D.Nurske, whose new collection 'A Night in Brooklyn' I've recently been reviewing for Poetry London. One of the things I found most interesting about Nurske's book is the way many of the poems (it seems to me) explore how alone we often feel we are, how nobody shares our peculiar experience. The way Nurske handles this theme is often bittersweet, but never depressing. There's a great poem called ‘Mid-August in the Dolomites’ which captures the exquisite melancholy of never being able to fully inhabit another landscape or another person. A couple enjoy an Italian summer, walking hand in hand through vineyards, savouring the silences between them (‘we communicated by cheeses’, ‘or we let Chianti talk for us’), but all the while
resenting each other bitterly
for our happiness that excluded us
as surely as the world did,
mountain after mountain.
The half-pleasurable feeling of isolation that comes from believing nobody else quite shares our world view may have a neural basis - one that makes it no less mysterious, of course. Yesterday, Professor Geraint Rees gave a lecture at the medical school in Sheffield about differences in brain anatomy and how these result in (quite literally) different visions of the world. Putting forward the idea that anatomy is a neural correlate of consciousness, Professor Rees outlined research that suggested the differences between our brains lead to different conscious experiences.
pre-frontal cortex, where you might expect variation between individuals, but more fundamental. The size of your primary visual cortex (known as area V1), for example, will affect how you perceive objects and the relationships between them. Professor Rees used a simple experiment with the Sheffield audience to show that people see optical illusions slightly differently (depending, it was implied, on the size of their V1 area). Differences in the parietal cortex and and the prefrontal cortex can also lead to subtly different visual experiences.
Put simply, we really do inhabit different worlds.
I'll end with a a poet (and a poem) whose eloquence on the subject of the distances between us is well-known:
Talking in Bed
by Philip Larkin
Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind's incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,
And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.