by Christopher J. Greggs
In this moment, I am sitting at a student café—coping with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. I've been making a practice of mindfulness, letting my thoughts stream by without judgment, while I, standing above that proverbial river, watch them flow, all the while resisting the compulsion to dam said river: the home to my worries, obsessions, and taboos. As I stand above these thoughts, I watch suicide wind the banks and shift the silt of my memories. I struggle not to court these thoughts. I am learning to let them be, to let them pass. But I fail. The rip current it offers, the self-harm and the quiet it promises, is only a vehicle. On better days, I manage to I stay grounded and let it pass. When I do, I find that the current will wander on without me. Should I fail, as I am doing now, lose my footing and swim in my anxieties, I see that the current that is offered and its strike, not as a conclusion—but as a beginning. This death instinct is an open road. I desire to shed one body for whatever must exist after. In the spirit of mindfulness, I sit in the suicidal fantasy to find that I am taken not to a blank face of darkness, but to a separate life: one freed from the rip currents of anxiety and memory, the river itself, its byzantine of tributaries. The instinct in this moment isn't death for death's sake, but death for life's sake.
I am brought to the Christian story of Jesus, the divine son of the God-head and trinity: 100 percent man-100 percent God. Such an individual (entity) could not be murdered due to a lack of agency or sudden happenstance. It holds in my mind that Jesus committed suicide via the state; and in doing so, he provided his followers access to life and "life more abundantly." Far from a deity, but still 100 percent man, I recognize this hope for myself when I follow my ideation past the mortal trauma. I recognize that the goal all along is life. A virile celebration of unabashed living geared free of memory, mystery, and the biological chemistry that informs my major depression and anxiety. If I am to be more honest, I imagine being freed of the epigenetic history that informs my predisposition toward mental health disorders.
My answer to this question, this meditation, is my poem “Suicide Resurrection.” This poem entertains the crucifixion, resurrection, and transfiguration of Christ against the ecstatic humanness of a speaker plagued by memory and trauma. Further, the poem entails suicide as self-minstrelsy, that if followed through, carries the performance of a life-instinct. As such, this life-instinct gestures toward the unknown of a life hoped for, rather than life as it is presently. The poem aims to be in a subtextual conversation with the negro spirituals, which often posit death as the means to access paradise, though not through suicide. Lastly, the poem utilizes the aspects of both the urban and the pastoral as imagistic systems that echo, subtextually, the burgeoning of life against the topic of death.
On the path to this poem, I found myself stumbling across poems of death, suicide, or self-harm that incorporated the pastoral as a metaphoric vehicle and that, at the level of subtext, explore the idea that life is present and/or blooming alongside the act or gesture of death itself. For me this raises larger questions around Freud's death instinct and whether the death drive itself is paired alongside an unspoken call for greater and deeper living: a call for a higher existence that the mind struggles to conceive as a possibility.
I feel at this juncture that it is important to state that I'm not a champion of suicide or believe that it is a noble solution to those struggling with mental health. What I am saying is that in my experience there is a part of my mind that utilizes suicide as means to search out a spiritual and mental resurrection. In this way, suicidal fantasy serves as an opportunity to explore what it would mean to be transfigured beyond the problems and concerns of the present and find a means to exist in such a space. The gesture of this meditation is inherently flawed and filled with delusion and contradiction. The successful path to such renewal for most people struggling with suicide (myself included) is likely a mental health practice inclusive of cognitive therapy, a prescribed and monitored psychotropic regimen, physical activity, meditation, and, poetry. Beyond all of this talk of mental health, suicide, death, and transfiguration, is the instinct, as flawed as it may be, that something can grow out of self-harm, brought or imagined upon ourselves, others, or potential life.
When entertaining the prospect of death in “If You Go Away,” Carl Philips’s speaker hopes that:
if there be sight at all, let me see as the torn Coyote does, turning its head briefly, looking not with understanding but recognition at where the flesh falls open around a wound that resembles the marsh violet’s petals, that hard-to- detect-at-first darkening that happens—soft, steadily—toward the flower’s throat.
In this poem, Philips’s speaker imagines what it will be like when death finds them. The sense that is prayed for is sight. The speaker hopes that in their final moments they would be able to look upon their wound and see a marsh’s violet.
Later in the poem, Philips personifies death as a boy blowing the hair up from their brow and that behind him “stray cabbage moths lifting up from/the catalpa’s blossoms make it seem as if/one bloom had flown free/from the others[.]” Here we are provided an image of death as an opportunity to bear witness to the transfiguration of a thing. That even in the presence of death as a boyish grim reaper, the speaker can harken upon a flower that is rising above “a clutch/ of still ones.”
Earlier, Philips’s speaker admits that there was a time when they entertained putting aside their natural drive to protect the body. Philips asks, “why not/let go of it, I used to think, meaning that/instinct by which the body shields itself/from what threatens it expectantly—a fist.” From here, Phillips grounds death as an abstraction, but continues the meditation. The catalpa blossom that floats later in the poem can be seen to provide echoes to the speaker’s attitude on death and perhaps the hopes or premonition of a future self—that death is a manner of life ascending.
Whereas Carl Phillips’s speaker is contemplating the role of an imagined death in their own life, the speaker in Roger Reeves’s poem, “Our Little Diorama of Argentina (Plaza de Mayo),” meditates on the suicide of their brother via a firearm, imagining said brotherexchanged. The speaker achieves this exchange using associative images of the natural world:
then you have never found your brother in a car, his head pierced by a piece of metal he lodged there with a bang. You would want an exchange, too. Cool
or uncool. A pineapple found on the kitchen counter to be more than an owl siting humped with its hundred eyes, more than a vine climbing the wall or green genie coming
out of his brown bottle. This pineapple, where black dots of hunger flutter about it, resembles only a brother disappearing into his own hand, this, the last fruit
he’d raised to his face that can do no harm. Bang. He’s back […]
There in the speaker’s mind is the likening of their brother’s reanimated body as a living fruit. While the fruit is surrounded by “dots of hunger,” it is a preferred exchange. The speaker sees their brother as a pineapple disappearing into itself. Something temporal and capable of contributing juice and flesh—a source of sustenance, something able to support life. As one of the poem’s final turns, the speaker also appears to follow the meditation of death providing a platform for reanimation and transfiguration.
“Suicide Resurrection” posits the question of death as a revolving door. I began this forward in mindfulness and see it fit to conclude in the same fashion. Back above my imagined stream, I see the present moment and me in it, sitting at a desk across from my wife in an open café filled with students from the local university. I wonder how many of them are living with suicide as an option that’s on the table. I wonder what threads anchor them down beneath the river of their anxieties and fears. Now, I am worried about my own, where I sit in the mix. I question if this essay is just another attempt at qualifying what’s wrong inside me—that broken thing. My wife asks me what I want for dinner. I don’t have an answer. There is a student ahead of me—her head down towering over a text book. A woman near the window pinches the bridge of her nose, shakes her head into her laptop. A seagull cranes up above, struggling to manage the Spring gale. Tossed against the aim of its wings, I watch it fight and careen unnaturally, until suddenly its wings pause—it finally letting go.