “Killings”,
“. . .his long legs reaching forward in the snow:
catch, pull, an endless imitation
of motions he’d never use again:”
The natural world is a place of blood and pain as well as grace and salvation and that is reflected in our words, which can come “like a lover’s kiss” or “the knife we use to gut the trout,/separating white flesh from dark entrails”.
Cone’s vision is one of sunshine and shadow and if, at times, he embraces the rawness of nature in his writing it is in the belief that,
“. . .we labor at grief,
drawing constellations from chaos,
and when we pause, gracious
starlight comes unbidden”