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14th Anniversary Edition, Live Encounters Poetry & Writing Volume Five Nov-Dec 2023.
Suicide as Literary Criticism, guest editorial by David Rigsbee.
I awoke one day recently and was both stirred and confounded by the following sentence: “Whatever else it is, suicide is literary criticism, surpassing theories, schools, and genres.” I had long meditated on the struggle between articulation and silence, between words in their best order and oblivion. What more profound way to disable the first than by self-erasure? Where does this leave words of any sort? Of course, all humans are called upon to extend, even as they justify, the vast sustaining net of culture, even those who will terminate their own being. We put ourselves in the breach, as the silence presses down.
On December the first, 1992, I was teaching Hart Crane to an auditorium of evening students at Virginia Tech. Crane, who leapt overboard from a steamer in the Gulf of Mexico, called out, “Goodbye, goodbye, everybody!”, according to witnesses. “Where the cedar leaf divides the sky,” is how his poem “Passages” begins. Derek Walcott remarked that it was his favorite line in Crane. Of course, the cedar doesn’t have a conventional leaf, but frilly sprigs, and so its division becomes immediately sub-divided. What seems at first a stark demarcation crumbles into something else, the sky in constant division and re-division, fracture, in fact. The poem’s opening line thus announces its paradoxical nature, raising a flag of serene confusion followed by the poet’s rhetorically gnarly acceptance. I explained this to my students, who followed me in their own confusion as my paraphrasing stiffened into pontification.
When I got home, the phone rang. What ensued from that call changed my life. With one finger, in one harrowing moment, my brother had obliterated his knowledge of our family, as well as his own: a wife, son, and adopted daughter, to say nothing of the private rest, whatever resided in his mind. In the months that followed I began to understand I would be replacing the engine for my poetry. At the time I was heavily committed, teaching full time in Blacksburg while commuting twice or three times a week to University of Virginia where I had embarked on a doctorate, attended classes and wrote papers, as well as being assigned a class of neophytes.
As a coincidence I won’t further characterize, I had chosen to write a dissertation on the elegies of Joseph Brodsky, leveraging their versions in English as a sign of the poet’s further distance from the traditional purposes of the elegy: consolation, grieving, and honoring the dead. For him, all the traditional consolations that the elegy promised proved unavailable. In his case, some kind of existential strength powered them. He had remarked that one of his heroes, Constantine Cavafy, sounded better in English than in Greek (how did he know this?).
As a result, one could conclude that the translated poem superseded the original, as it embodied the poet’s aesthetic alienation. It was a clever argument, which I endeavored to visit in discussing his own poems, although it was by then a kind of truism that Brodsky, unlike Cavafy, didn’t translate well into English (I know, I had been one of the translators). With these things variously active in mind, along with wisps of Hart Crane, I picked up the phone.
At the time, my partner, like me, had embarked on a retooling of her education by enrolling at Washington and Lee Law School, though, like me she juggled her duties as student with her job teaching English at Virginia Tech. We were both on the move, having reached the ceiling offered journeyman instructors. She was still at the office grading papers as I called. When I conveyed the news and asked if I could come and get her, her response was “No! Don’t drive!” Instead, I walked outside and looked up at the December night sky. Grief came sliding in on the heels of the shock.
My parents arrived early the next morning and we drove on to Ohio, where weather announcers were predicting a snowstorm. My sister-in-law was distraught but coherent. The house was full of quiet co-mourners I didn’t know. I took the children in my arms and promised them my love. Then we went to the funeral home to view the body. His temple had been patched over with what looked like a miniature toupee cutout. The other side was not visible. The next day the funeral came and went, as we did ourselves, not before I asked to see the bedroom, where I found a few hairs embedded on a cabinet where they had landed as the bullet made its ricochet around the room. I put them in my wallet.
I took some time off. Word had spread over two campuses. Many of my colleagues made offers of solace; others maintained a discreet distance. When I returned to Charlottesville, I was met with kid-glove condolences from my professors and a kind invitation from my philosophy professor Richard Rorty to spend some time at his house in the country. I took him up on it and used the occasion to confront my guilt, which took the form of two regrets.
The first was the invitation to join my brother for Thanksgiving that I had declined, on my partner’s argument that such a trip would be disruptive just as she was facing the final exams of her first semester. In the second instance, I had declined to speak at his funeral, as my mother had urged me to do. I felt unable to say the commonplace phrases with conviction. My mother had hoped for some comfort from my words, but I had none.
In fact, I had no idea how to think of the event. Words had been my means and poems my objects of choice. A few months later, I was listening to Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, the composer’s moving and lavish valedictory work, based on the poems of two German poets, Herman Hesse and the Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorf. I thought what if I wrote an elegy based on Straus’ song cycle, using the words of the poets he had repurposed? I could possibly weave an interlinear work to make my own outlier addition to the composer’s farewell to the world, but reset to imagine my brother’s goodbye, one he didn’t make himself.
The result, “Four Last Songs,” was a 16-page contrapuntal tetralogy in which I attempted to account for my understanding of my brother’s death using all the tools I had at my disposal, including many references to other poets of the elegy, in effect, using poetry to paint, if not resurrect, a simulacrum of the dead. Although he would not have known these references, I conceived of the whole in order to suggest a plausible reinterpretation of his life and death.
Of course, every elegy is a self-portrait. How could it not be? In another essay touching on this poem, I had written, “The subject of such a poem is dead and so cannot be addressed, except in the sense of being ‘addressed’ metaphorically. Yet memory means that the dead person remains in some virtual sense an interlocutor, whose ‘response’—silence—invites the poet to offer words on the dead’s behalf, rewriting and trying to make sense out of a life that has been discontinued. That the discontinuance was intended adds a special urgency to the desire to make sense. That, in a roundabout way, is the subject of the poem.” I realize that quoting oneself is not a recipe for artistic success, but the circularity it indicates suggests that coming back to the silence is both unavoidable and inevitable.
Solzhenitsyn’s image of the oak and the calf came to mind as I was working on the poem. The animal’s persistence in butting his immature head repeatedly against the tree contains its own secret meaning, the one Camus further articulated in his Sisyphus, who dared to put death itself in chains and was punished by the gods for such a presumption. And yet, as Camus concluded, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
At the same time, my poem had every intention of pushing the boundaries of the genre until it became unstable, even as it was formally framed in ways familiar to any literate reader. Death puts us in the arena of paradox, poetry’s version of quantum mechanics. It both is and isn’t, depending on how you approach it and what you expect by way of experience. I’ve come to believe that the elegy isn’t so much a genre as the smash-up of all our attempts at articulation against the wall of silence. The poem ends:
Having dreamed a long time, it is time
led from the present
to the distant,but
let us not lose our way
but move along the wall of silence
and cling, as he has done, to the wall of silence.
My friend Tess Gallagher suggested I add the phrase “as he has done” in order to suggest his complicity, not only in his unmaking, but in our making and remaking. The Southern Review published the poem on April 1, 1995, the date of my birthday and the day I met my future wife, the daughter of my teacher, Carolyn Kizer. She told me that she had decided she wanted to marry me after reading the poem some months later. I had my brother’s death to thank for that.
After getting “Four Last Songs” down on paper, I continued to write poems to and about him, and I began to understand that my poems had found their source in a kind of chugging persistence. I would butt my head against his fate, which is to say silence, again and again. To say it was a kind of negative happiness would be to put too fine a point on it. It became a duty, which is what language becomes in the face of the completely obdurate. As I put it in a poem (“The Temple”) a few years later:
So I was drawn to the stone, the marble,
and the brick, which refused to give up
the night frozen in their veins.
But these returned me to the bruises,
the bones pulverized to chalk,
to the penitential steepness
of steps leading to the temple,
where my type stood on generic feet
as had thousands before, and the self
stood with it, like a public defender.
When I began translating Dante’s Paradiso a decade ago, I began to understand that there was another presumption in the offing. In Dante’s poem everyone is either a spirit or dead, with the exception of the poet himself. In the first canto, the poet drops a reference to Marsyas, a satyr who boasted that his flute playing surpassed the beauty of Apollo’s lyre. This is recounted in Ovid. The god responded by having Marsyas flayed alive. Curiously Dante’s mention comes during the invocatio, the traditional call for inspiration from the beyond. He calls on Apollo, asking the god to
Enter my breast and blow as high
as you did when you pulled Marsyas’
limbs out from their sheath.
The image is slightly askew. In terms of the challenge, it is not Apollo whose breath matters; in fact, he plays the lyre. Marsyas, on the other hand, plays an aulos, a double flute. Dante, in conflating breath with judgment, along with inspiration, seems to be suggesting that Marsyas, part animal, part human, can neither exonerate himself, nor escape. In Titian’s rendering, he is skinned upside down, as if inversion were also his fate. The violence of it is not to be looked at askance. His presumption lay in asserting that his own breath was superior to the god’s.
Dante seems moreover to be implicating himself and his hubris in creating even the smallest simulacrum of his experience. He constantly confesses his guilt at being a poor poet, urging the reader to understand that the marvels he described are hapless reductions of the real thing. What he most desires is impossible, and yet the result, the Commedia, is a towering work. Are we to presume that Marysas was happy? That he challenged the god? That he inspired Ovid and Titian? When you look at the painting upside down, you can only conclude that Marysas’ expression is one of puzzlement, not pain.
The paradox so obsessively worked over and into the poem explains why poetry fails. Silence, on the other hand, is mute in its triumph. I wrote another poem during this period in which I had the temerity to counter Yeats. In it, I allude to the commute up the Appalachians from Blacksburg and Charlottesville, and speak of a mountain I used to encounter. It looked like a mammoth vault, and it began to symbolize for me the impossibility of passage, although the highway easily curled around it.
The Red Tower
For two years I drove by a mountain
and wondered how long it would take
to tunnel through using a teaspoon.
That’s how dead my brother was.
No, more. And I thought the young
Yeats was wrong when he wrote
that God talked to those long dead.
I imagined a blinking tower
on a mountain: the red light pulsed
but raised no one. Because even if
God talked to the dead, what could
He possibly say to them?
What could He possibly say?
Of course I can’t answer the question. It would be absurd. But the question itself revives a paradox where I felt myself ready to sharpen my pencil. If then paradox is a kind of ground for writing, then genres and theories are relieved of their obligations to sort and judge. They were sui genesis after all. Elizabeth Bishop’s Robinson Crusoe, another lost world-maker, cries, “Homemade! Homemade! But aren’t we all?” Home, or, as Bishop might insist, “home,” sits up against the silence of its defeat—and its self-defeat. Crane’s cedar leaf passes beneath the sky, many times parsed, always silent. Am I happy with this generalization? Well, that would be overstatement, but even then immediately come the qualifications, the interlinear whisperings, and the homely made thing, even a golem that melts to indifferent clay when its task of revenge is done.
© David Rigsbee
David Rigsbee is an American poet, critic and translator who has an immense body of published work behind him. Salmon Poetry has just published his translation of Dante’s Paradiso, and Black Lawrence Press will bring out his Watchman in the Knife Factory: New and Selected Poems next year. He is working on a memoir and a new book of essays to be called The Keep of Poetry.
Dante Paradiso available at: