• Máighréad Medbh

Is existence enough, as Auden asserted in his poem, ‘The Riddle’? How much and what kind of companionship does one need? Some of us think we need lots, but are somehow unable to get enough, or any that satisfies.

In a series of 303 internal dialogues and pensées, this work explores the state of being alone—its pain, its absences and presences. There are three voices: One; The Other; and I. One is the voice of instinct. It is fearful and only hears itself. The Other is the voice of the larger world in the form of quotations—from scientists, poets, fiction authors, artists, philosophers, psychologists, mystics, loners. The third voice, I, is the rational portion of the self, and the only voice that also listens.

There are three parts, each beginning with a poem which provides phrases to entitle the sub-sections. Part 1 introduces and explores the question of how to live with the pain of exclusion. Part 2 places the voice of The Other first, to emphasise that we exist in a context. This Part looks at the possibility of relationship for someone with a tendency to destroy it. In Part 3, the voice of I rises up to absorb both One and The Other in a spontaneous, uneasy synthesis.

The avatar of the three voices has certain personality traits that militate against a state of intimate bliss so the question is as much one of self-acceptance as that of solitude. When I started to write, it seemed important to delve into the experience in a dramatic, contextualised way. My preferred approach in poetry has always been organic, the value of the practice being ex opera operato, effective by the thing done, as in ritual. So the writing had to be lived in, and in some way symbolic. It’s no accident that each section has 101 aphorisms, totalling 303. All discussions of the nature of self involve a numerical context and the immanence of void.

There is more to be written, and the subject is topical because of this new worldwide virtual body to which we are all contributory cells, but the question of self-experience and self-containment is as old as society. Who was being represented on the cave walls: I, the lone One, or the Other?


from Part 1: If One is to Live


shed by the gregarious sea



2: bird


A flock of birds traverses the silent sky. Today, it is the only

event that has made impact. For a moment One

knows what it is to be borne on the wind, unasking.

The Other

‘Only that day dawns to which we are awake.’

—Henry David Thoreau: Walden


Birds fly without thought. I, being human, must think.

Alone, I carry thought as a burden. If I were to

empty my mind, would I be bird, and is that bliss?



3. soundless


All sounds are swept into silence, from the rustling of

trees to the garrulous torrent of human media. As if One

were surrounded by a field that shocks them into small,

sub-aural flakes. There is chattering in here, One’s own,

but that has no sound either, just tireless insistence, like

the ineffable sea.


The Other

‘There is always something to see, something to hear. In

fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot ... Until I

die there will be sounds. And they will continue

following my death. One need not fear about the future

of music.’

—John Cage: Silence



Everything vibrates, and vibration is sound. Be honest.

It’s not sound you lack but human speech, and that with

meaning, directed towards you.



4. pathless



The limpid silence is a land without carp, censure or

discernible danger. Neither crop nor creature inhabits;

there is no haven or prison. The terrain is pathless. One

looks to the sky, waiting for the pole star to rise, but it is

not that world.


The Other

‘A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the

self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates

itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in

the relation; the self is not the relation but is the

relation’s relating to itself. A human being is a synthesis

of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the

eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A

synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this

way, a human being is still not a self.’

—Søren Kierkegaard: The Sickness unto Death



We are fired up by relevance, created by context. A single

point in a dark universe might as well not exist. Even two

points are without context. Create a triangle and we

have pattern, the force that drives our minds. In the

brain, the map is the same as the territory. I must begin

to draw.



5. microcosm



Acutely aware of constituent parts. Stomach chews,

fingers tighten, anus twitches. Tongue snakes around

teeth, testing each imperfection. Obsessed with each

potentially noxious smell. Examining the hands, poking

the nose, listening to each ache and rumble as if they

were phone calls. It is an engaging world in here.


The Other

‘Retire into your own little territory. That’s not only

allowed, it’s necessary.’

—Marcus Aurelius: Meditations



Obsession with the body is common among loners. Fear

of contamination is primal, and the behaviour of those

who are alone is redolent of this. The body is a child

whom I must manage, and by whom I am

constantly worried.




from Part 2: The Dangerous World


the dark load



102. instress


The Other

‘My mother groaned, my father wept,

Into the dangerous world I leapt;

Helpless, naked, piping loud,

Like a fiend hid in a cloud.’

—William Blake: Infant Sorrow



The first birth-light burning still stresses the eyes. May

they never become accustomed to the light, so that it is

always a shock, reminder of borders and what is wild.



Conflict is a creative force. Birth in itself is conflict, one

organism expelling another. One’s light is stolen from the darkness.

Live the contradiction.



104. contained


The Other

‘The incompatibility of civilization and individual

happiness is at once a banality and an over-statement.

Everyone knows that in order to enjoy the benefits of

living in civilized groups we must all sacrifice, to some

degree, the satisfaction of personal interests and

passions. Not only that: civilization – to utter another

commonplace – actually helps to create the conditions

for happiness.’

—Leo Barsani: Introduction to Civilization and its Discontents



There was a time when there was just One. Moods,

vagueness and illuminations flowed unchecked,

sanctioned by the fact of their existence. That was the

neo-natal state, but freedom, it seems, was not to last.

Now there is a constant sense of being contained, even




One can’t be fully human without involvement in society.

Uninvolved, one walks the no-man’s land between

becoming and loss. Nothing with form is born to

freedom. All living things are subject to the rules of their

species. The rules of ours may read for your ‘freedom’:

‘insanity’, ‘ostracism’, ‘poverty’ or ‘ignorance’. Nature is




105. synthetic passions


The Other

‘We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite

every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest

pitch of artificial tension, to strain every human desire to

the limit and to create as many new desires and

synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them

with the products of our factories and printing presses

and movie studios and all the rest.’

—Thomas Merton: The Seven Storey Mountain



As a lone child, One felt nothing such as they call

happiness or unhappiness. There were phenomena like

grass, attractive objects, strong-smelling animals,

midsummer blue—and a face that lived in them.



The search for the essential self in a society of constructed selves has echoes of
Sartre’s distinction between the being which is en soi (in itself) and that which
is pour soi (for itself). The en soi is unselfconscious, the pour soi reflexive.
Very few people have never wished for the reflexive faculty to be stilled, just
for a moment.



106. complex green


The Other

‘I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion

in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a

humble-bee. I am no more lonely than the Mill Brook, or

a weathercock, or the north star, or the south wind, or an

April shower, or a January thaw, or the first spider in a

new house.’

—Henry David Thoreau: Walden



The silence, the simple green has never been enough,

though it has followed One everywhere as if spun from

the body. When people say, ‘Look, the light, isn’t it

lovely? Look, isn’t it a beautiful evening?’ One wants to

break something. A life of ambient stillness does not

seem to still the inners.



Whether we wear the ring or not, we are wedded to

green. Who hears us out in space? What do our clangings

and argument mean out there? What space is to us, we

are to green. If we were to explore the components of the

evening, enter the apparent stillness and study its

particles, we would find that there is argument




107. selfsound


The Other

‘But while we are confined to books, though the most

select and classic, and read only particular written

languages, which are themselves but dialects and

provincial, we are in danger of forgetting the language

which all things and events speak without metaphor,

which alone is copious and standard.’

—Henry David Thoreau: Walden



Why are there so many languages to be spoken, even in

one country, in one series of encounters, in one day?

Drowning under all these assumed grammars. One

wants to emit spontaneous sounds, hear the self’s pitch

clear and true through the maelstrom.




Those sounds you want to produce are from ancient

parts of you and I can’t verbalise them. The best I can do are

cries of surprise, combat, victory and orgasm. Then

there are other signals, impossible to translate, whose

tracks twist away into a dim forest.




from Part 3: Perspective





203. picture              A girl in a green terrain. There is

                                  no perspective. The grass and

                                  hedges might as well be a carpet

                                  shaken by the sky, and she

                                  something small enough to

                                  imagine it is making tracks. There

                                  is no sense of another presence,

                                  and as yet no intimation of



204. retreat              Danger. Large people are noisy.

                                  The girl retreats into the night-

                                  time sense and daytime reality of

                                  grass. No words explain.


205. play                   The girl is exuberant. She has

                                  energy and wants to play. Because

                                  she has no companions, she takes

                                  her information from the ground

                                  and makes herself a greenish world.


206. graceless           She wants someone to arrive on

                                  her carpet and laugh. But those

                                  who walk in are colourless, speak tonelessly,

                                  and have nothing like

                                  the grace of meadows.


207. exhibits             Her mind is a museum of puzzled

                                  moments: this face with the

                                  casual look of disapproval; that

                                  careless sentence. The rooms themselves

                                  are forgettable.


208. grove                 Trees bow to her like royal

                                  attendants. The ground is

                                  cushioned with flowers that are

                                  blue and purple, red in the centre.

                                  Bushes grow without tending;

                                  butterflies arrive with the

                                  summer heat.


209. puzzle               Others walk in and the ambience

                                  is disturbed. They ask why she sits

                                  alone, why she squanders her

                                  thoughts on the impossible, why

                                  the aristocratic demeanour and

                                  medieval manners. Why doesn’t

                                  she know how to use and be used?

                                  Why doesn’t she want to fit?


210. conversation     The others finger the leaves of the

                                  trees and don’t feel them. Then

                                  they finger and feel so intensely

                                  they are lost to her. They talk

                                  about their hearts. They ask about



211. association        They want to start a club. They

                                  will let her in. But she

                                  understands that she must

                                  decimate her grove. There’s that

                                  purple bush she lays her head

                                  under day after day—she mustn’t

                                  do that, it is odd.


212. regular              They will reduce her to one who

                                  talks with a regulated tone, who

                                  sings in a choir, sweet among

                                  many. She will lose her singular

                                  seat among beings that ask

                                  nothing, tell nothing.


213. chaos                 All information confuses her. The

                                  saying of things is always right

                                  and then always wrong. Doing is

                                  only doing.


214. sniff and spit     She is only, on the face of it, a shy

                                  country girl, as yet unaccepted

                                  into society. She is unschooled in

                                  the power methods of the race.

                                  She sniffs, she sticks her little

                                  finger in her ear, she spits on the footpath. She doesn’t

                                  say, ‘Pardon me.’


215. uncivilised         She is easiest among the less

                                  civilised—travellers and the

                                  rough-skinned in chip shops and

                                  pubs. With them there is no

                                  question of acceptance, no

                                  constant weighing of worth.


216. annexed            Others are always intrusive, as if

                                  she owes them more than herself.

                                  She dissolves in their presence,

                                  forgets she is an autonomous

                                  instrument with a capacity for

                                  occupying space.


217. frozen               Where is the centre of the

                                  principle of growth, the fixed

                                  entity that is existence? She is

                                  held to this question like a frozen



218. come                 Above all, she wants to be truthful.

                                  Next, she wants to be intimate.

                                  She stares at her basket of fruit.

                                  She cannot take it to the



219. vacant               Being alone is not the same as

                                  being in herself. She evicts herself

                                  from her moments, the better to

                                  survive them. She stands in her

                                  own light.


220. you                    No matter how close they stand,

                                  she finds herself at a great

                                  distance. The back of her head

                                  pulls her into a long lean. Is that

                                  why she can’t look at their faces

                                  and say ‘you’?


221. janus                 She tries, but the affairs of the

                                  world don’t hold her interest. She

                                  loses the thread of sounds,

                                  listening to the silence before her