Thursday, October 17, 2013

`A Kind of Gravity that Stills or Thwarts'

When young and immortal and still half in love with what I mistook for easeful death, I carried the thought of suicide like a security blanket, an escape hatch for fleeing the demons I was fledging. The act seemed selfless and private, when in fact it’s brutally selfish and public. Perhaps my model was a boy I had known distantly in the fifth grade, Andrew Fletcher, who had seemed older than his years, with a fixed smile and an ingratiating way with adults that put the rest of us on edge. He hanged himself. We never got the details, never knew why he did it, and now his death after half a century is fused in memory with a Donald Justice poem. He showed me it could be done. Only in my thirties did the romance of self-destruction peter out, in part because of the suicides I had witnessed as a newspaper reporter, the physical and psychic wreckage left in their wake. In his familiar, plain-spoken manner, Ben Downing writes in “Suicides” in the July 2013 issue of The Yale Review: 

“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:

“Why shouldn’t
The dead, God damn it, be allowed one Parthian
Shot at greatness? Aren’t wakes for feasting?”

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