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Monday’s Poem: ‘Suicide Cascade,’ by Joy Katz

The saddest time in my life was also the time the most people said, you look beautiful.
There was a poet I would meet for coffee, he was married,
he wanted to know would I have an affair, would I, what was I doing,
he eyed my well-turned runner’s legs

There was a poet who killed herself

The last time I saw her she made a wide generous gesture, arms outswept,
in a room where people stood strapping tape on cartons full of books.

“Four dollars,” said the poet, swung
her arms as if she were walking through a field
of empty Saturday nothing-to-do—

The saddest time in my life was also the time I wrote about furniture,
the heavier the better.
A butcher block says live here.
Says fish on ice, knife marks, steady steady, loaves of bread.

I mailed myself back from a crater.
Weighted myself
to the heavy legs of tables
waited for a place to change the ending.

The poet tried to reach her therapist before she killed herself
is a place you can change the ending.

Open her book to the poem about the
evidence, you want ambulance, you want knife marks you want serious, you want serious you want hard rain, noise, turbines, thumbnails.

“Come to a party,” someone says to a woman who resembles me
exactly, feature for feature, but isn’t me

on the saddest day of my life
I sit cross-legged at a party, pretend to eat a piece of pie.
Pie, what world is that from?

Turn back one page
to a safety
pin or a spring
Saturday that would keep you
from ever walking up to the edge of that poem.

 

Four dollars, said the poet
four dollars in a meadowful of cows
four dollars we are aiming toward heaven
four dollars shakespearing over earth’s curve.

 

© Joy Katz.  Printed by permission of the author.

 

Joy Katz is the author of The Garden Room (Tupelo) and Fabulae (Southern Illinois University). “Suicide Cascade” is from a new manuscript and can be viewed here and recently appeared in Blackbird.

Her honors include a 2012 Pushcart prize and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and The MacDowell Colony. She teaches in the graduate writing programs at the University of Pittsburgh and Chatham University and lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and young son.

 

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s poetry blogger, Lisa Russ Spaar, notes:  I’ve spent sleepless nights recently thinking about two friends, one whose own sleep is troubled by his young adult child’s daily struggle with suicidal impulses, and another whose terminal physical illness makes her wish for a civilized, legal, and sanctioned way to decide if and when to end her own suffering.  The seriousness of these predicaments makes me consider the sometimes blithe or thoughtless way in which the word “suicide” is used in our culture.  The best place to take sleds or toboggans in most towns, for example, is “Suicide Hill.”  Through indiscretion and bad judgment, people are said to commit professional, political, or even fashion suicide.  A Suicide Blonde is someone who kills (dyes) her own hair and/or is so gorgeous as to be fatal.  Suicide missions, suicide pacts, group suicides, suicide clusters, suicide contagion, copycat suicide, suicide cults, bullycide, suicide trees … as a phenomenon, suicide may retain societal, cultural, familial, and even journalistic taboos, but as language it is ubiquitous.

 

The title of Joy Katz’s “Suicide Cascade” alludes to yet another kind of annihilation:  cellular suicide, or apoptosis.  This “programmed” cellular death turns out to be intrinsic to cell life (the resorption of a tadpole’s tail when it transforms into a frog, for instance, happens as the result of apoptosis, as does the formation of a fetus distinct fingers and toes).  Scientists often create or induce conditions in which cellular suicide can rid an organism of cellular aberration (viruses, auto-immune illnesses, and cancer, for instance) that threaten its destruction.  It is clear from line one of Katz’s poem, however, that she means for us to understand the phrase “suicide cascade” in a personal and existential as well as in any biological way.  If a “cascade” is a falling, a series of events or circumstances in which one experience triggers another, then the narrator of this poem, mired in “the saddest time in my life,” is about to recount a sequence of discreet, paradoxical, ironic, and even imperiling events in order to come to an articulation of the mystery and felicity by which we are sometimes permitted to return from the brink of despair.

For her “cascade,” Katz chooses long, sometimes dropped lines to suggest the seeming inevitability of a chain of discordant events.  During her saddest time, for example, the narrator’s despair is met, ironically, by the perception of others that she is especially beautiful and even open to sexual advances.  When a married poet hits on her, his indiscretion triggers for the speaker the memory of another poet who, the last time she saw the narrator before committing suicide, “made a wide generous gesture, arms outswept, / in a room where people stood strapping tape on cartons full of books. // ‘four dollars,’ said the poet,” as if assessing the little worth of her own, of any writer’s oeuvre.

As the speaker’s waterfall of memories continues, the juxtapositions accelerate and are increasingly jarring.  We learn that during her “saddest time” the narrator writes about furniture, “the heavier the better.”  Note the swift editorial cuts that follow, as poem’s psychological timbre, metaphor, memory, and speculative narrative and emotional theory accrue:

 

A butcher block says live here.
Says fish on ice, knife marks, steady steady, loaves of bread.

I mailed myself back from a crater.
Weighted myself
to the heavy legs of tables
waited for a place to change the ending.

The poet tried to reach her therapist before she killed herself
is a place you can change the ending.

Open her book to the poem about the
evidence, you want ambulance, you want knife marks you want serious, you want serious you want hard rain, noise, turbines, thumbnails.

 

The poem swerves significantly with the next line,  its invitation seeming to come out of left field:  “‘Come to a party,’” someone says to a woman who resembles me / exactly, feature for feature, but isn’t me  on the saddest day of my life / I sit cross-legged, pretend to eat a piece of pie. / Pie, what world is that from?”   The shift into the present tense here and the darkly playful use of pie – so quotidian, and yet it’s what we solve for – signal that the speaker has managed to “change the ending.”  Having by some conspiracy of will and accident and poetic imagination mailed herself back from the abyss, the crater, the speaker finds herself in a place where one might sit with legs crossed and consume mouthfuls of fruit and crust and begin to once again feel that one belongs among the living.

What calls those of us in the throes of life-threatening sadness, if we are lucky, back to life?  Is it accident?  Chance?  Choice?  Help?  Combination of all of the above?  And once we feel returned to the shores of health, how not wonder what would have happened, instead, if we were able to“turn back one page”?  What if we’d not written about heavy furniture?  Or if we’d taken up with the married poet?  Or had said no to a piece of pie?

In a discussion of Adrienne Rich’s “Tattered Kaddish,” a poem written on the 20th anniversary of Rich’s husband’s death by suicide, Katz writes, “Rich presents all suicides to the ‘reaper of the wild apple field’—a reference to the shekhinah, the feminine aspect of the divine spirit—and seeks their redemption.” Here is the last part of Rich’s poem:

Praise to life though ones we knew and loved
loved it badly, too well, and not enough

Praise to life though it tightened like a knot
on the hearts of ones we thought we knew loved us

Praise to life giving room and reason
to ones we knew and loved who felt unpraisable

Praise to them, how they loved it, when they could.

 

Katz’s poem concludes similarly, with anaphoric repetition—in Katz’s case with the suicidal poet’s reckoning:  her “four dollars,” her estimation of worth.  The phrase proliferates, four times in three/four lines; it moves through this tale’s “ending” with the powerful force of a cellular suicidal cascade designed to eradicate the rampant darkness and praise instead the burgeoning light:  “Four dollars, said the poet / four dollars in a meadowful of cows  /  four dollars we are aiming toward heaven / four dollars shakespearing over earth’s curve.”  What word better than Katz’s “shakespearing” to evoke the rich, rife force of the life of surviving poems and poets?

 

 

(Illustration by Alexander C. Kafka)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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