Ladies of the Canyon: On the Poetics of Isolation
It was early last October when I found the lump above my collarbone. I was walking down a row of embassies towards the corner shop at the end of my street in central Moscow. Actually, the street wasn’t particularly ‘my street’, except for the fact that I lived on it; nor was it particularly ‘my landlady’s street’, except for the fact that she had lived on it for ten years. It also wasn’t particularly ‘Moscow’s street’, or even ‘Russia’s street’. The majority of the land it encompassed fell under the jurisdiction of a string of international powers. They rolled off the street’s tongue like a song sung in solfege—disordered, related only in that they belonged to the same scale. ‘Japan, Estonia, The Netherlands’, they rolled. ‘Do, fa, re’, they might as well have rolled.
I remember raising my hand to my neck outside the gates of the Japanese embassy. By the time I had lowered it to my phone and begun to worriedly text my mother, I was passing the last guard outside the Dutch. I must have found the lump somewhere outside the Estonian embassy, a grey building sandwiched between the two.
Sitting on the roof of my apartment, I would often look over at the Estonian embassy, at how it stood monolithic and cold between the sea-foam curlicues of the Japanese and the Dutch. Walking closer and closer to the roof’s edge, I would watch the street open up between us like a canyon.
Protected by a few stray telephone wires, it had been so easy to look into the street, to chip away each day at the Estonian embassy’s rocky exterior and peer further into the windows. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that I would unearth the lump so close to the Estonian embassy. Hadn’t I been planning some kind of archaeological dig all along? I had noticed, at least, that if you dug around enough, you could find the word ‘stone’ in ‘Estonia’. I had just never expected that, having brushed away the dust, I would find what I was looking for in myself.
In December 2020, the poet Emily Dickinson would have celebrated her 190th birthday. In March 2020, Joni Mitchell’s album Ladies of the Canyon celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its release. In February 2020, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
In the middle of December 2019, I left the street that wasn’t really anybody’s street and came home for Christmas. After Christmas, I briefly returned to Russia for a week before coming home again in January for medical tests. At the beginning of February, I received my diagnosis. On the fourth of March, I began chemotherapy. On the eleventh of March, nearly two weeks before the coronavirus lockdown began in the UK, my doctor advised me not to leave the house unless absolutely necessary. Apart from trips to the hospital, I haven’t been outside since. I am twenty-one years old.
For the thirty years prior to her death in 1866, Emily Dickinson rarely left her home in Amherst, Massachusetts. The tension between isolation and conversation is central to her poetry. In poem 609, for example, she imagines a conversation in the doorway of a house. The speaker dreads an inquisitive stranger who, upon the speaker’s return home, would interrogate her about ‘[her] business there’. She would reply with a question: ‘My Business but a Life I left // Was such remaining there?’ With the conversation imagined and the home unwelcoming, the speaker finds herself isolated on the newly estranged threshold of the familiar.
I leaned upon the Awe –
I lingered with Before –
The Second like an Ocean rolled
And broke against my ear –
She waits for an answer. Nothing comes. The poem ends in silence as the speaker leaves, describing how she ‘held [her] ears, and like a Thief Fled gasping from the House –’
Aged nine, Joni Mitchell was bed-ridden with polio for several months. Perhaps it was this period of solitude which left her with such an aptitude for introspection. Although much of Mitchell’s music defined the free-wheeling social spirit of the 70s, her songs maintain a persistent longing, as in 1971’s ‘California,’ that she’s ‘coming home’...
Written in 1971, ‘California,’ appropriately, has a metronome mark of approximately 71 beats per minute. Having begun with determination, ‘California, I’m coming home’, it closes with Mitchell asking ‘home’, in a quivering falsetto, ‘Will you take me as I am? // Will you take me as I am? // Will you?’ She asks again and again, her voice gradually faltering. Listening, we ask ‘California’, we ask ‘home’, ‘will you take me as I am?’ The song ends. We wait for an answer. Nothing comes.
I live, now, not at home, but somewhere between two unseeable points. I spend more time in memories of the past and thoughts of the future than I do in the present. Cancer has rendered my present as slippery as my past, as unknowable as my future. Sometimes, lost somewhere in my head, I’ll run my hands over my bedclothes, my sofa, my dining room table. Even they feel rough and unfamiliar. Is this home?
When the pendulum of a metronome swings, it is impossible to see exactly where it swings from, and where it swings to. I swing in my mind from one point to another. The points sometimes change. Alternately, they are from here to there, from home to away, from now to then.
There is no threshold over which to ask my ‘business here’, no one whom I can ask, ‘will you take me as I am?’
That would all be fine, except that now I’m swinging so fast you can’t even see me anymore—I’m just a silver blur opening up in the air. Like a canyon.
Mitchell wrote endlessly about conversations and almost never recorded duets. Dickinson’s poems are themselves conversations—her dashes are at once both invitations for response and warnings against interruption.
I like to think of them in their respective bedrooms, years and miles apart—Emily putting on her famous white dress and locking herself away, Joni throwing on a white caftan and heading for Woodstock. Ladies of the canyon. Both step wilfully on the cracks of conversation until a loneliness opens up beneath—until they find themselves in the abyss. Isolated.
Apart from those I share with members of my immediate family, almost all my conversations, whether they happen over video or over the phone, are now necessarily and inescapably lonely. This is not to say that I feel lonely whilst having them, but that they cannot help me climb out of this place of being alone. ‘Throw her a rope’, my friends think. ‘Thank you’, I think, ‘do you have anything stronger?’
Everything feels like speaking through tin cans and string. But string is not strong enough to pull me out. It’s just strong enough to hold from one side to the other, from the top to the bottom—whatever this distance is. Just strong enough to keep my voice reaching towards the other end. The other day, a friend told me, not that she missed me, but rather that she ‘missed me being in Moscow’. I just need the string to hold out, to keep reaching towards my friends—those citizens of the before and the after. Before and after the strangeness of this present.
I wonder whether I could have set up a line from my roof to the Estonian embassy. Whether if I’d thrown a rock at one of the windows someone would have opened it. Whether I could have thrown over a can and whether they would have spoken and listened. What would we have spoken about? It would have been nice. In the lonely days before being alone. We need never have even seen each other.
In ‘Conversation’, the third track of Ladies of the Canyon, Joni Mitchell describes a love interest who comes to her to talk about his current girlfriend. She sings, ‘He comes for conversation // I comfort him sometimes’. The loneliness of their conversation is more intense for her than for him—‘he sees me when he pleases // I see him in cafes // and I only say hello // and turn away before his lady knows // how much I wanna see him’.
Emily Dickinson describes this tension between secret telling and secret keeping in poem 381. She writes, ‘A Secret told – // Ceases to be a Secret – then – // A Secret – kept – // That can appal but One – // Better of it – continual be afraid – // Than it – // And Whom you told it to – beside –’.
Dickinson’s ‘Better of it – continual be afraid’, and Mitchell’s, ‘and turn away before his lady knows’, both build tension towards the imagined interaction, the reveal of secret longing: ‘Whom you told it to – beside –,’ and ‘how much I wanna see him’. Neither dares imagine such a confrontation. Conversation, as much in Mitchell’s lyrics as Dickinson’s verse, is safest imagined from a distance. To be ‘beside’, to say more than ‘hello’, risks too much—‘better of it – continual be afraid’.
In their preoccupation with distance, Dickinson and Mitchell sometimes break down earthly boundaries in order to explore the sky. In poem 413 and ‘Amelia’ respectively, both imagine that, having flown up to the sky in order to escape existential isolation on earth, the clouds offer scant comfort for the ‘home’ they lacked on the ground.
I never felt at Home – Below – And in the Handsome Skies I shall not feel at Home – I know – I don’t like Paradise – ‘Poem 413,’ Emily Dickinson, 1862 Maybe I've never really loved I guess that is the truth I've spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitude And looking down on everything I crashed into his arms Amelia, it was just a false alarm. ‘Amelia,’ Joni Mitchell, 1976
Through the poem’s clouds, it is difficult to see whether this ‘Paradise’ refers to ‘Below’, or the ‘Handsome Skies’. Perhaps both are ‘Paradise’. Perhaps neither are. Neither of them is ‘Home’.
Mitchell, singing about Amelia Earhart, similarly disavows herself of both land and sky. On land, she sings, ‘I’ve never really loved’. But if land had proved emotionally cold, the skies too seem to have proffered little warmth—nothing more than ‘icy altitude’.
From this ‘icy altitude’, both Dickinson and Mitchell observe with minute detail the nature of conversation. However it is this very reserve, this very distance, which means that however much their poetics might seem to be ‘about’ conversation, they always end up being about isolation.
I have swapped the rooftop opposite the embassy for a ninth-floor cancer ward at Addenbrooke’s hospital. From there, a youth cancer worker recently told me, you can see all the way to Ely Cathedral. I looked, and found it poking out from behind a plume of smoke from the hospital chimneys. It, like the Estonian embassy, is cold, grey, and made from stone. It is significantly more beautiful, of course, though it’s too far away for me to tell for sure.
I don’t think about string anymore though, about talking to whoever might be sitting in those towers so far away. I can barely move as it is. At any one time, I’m attached to a number of tubes. Some of them send messages from my body to the machines next to my chair. I sometimes wonder if this is the closest I’ll ever get to true conversation. My finger pulsates. The machine beeps back.