“I’ve known a few. Found one, in fact.
Surprising there aren’t more,
“When you stop to think of it.
I mean, it’s not hard to do,
“really, if one is intent,
and we are an impulsive species—
“what more natural than at some moment of great pain
to just say `Screw it’ and duck out?
“And yet it would seem that most of the time
there’s something holding us to life,
“a kind of gravity that stills or thwarts
all but the most determined.
“The one I found, he talked of it.
I didn’t try to dissuade him—
“he had his reasons.
But that gravity stayed him somehow,
“kept him in place through wave after wave of temptation,
until, quite suddenly, it didn’t.”
Downing gets the paradoxical nature of suicide, the years of private planning, of seduction even, that culminate in a second of impulsiveness. He writes, I assume, of the death of his friend Tom Disch five years ago, a loss that still rankles. Sexton’s suicide never touched me and grief over Berryman’s has faded, but Disch’s remains raw, perhaps because I read his science fiction as a kid and grew into an admirer of his poetry. Across time, he morphed into an old, reliable friend, though I never met him and gave up science fiction more than two-thirds of a lifetime ago. Some staggering proportion of Disch’s poetry celebrates, dissects, woos, inhabits or defies death. He’s a one-man Oxford Anthology on the subject. In a poem from 1986, “In Defense of Forest Lawn,” he has the nerve to take on Evelyn Waugh and The Loved One, itself a deathless satire:
The dead, God damn it, be allowed one Parthian
Shot at greatness? Aren’t wakes for feasting?”