Nowhere to Nowhere by BJ Omanson

Nowhere to Nowhere by BJ Omanson explores how someone can lose all meaning to their life, and begin spiralling out of control. The man in question within the poem loses his family, which provokes him to destroy all memories associated with them, and then leave town on a directionless journey

Nowhere to Nowhere by BJ Omanson

 

Summary

Nowhere to Nowhere by BJ Omanson begins with a man losing his family, ‘they’ decide to leave down, taking their child with them. Now alone on his farm, the man burns all their remaining possessions, anything that will remind him of the family that left him behind. He takes a freight train out of the city, thinking about his life as he boards the train to nowhere. The poem is depressing, focusing on the lack of direction in this man’s life. It explores the loss of everything someone holds dear, and the out of control spiral their life becomes afterwards.

You can read the full poem Nowhere to Nowhere here.

 

Structure

The poem is split into four stanzas of an equal four lines, a quatrain form. There is an ABBA rhyme scheme throughout, the casual rhyme perhaps suggesting that this is a more common occurrence than people think. The regularity of the structure is oddly off-putting when considering the total destruction and loss the man is experiencing. By contrasting the consistent rhyme scheme with the lack of direction in the man’s life, this becomes emphasised, Omanson focusing on the man’s self-destruction.

 

Analysis of Nowhere to Nowhere

Stanza One

When they sold off the farm she took the child
(…)
he opened a pint of bourbon, piled

The poem begins by focusing on pronouns, the rest of the man’s family are reduced to a ‘they’. It seems that an us and them construct has been made, with Omanson suggesting that the whole family is against the man. The mother of ‘the child’ takes the child, leaving with the rest of the family and leaving the man alone.

The enjambment from the first to the second line compound the sense of speed with which the family leaves him. There is no hesitation, they simply leave and do not look back, the use of form here reflecting their hasty decision.

The shock of this event is emphasised by the mid-sentence caesura in the form of a hyphen, ‘bus out of town—‘. There is a great deal of disbelief from the man, he cannot understand why they have left him, the metrical break reflecting a pause in the man’s life. It could also be understood as a representation of a before and after a moment in the man’s life, the before in which he had a family, and the after in which he is totally alone. The desolate landscape of a ‘farm’ could normally be a source of beautiful natural imagery. Yet, Omanson avoids all mention of the beauty of nature, focusing only on the barren wasteland of Nowhere to Nowhere.

Although we don’t know the exact reasons why the family left him, when he turns directly to ‘a pint of bourbon’ after they leave, we can deduce that he is an alcoholic. ‘A pint’ of spirit is a ridiculous amount, and this instant turn towards alcohol suggests the man has been using this as a coping mechanism or crutch for quite some time.

The alliteration that carries across ‘everyone gone and everything grim’, the assonance of ‘e’ and the consonance of ‘g’ is incredibly tragic within this moment. It is almost as if life is continuing, the speed of the meter on this line, propelled by the forms of alliteration, representing how life is continuing while he stands in a shocked silence.

 

Stanza Two

pictures, letters and clothes in the yard,
(…)
and worked on his whiskey, working hard.

This stanza focuses on the man trying to destroy all the things that will remind him of his family. He gathers, ‘pictures, letters and clothes’, placing them all ‘in the yard’. It seems he ransacks the house, finding anything and everything that belonged to his family. He clearly does not want to remember them, feeling angry and bitter that they left him. He decides to burn all their belongings.

He ‘doused them in kerosene’, a flammable liquid. He then methodically ‘struck a match’, and ‘watched as they burnt to ashes’. The length this must have taken, burning all the way to ‘ashes’ shows the man standing silently, sadly watching the fire for a great amount of time. It seems he doesn’t have anything left to do, spending his time drinking and watching the fire burn the memories of his family.

The alliteration of ‘watched’, ‘watched and worked on his whisky, working hard’, compound a sense of frustration. The man has nothing to do, so he drinks, just ‘working’ on finishing the alcohol. He seemingly has nothing left to live for, with the only thing (again) that he thinks of doing being drinking. This shown his tendency towards alcoholism, it is his support system now he has been abandoned by his family.

 

Stanza Three

The next morning he caught an outbound freight
(…)
down to a rusty tin cup and a plate,

In comparison, the ‘bus’ the family use to escape town seems glamorous compared to the barren, industrial ‘freight’ that he takes to leave town. The nondescript ‘god-knows-where’ direction it is heading reflects the man’s current situation, he has nothing to live for, nowhere to go, and therefore just takes the first opportunity he sees.

The double use of a hyphen following the second and third lines of the third stanza reflects the lack of interest. There are long gaps in the narrative, the meter slowing as he sits in silence, watching the day goes by as the train continues to ‘nowhere’.

He has lost everything, ‘down to a rusty tin cup and a plate’, the ‘rust’ focus furthering the sense of decay. Even the few things he does still have within him are rusting away, they too are leaving him slowly as they become less and less useable.

 

Stanza Four

dice and a bible, a bedroll and fate,
(…)
running nowhere to nowhere and running late.

Even the country he is passing through seems decrepit, ‘dying and desperate for rain’. There is no comfort left in his life, he lost his family, his belongings, has left his home, and is now in a wasteland of death and barren nature. The poem is deeply depressing, Nowhere to Nowhere echoing the total disarray of his life.

The final line of the poem compounds this sense of defeat, he is ‘running’ without direction, ‘nowhere to nowhere’. Even at this, he is not achieving, ‘running late’ for his own life – a person reduced to nothing but loss.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

What's your thoughts? Join the conversation by commenting
We make sure to reply to every comment submitted, so feel free to join the community and let us know by commenting below.

Get more Poetry Analysis like this in your inbox

Subscribe to our mailing list and get new poetry analysis updates straight to your inbox.

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.

  • Avatar Simon Kenton says:

    I have some thoughts about the poem, and your criticism. First of all, the opening pronoun, “they,” clearly refers to the wife and husband. It would be both of them together who sold the farm. That is the only time “they” is used. After that the only pronouns are “he” and “she” which refer to the husband and wife.

    About the structure of the poem. Interesting that you find it off-putting. I found the quatrain structure of the poem entirely appropriate, as it suggests a ballad, or a country song. Consider the content of the poem: love lost, whiskey, aimless wandering, trains—these are all traditional subjects of ballads and country songs. Somebody should put this one to music, with a steel guitar and sung by the ghost of Merle Haggard.

    You mention the regularity of the meter and rhyme and contrast it to the total destruction of the poem’s content, and find it incongruous. It is that very incongruity which provides the dramatic tension of the poem, and it is exactly what you find in hundreds of ballads and country songs: destruction & hopelessness contained in a tightly regular form, like gun-powder in a steel jacket. That what makes a poem powerful, and memorable.

    You wonder why the poet ignores the natural beauty of the landscape. I would suggest that there is no natural beauty, except of the most bleak kind, in a landscape blighted by drought. Have you ever travelled through a rural landscape in the midst of a drought? It’s a wasteland.

    There are three particulars in this poem that provide a clue as to the period it describes, which you failed to note. First, the drought. Second, the fact that the protagonist “caught a freight.” Third, the loss of a farm. These three facts together strongly suggest the period described by the poem is in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. It’s little wonder you found the poem depressing.

    I think you are jumping to a hasty conclusion when you identify the protagonist as an alcoholic. Your only evidence for doing so is that the protagonist drinks a pint of whisky. Why would he do such a thing? Perhaps because he has just lost his wife, his child, and his farm. I would submit, given those essential facts, that downing a pint of whiskey is a perfectly reasonable response. My only quibble with this part of the poem is to wonder how hard it would be to run alongside and scrabble on board a moving boxcar with what must have been a real doozey of a hangover.

    You say there are no clues as to why his family left him. Well, first of all, it wasn’t his “family,” it was his wife. The child had no say in the matter. Anyway, there are a few clues as to why she left him. First of all, they are obviously poor. They don’t even own a car. And they are newly homeless. They sold the farm, but as it was evidently during the Depression, and they are relatively young (one child), it is a certainty that the farm would have been mortgaged, and a sale would mean, at best, that they would break even. So they would both be about broke. She’s probably leaving him because he can no longer support a wife and child. She’s probably going to stay with her parents. That is the most likely scenario.

    The poem touches on the philosophical question of freedom. Do we have free will, or is everything fated? The poem suggests that both forces are at play. Symbols for both options are found in the things the protagonist carries on his journey. “Dice” suggests random chance; “fate” and “bible” both suggest predestination. “Gypsy’s fare,” with its connotation of a fortune that can be read, also suggests a fixed fate. “Bedroll” connotes a homeless wanderer. “Nowhere to nowhere” suggests he is wandering lost between two unknowns, perhaps between “fate” and “chance.” In the course of four stanzas he has travelled from being a family man and farmer to being a lost existential wanderer. The everyday phrase “running late” is the final irony: running late with nowhere to go.

    • Jack Limebear Jack Limebear says:

      Hi Simon! Thanks for your analysis, I really enjoy reading other’s perspectives and agree with lots of your ideas.
      Just to reply to a couple of your doubts:

      ” I found the quatrain structure of the poem entirely appropriate, as it suggests a ballad, or a country song.”:

      – Although the acts presented within the poem would coincide with that normally discussed in a ballad, a ballad normally has an ABABBCBC form, or occasionally ABAB or ABCB in a consistent 8 and 6 syllable line formation. The form of Nowhere to Nowhere is ABBA throughout, which is why I didn’t want to go so far as to classify this as a ballad just because it bears some classic tropes. But I agree that it could definitely fit into this categorization due to other aspects.

      ” It is that very incongruity [meter and rhyme] which provides the dramatic tension of the poem”

      – Yes, I completely agree, by setting these at ends, the desolation becomes more pronounced.

      ” why the poet ignores the natural beauty of the landscape… it is a wasteland.”
      – Although a wasteland, one has to only look at other works of Depression-era literature (Steinbeck’s simultaneously beauty/comfort but also destruction/cause of drought in the ‘sun’ of ‘Grapes of Wrath’, or the opening extract of Mice and Men) to see that elements of beauty can be found within the destruction. I only noted this because Osmanson forgoes this all together, which I believe furthers the sense of desolation he feels. Indeed, why focus on an element of beauty in a poem which is completely focused on loss and melancholy?

      “These three facts together strongly suggest the period described by the poem is in the 1930s, during the Great Depression.
      – You’re correct, all 50 poems in Omanson’s ‘Stark County’ 2017 anthology are based on a rural town in Illinois, recounting a chronological history from 1830 to 1930. More will be added on this in a biography post which will be attached to this poem. I’m sorry I didn’t mention this, I thought it fairly straightforward to see. I aim to analyze as much of the poem as I can in my word count, with context sometimes being superfluous, which is why I only mention it when it is of utmost need. Here, although the knowledge that this is set in the Depression-era is interesting, it only adds to the already heavy sense of desolation, which is why I didn’t mention it. I can add this into the analysis for you 🙂

      “you are jumping to a hasty conclusion when you identify the protagonist as an alcoholic.”

      – I focused on the instant turn towards alcohol as my evidence. There was no other reaction, no scream to the heavens or deep lament, the speaker knows to turn to numbing alcohol instantly. You’re completely right that it could just be a one-time thing. I just struggled to see anyone drinking a pint of whiskey if they were not already a frequent drinker. Again, that’s what’s great about poetry – who knows! It’s whatever you want to decide 🙂

      ‘ She’s probably leaving him because he can no longer support a wife and child.’
      – I completely agree with you. This is the heavy inference. I just did not want to say so certainly, as if we use your context of the depression era, it would have been uncommon for a wife to leave a husband, more so when considering she also takes their child. But I believe you’re right about the reason they left him.

      “The poem touches on the philosophical question of freedom. ”
      – I love this analysis, it’s a really interesting aspect. I totally agree, the continual semantics of chance definitely reflect an inherent lack of free-will.

      Thank you again for sharing, I really enjoyed reading through your analysis!

      • Avatar Simon Kenton says:

        My chief qualm about your use of the term “alcoholic” is that it involves the imposition of a current interpretation (that he was alcoholic) onto a past culture where the idea of alcoholism was not yet in general use. He wouldn’t have been described in such language at the time.

        I don’t think it was all that unusual for families to split up during the Depression. There were literally thousands of solitary men riding boxcars and walking the highways looking for work throughout the Thirties. A lot of them would have been married. Traveling with a wife and child under those circumstances would have been all but impossible. Divorce may have been relatively rare, as you suggest, but separation probably wasn’t. In all times of extreme stress, marriages suffer and not infrequently fall apart.

        I think you’re right when you ask, ‘Why introduce elements of beauty into a poem that focuses on desolation?’– especially in a poem as condensed as this one, where every element contributes to the final melancholy effect. I’ve read the entire Stark County Poems and in fact there is much description of the beauties of the Illinois countryside, but such descriptions largely disappear as the poems move chronologically into the 1930s.

        I’ve noticed that there are two editions of Stark County Poems. The 2017 edition has about 30 poems and 75 pages, and the 2020 edition has nearly 60 poems and over 200 pages. They have different covers. “Nowhere to Nowhere” appears in both editions.

  • Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
    >
    Scroll Up