Dying. Living Again. Waiting to Arrive.

“Silence,” Willhelm Kotarbinski

I haven’t written a poem, a real one, since… Well. Since I gave myself the thin, sharp scar that runs along my neck. But then I suppose it’s more complicated than that.

Some of the old words are about to be published in a book. My very own poems alongside my prose in what once was my dissertation, is now a book, and always haunts me. I had almost forgotten that I was once a poet. Of sorts. I’m never all that sure a scholar can make a good one. But I wasn’t bad, and there was something wonderful about the quiet practice of the art. The shadowed corner of a talent that, at least, no other scholar in the room had – or cared to have.

I look now at an empty chair in a dusty corner, softened in fading light. The old words are about to be published for everyone to see. I had forgotten them. I haven’t read any of them since I last turned the page to one at my defense. At a friend’s request. Before the scar.

I didn’t even re-read them when I edited the book.

I tried to kill myself more than once. There is only one scar. It is hidden along the curved line of my neck.

There was one last poem, written just before. It wasn’t like the others. It very carefully stepped across the threshold of a dark secret I’d been trying to keep most of my life. It was the one and only moment I gave a symbol to violence.

Then I died. Or tried to. Giving a very living and very bloody symbol to violence. I still think I died, in a way. I’m not sure it’s possible to survive that without at least partly dying. And I have seen enough death to know that dying isn’t just dying. There are a million ways to die and live.

Jesus has the one. We have our million.

I didn’t think about Him when it came to my way.

I remember when my doctor finally found a medicine that quieted those thoughts. The ones that whisper little songs of death. It felt like waking up to a darkened room: disorienting, quiet, almost lonely. And breathless relief that expands in your chest until it hurts.

They’re still there, in the back. Telling me softly that I should die.

I never listen.

I do wonder what happened to poetry, though. How it died somehow when I passed out from alcohol and blood. Thank God for alcohol, weirdly. For the strange grace of blacking out. Grace is never where we think it is, is it? And thank God. And I wonder if God took poetry from my hands, too, along with the knife. That’s hard to think.

Lots of things are hard to think.

And I believe that Jesus thought about me when it came to my way. My way to die. That’s why I’m alive.

I certainly wasn’t about to find a reason.

My first poem, the first real one, was about Him. I was mad as hell after a Christology class in grad school, not yet twenty-five. (Not yet shivering and terrified and free.) Someone had said that Jesus “empties” himself of his own divinity (in Phil 2:5ff). Obscure, right? But I was mad as hell, because that was the worst emptying I could imagine. So I wrote a poem called “Kenosis.” (“Emptying.”) I angrily and poetically refuted the horror of a Christianity that would insist its God must deface Himself. Because everything that God is in Christ is also a promise for us.

Everything. Even the way to die.

And I couldn’t stomach a God who wanted me to deface myself.

There are a million ways to lose your face, to die and live. This was my secret for twenty-five years of my life. I’m thirty. I’ve spent most of my life enduring violence, and that’s a hard and real truth about me. Not all violence is loud and gruesome. Most of it is secret, silent. Faceless.

I keep the nature of it vague because I’m not sure how to name it. I could try – words surface, words like “abuse” and “torture” and…my chest goes tight, my mouth sets in a line. I could try, but I haven’t learned how, even after all these years. My therapist tells me my experiences are “off the richter scale.” To which I said, “Thank you?”

Sometimes specificity stands against sympathy anyway.

So I’ll be vague.

“You’re the first person who isn’t shocked, isn’t telling me to think about something else,” someone said to me recently. After sharing some suicidal thoughts with me. I couldn’t imagine how someone could ask a thought to stop. Especially someone else’s thought. And then I shrugged, and responded, “I always used to think about slitting my throat. I really tried once, and it hurt like hell.” I’m not sure which of us felt more frightened, then, for a heartbeat.

Thoughts don’t stop. Not all thoughts are good, or pleasant.

I’m not quite telling the story in order, and not by accident. There is no real order to things, when it comes to suicide. No careful set of steps. Only horrible poems and bad songs and boring lives follow an exact order. Meanwhile, suicide is anarchy. A total lack of order.

Which makes it almost boring.

It has no meaning. Is what I’m saying.

That’s what I used to love about it, that it was meaningless.

Maybe that’s what strangled poetry, in the end: all that was meaningless. I don’t really know.

I loved a man once. And watched him die before my eyes. He’s the only person I’ve ever loved like that. And it was very hard to watch him die. To be helpless and to watch him die.

Every single one of the poems about to be published were about him.

He’d hate knowing that. Which makes me smile.

He’s not really dead. There are a million ways to die, remember. And I watched drugs kill him. He’s someone else now. I love that man, too, but not like that. I died along with him, and we both had to come back, and that was very hard.

And I believe that Jesus thought about that, too.

I mean that His one way touches our million ways. I mean that He hasn’t ceased thinking of us. I mean that He’s hidden Himself where we never think He is.

Maybe it’s because he’s dead, the man I loved, that I don’t write poetry anymore. I don’t really know.

Poetry is yearning. There is yearning that stretches over even death, and yearning that does not. I am, perhaps, still learning to want anything at all.

Which is funny, when others attempt to interpret me. When others, so easily and so unwittingly filled with wants, press their desires onto me. Especially in California. Much is projected onto my curious lack of want, the peculiar facelessness underneath. The emptied heart. And I just smile. What am I to say in any case? “No, no. I watched the man I love die.” Or, “Violence. It gutted me.” So I just smile. Not quite patient, not quite angry.

It was very hard to watch him die. It was very hard to try and make myself die. I do not know what else to say about these things.

There are words. And there is silence. And both speak.

Maybe poetry will come back to me. I’ve never tried to force it. Maybe it will arrive again, and new, after it had died. After all, there are a million ways to die and live.

And just the one.


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