Tonight by Ladan Osman is a poem that embraces no definite rhyme scheme or consistent pattern, and that lack of refined structure assists in bringing the poem’s underlying theme to light in spite of the focus remaining on a trivial scene. In fact, by appearances, the focus of this poem is a very unsubstantial moment in the narrator’s life, but that simplicity is quite deceiving since more is being covered within the poem’s lines than just the physical happenings. Below the surface, there’s a deepness showcased in the ponderings of this narrator, and those ponderings are the core of what this poem represents. In this regard, Osman takes a mundane scenario to present the narrator’s thoughts about life and her circumstance in a way that utilizes the trivial quality of the scene to express a burdened sense of loneliness and solitude. In an unexpected twist though, the wording and details show the hidden truth of the situation—that the narrator is responsible for her own loneliness and solitude. The full poem can found here.
One of the first things to note concerning Tonight is that the stanzas are very minimal in size, and that smallness can be seen as a reflection of the lack of importance the narrator seems to feel in regard to her connections to the world around her. The specifics of her solitude will be elaborated on in future stanzas, but the briefness of this first one is paving the way for her overall sensation of loneliness in the world.
By diving into actual words of the stanza, the reader gets an early idea of the mentality of the narrator, and her ideas are primarily negative by the time the first line ends. There’s no discussion of the beauty of stars or the cool of the night air, but rather a quick declaration that the night in question “is a drunk man.” This wording creates an image before any specific information is given in regard to the location or scenery that’s occurring around the narrator since “drunk” comes with a series of negative connotations. It can mean unstable, confused, jumbled, unfair, reckless, and other names that are in conflict to the word’s opposite, which would be sober—steady, sure, and clear-minded. By labelling the night in this means, the narrator succeeds in painting an unpleasant representation of the night.
The second part of this stanza continues along that unpleasant train of thought by saying that the “drunk man” is wearing a “dirty shirt.” Already, the introduction to this poem felt adverse and unstable, but to add in the new layer of unpleasantly through unclean attire further pushes this notion. The author has made this unpleasantness clear in eight words, and that notion is solidly in place before we journey to the next stanza.
Now that the overall feel of the night has been set in stone, the narrator turns toward more of the physical aspects of the scenery—or rather, what things aren’t a part of the scenery. Specifically, the narrator does not seem to be aware of any other human in the vicinity since “no couple [is] chatting by the recycling bins.” This information is doubly important, first because it gives solid evidence to the idea that the narrator is alone at the time this poem is taking place. Worse, the narrator is working, though admittedly an easy task, by “unload[ing her] plastics,” and the lack of company forces her to go about this business on her own. This combined notion speaks to how easily this narrator finds herself without company, but also to the idea that people can be uninterested in the problems of others. Because no one is approaching to help, there’s a solitary quality to the scenario that leaves her helpless—maybe bitter. To the narrator, perhaps someone should have come by to assist, and the fact that no one has is another mark against the night in question.
Beyond these subtle meanings of words, this stanza provides the reader with their very first detail about the scene other than it being night. We now know that the narrator is near “recycling bins” and “unload[ing] plastics,” and that visual provides something to physically latch onto as we go through the poem. It’s worth noting though that the description doesn’t push very far past the basic information. Much like the scene is simple, this detailing of the moment is very basic, as if deeper details are as insignificant as the narrator herself feels.
Still, the narrator is fixated on what isn’t a part of the scenery, which further pushes the notion of loneliness and insignificance. If something fantastic or interesting were at play, the narrator could have focused on these details to give the reader a clear image of what’s happening. Since so little information exists about what’s there in contrast to the amount of time being spent on what isn’t there, it’s logical for the reader to conclude that little worth noting is present.
This notion is bleak, no doubt, but it could also hint that the narrator is deliberately searching for these negative qualities of what isn’t there. Surely, there would be some item nearby that would merit mention—a building, a streetlight, a mouse—but we hear little about those elements. The narrator’s tendency to only mention those negative qualities could reveal an underlying pessimism that would make her unreliable as a narrator.
In fact, this notion seems to be validated in that one of the things she mentions as not being there is a “black and white cat.” The cut-and-dry colouring of the animal could reflect a divided outlook from the narrator that leaves no middle-ground. With this in mind, it would make sense that if the narrator decided it was a bleak night, the reader couldn’t necessarily trust her to deliver any details to the contrary of that idea. Essentially from this stanza, we learn more about the narrator than we do the scenery, and it isn’t the best of representations.
The narrator gives a more vivid view of the scenario through aspects that would reflect a series of the senses—what the reader could smell, feel, and see—and all of these things are negative. This time though, a good amount of the negativity comes from the narrator herself, such as the “sour breath” (it can only logically come from the narrator since she’s the only one labelled as present) and the “sweat on the collar of [her] shirt.” This might be the first time that the reader is given evidence that the true problem might be the narrator herself, though the commentary on the matter does make it seem like it wasn’t an intentional acceptance of blame from the narrator. Recall that we only know that the “sour breath” comes from the narrator because logic insists it to be so, and that lack of specification on her part makes the revelation unintentional. If she’s unwilling to admit to that unpleasant factor, it stands to reason that she’s not intentionally owning up to the other factors either.
Beyond these negative traits that are coming from the narrator, we also get impressions of how she feels through the description of her “too-small pajama pants.” This connects to the overall smallness that she feels, like she’s being trapped in a situation that doesn’t fit. Given that she’s already described aspects of the night as unpleasant, it’s clear that this discomfort is a strong aspect to this work. She doesn’t like that no one is assisting her or that no other living being seems to be present, and this description of how her clothes fit is a representation of that discomfort.
The detail from this stanza that sticks out the most though is the “water bottle rolling under a car” since at first mention, it might seem like it doesn’t fit as a needed detail. Note though that the narrator never mentions whose “water bottle” it is, but since she’s “recycling…plastics,” it’s again reasonable that this object belongs to her. What that would mean is, once again, she isn’t claiming responsibility for an action—making her again unreliable—and that she isn’t doing anything to pick up that stray “water bottle” to tend to her own mess.
We aren’t just assuming then that the narrator is unreliable because she won’t verbally accept the blame for her own negative traits, but we also have potential evidence that she isn’t willing to fix the trouble she causes either. Perhaps this narrator is alone, without assistance, because of these selfish and careless mannerisms and behaviours.
This selfishness is mirrored in the notion that only now does she mention her “neighbours,” but only in the context of how they affect her—her “juice jugs [are going] on neighbours’ juice jugs.” Other people then are only referenced in connection to her—not assisting, not being present, and having “juice jugs.
This sentence is a declaration of what we’ve already uncovered through the course of this exploration—that there could be more going on than what the narrator is telling us. Although she’s given the impression that she’s alone in this scenario, we’re only now finding out that she hasn’t checked to see if that’s fully the case. It’s also worth noting that there’s still no mention of retrieving the “water bottle,” meaning we have no verification that she’s tended to the mess she potentially created, but she’s taking a moment to search for “someone drinking on their balcony.” She’s more interested in finding the living company she wants than giving the world a reason to think she’s showing it the same courtesy.
This is a simple sentence, but it speaks volumes in that this isn’t a statement that she “will wave.” Rather, she’s only “telling [her]self [she] will wave.” Even though she wants someone to be near her right now, she still can’t commit to the notion of acknowledging them. If nothing else in this poem showcases that the narrator is selfish, this ending line accomplishes that task, and it gives reason why no one is around her or assisting. Why would they when she won’t even say for sure that she “will wave” at them, a basic gesture of kindness?
By the end of the poem then, we seem to have uncovered the truth of this narrator. She is alone and unstable, but her lifestyle and behaviours could easily be the blame for those factors even when she doesn’t accept the responsibility.
About Ladan Osman
Ladan Osman is a poet from Somalia who reportedly now lives in New York. She has the education to give her credibility as a writer, having earned both a BA and an MFA, and she has poems available through a variety of sources. Her work, The Kitchen-Dweller’s Testimony, is a prize-winning piece.