The Only Conversation

Ben Purkert
August 21, 2020
Photo: Claudiu Maxim

“It is the first experience you ever had of reading a decent poem: ‘Oh, somebody else is lonely, too!’” Mary Ruefle writes in her lecture “On Secrets.” Her account is equally fitting to describe certain later and repeat encounters; it’s precisely the response I have each time I read Ben Purkert’s “The Only Conversation.” As I drop into the exchange between boat and tide described in the title, I can’t help but hear the title’s “only” as a fractured “lonely”—the broken-off “l” floating somewhere just out of reach. Reading the poem, I wonder: Does the use of “only” to describe a conversation temper its particular loneliness, or amplify it? After all, conversation—unlike, say, solitude, a form whole unto itself—requires a partner for completion. The tide consoles, and the boat “looks away / in a distant time / on a distant shore.” Still, as remote as the interlocutors may be from one another, the boat and tide together fulfill the promised form. “Oh, somebody else is lonely, too,” I imagine the tide thinking of the boat as it dispenses its solace: “I’m here / now don’t worry.” Here there’s still something left to lose—the company, as distant as it is; the consolation, as flawed. Which is to say: There is still something left to cherish. The poem reminds me that this imperfect togetherness is all there is. But indeed, it is: “the boat listens / with both oars / in the water.” Let this be enough. 

– Claire Schwartz

Listen to Ben Purkert read “The Only Conversation.”

The Only Conversation 

look how the tide
lifts the boat by 
consoling it 
saying I’m here
now don’t worry 
the boat nods 
then looks away 
in a distant time 
on a distant shore 
this is how 
the world goes 
says the tide 
the boat listens 
with both oars 
in the water

Ben Purkert is the author of For the Love of Endings. His poems appear in The New Yorker, Poetry, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing at Rutgers University and is currently at work on a novel.