Sunday, December 23, 2012



In the purple-tainted twilight
of the oil refineries,
I drove Orpheus late at night

while he sang his chronic hymn
in praise of suicide –
his urge to crash

into a concrete wall.
Something still smolders
from those years, nods over me

with the wheezing heads
of oil pumps on Signal Hill;
hisses pale burn-off flame –

reminds me how free I was then,
how I sang And that was life
from Tosca, the love aria

before the execution.
Those dreamless nights,
the terminal Orpheus in me

excited by infernal landscapes,
interrupting with the idiot question,
But without wanting to die,

is it really life? turning his
bird-bone back to me,
staring at that long-ago

concrete wall. That’s all right, Mama

I sing. I’m my own mother now, 
dead Orpheus in my arms as I sing.

~ Oriana © 2012


This is a confessional poem, though not only about me. There is a young man, now dead by his own hand, fused into the story. I’ve turned him into my inner Orpheus since I knew what it was to think about suicide almost every day. The suicidal depression was real, and the concrete wall was real. When you take the Cherry Avenue exit from I-405, you find yourself in Long Beach, a part of the Greater Los Angeles dominated by the Mobil Oil Refinery. Cherry is a fast street at first, running through industrial wasteland. Not far from the freeway, it veers to the left; on the right is a long concrete wall -- just a wall without a building, if I remember correctly. The years I lived in Long Beach, in my middle and late twenties, were the worst years of my life. I took the Cherry exist hundreds of time. Every time, the wall was an invitation: what if I accelerated and kept going straight --

What restrained me was not the thought of the suffering it would cause my parents (I was an only child). When seized by a suicidal impulse, I never remembered that I even had parents. Those are moments when you feel alone in the whole world, totally abandoned. No, what stopped me was the thought that I might survive, but maimed, doomed to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. That kind of failure -- ending up in a wheelchair through my own fault -- would have eclipsed the total sum of failures that my life consisted of.

One comes to America in order to be a success. I felt I was a failure at everything, but at least I could walk -- and I loved taking long walks, even if just in the streets of Long Beach (in some sections, with charming old houses with large porches, with old trees and overgrown oleander bushes, and lots of cats).

My car, the first one I ever own, was a solid Dodge, with a long hood -- lots of metal between me and whatever I might crash into. I didn’t know if my Moonbaby (the Dodge was baby blue) could accelerate to a lethal speed fast enough. I didn’t know what that speed would be. Let’s face it, I simply didn’t know how to do it right. (You needed a crash course, chuckles a naughty imp in my head.)

As for sleeping pills, Student Health dispensed no more than seven at a time. I had enough money to buy a gun, but had no idea -- this is embarrassing to confess -- how to load a gun. Did they come with a user’s manual? Besides, I was too vain. If I were to die at home, I wanted to be a pretty corpse.

I knew about running the engine with the garage door closed (this is how Anne Sexton committed suicide). The problem was: no garage. I had to park in the street. As for jumping, that also was a frequent impulse. But there were no nearby tall buildings with roof access. The one I mention in the poem “Surprised by My Own Breasts” -- that was later, when the suicide fantasies still kept me company, but my life wasn’t as desperate, and basically I already knew I wouldn’t do it. It was too late for suicide. That strange insight led to a beautiful breakthrough later on.

Thus, thanks to my practical incompetence and the lack of means, I managed to survive my youth. I also thank the gods (or call it an accident of fate, circumstances, or whatever forces govern our lives) that no one in my life said at a critical moment, “I bet you don’t have the guts to do it.” With my sense of being a failure, I was heavily into “proving myself,” and was particularly sensitive about the issue of courage (in part a legacy of coming from a family of war heroes and never-give-up survivors). (Now, if need be, I wouldn’t be ashamed to say, “You are right: I simply didn’t have the guts to do it. Isn’t that wonderful?”)

To reiterate: my incompetence saved me. I was a total failure at suicide, a klutz who didn’t know how to load a gun and was too embarrassed to ask, and vain on top of it, so no hanging myself either. Crashing the car meant a risk of mangling myself instead. I felt I couldn’t do anything right, outside of academic achievement and cooking, but excluding baking. I liked to improvise while cooking, and baking didn’t allow for that.

Stoves . . . Gas stoves are another illustration of how the method may be more important than the madness. The most famous case in point is 30% drop in suicides in Britain after the change from the use of coal gas in kitchen stoves to natural gas. Coal gas contains 10% of highly lethal carbon monoxide; natural gas, none (besides, modern stoves have a safety feature that prevents gas from escaping if no burners are lit). Take away a convenient gas chamber, and save lives.

What also comes to mind is the famous example of a would-be jumper off the Golden Gate Bridge. When he discovered that getting to the place he’d picked would require crossing six lanes of traffic, he gave up, since he was afraid of getting hit by a car (this is a real story).

You may wonder why he didn’t proceed to pick another spot, or even a different bridge. He just didn’t, and the impulse passed. Would-be suicides are fussy -- “I must do it my way” -- and certainly not logical. 

 Then there was a young man who fired a rifle to his head. Nothing happened. So he aimed the rifle at the wall, pulled the trigger, and saw the bullet hit the wall. He gave up on the rifle, though, and instead swallowed some Seconals. He was found in time, and woke up from his long sleep in a hospital. He felt tickling. The nurse said, “I’ve been tickling you for three days now.” He decided he might as well live. There is something to be said for being a failure at dying.

(A shameless digression: Last night I saw a coyote on J Street, not far from where I live. He had a loping sort of half-run, half-walk, without fear, without hurry. He ran down the middle meridian, then turned right into a small cul-de-sac. So skinny! How hard his life, how smart and fit he must be just to survive. I hope he had a pack to return to, a safe place where they could gather and laugh at the moon.)


Love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is done well. ~ Vincent Van Gogh

The shattering of dreams in terms of both work and love I think explains why in my late twenties I was constantly thinking about suicide. So why didn’t I do it? Practical incompetence is part of the answer. There were other factors. Not only was I suicidal, I was vain, and that meant sleeping pills, and I didn’t know how to get enough sleeping pills. Not only was I vain and suicidal, but also terminally intellectual. The life of the mind was my real life. I loved books. I instantly memorized Pound’s “What you love best shall not be reft from thee.” I also loved trees and classical music.

One time I felt particularly desperate and drove aimlessly around Long Beach -- just around and around, as if repeating the aimlessness of my life back then. Suddenly Mozart’s 25th Piano Concerto came on the car radio. All that beauty and harmony flowed over my agitation and worked its brain-healing miracle. Within minutes, I calmed down and simply drove home.

Later, actually past the worst years, I had a dream that I remember more vividly than any other dream. I’m walking around a campus that seems a generic college campus: the paved walkways, the tall buildings, the generic landscaping. I keep saying “Goodbye” to passers-by. I’ve made up my mind to commit suicide, but feel the need to say goodbye, be it to strangers (In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevski has a brilliant scene where Svidrigaylov wants to say goodbye to someone, anyone, before shooting himself).

In the dream I keep walking and saying goodbye until I come in front of the library. Through the tall windows, I see the endless library stacks under rows of fluorescent lights. I’m seized with astonished awe and start thinking: So many books. So many books. I wake up with that thought filling my mind.


Of course everyone knows about Plath and Sexton. But we’ve had some fairly recent suicides. In 2007 Sarah Hannah leaped to her death. Rachel Wetzsteon wrote a lovely tribute at the end of Inflorescence, Hannah’s brilliant posthumous volume. On Christmas of 2009, Rachel Wetzsteon took her own life. Also in 2009, Deborah Digges, whom I had met and adored, also killed herself. And those were just the poets who had some fame. In fact they had what many others would crawl on their knees to get: a dream academic job, adoring students, publications, awards.

Depression and suicide seem to be occupational hazards of being a poet and/or writer. The manic-depressive disorder, often compounded with addiction to alcohol, is known to be significantly more frequent among creative people. Even aside from that, the intensity that goes with giftedness, the difficult struggle for recognition, the difficulty of the craft itself -- it’s a virtual guarantee of a stressful life. This is best summarized in this little drawing:


Now that we’ve had a bit of comic relief, let me honor two of the women I’ve mentioned by sharing a bit of their work -- what they should be remembered for, not the manner of their death.

Here is a gorgeous short poem by Rachel:


Someone ought to write about (I thought
and therefore do) stage three of alchemy:
not inauspicious metal turned into
a gilded page, but that same page turned back
to basics when you step outside for air
and feel a radiance that was not there
the day before, your sidewalks lined with gold.

~ Rachel Wetzsteon


In my previous post, I quoted Sarah Hannah’s “Macbeth’s Problem.” Her sense of humor wasn’t always dark. Here is something light-hearted:


My salad days, when I was green in judgment. . .
                          ~ Antony and Cleopatra

After the long chard season
We had a lot of chard.
Winter ran for miles -- stone
Fortress, struck leaves, frozen yard.
Even the dirt was dead.

But we had chard -- abundant bundles.
Forty days in snow drifts, eating stalks.
Eighty days, a stockpot, stirring.
And then an easing of bombardment,
A grocer rushing down a busy street,
Purposely, solemnly, carrying chervil --
Charein, from the Greek, to take pleasure in.

Who knew there were so many greens?
Chive grass, Boston lettuce pollard,
Elysian shade of parsley boughs.
It might just possibly be true
That all that was undone is through.
These are the salad days.
These are the salad days!

~ Sarah Hannah

Minor, but delightful: “forty days in snow drifts, eating stalks”; “Elysian shade of parsley boughs.”

(Another shameless digression: charein is also the root of “whore.”)

(An even more shameless digression: the pure light blue dawn sky through the widespread branches of a neighbor’s tree.)


And Deborah, the beautiful, loving, dazzling Deborah Digges. Her last masterpiece was this haunting poem:

The wind blows
through the doors of my heart

The wind blows
through the doors of my heart.
It scatters my sheet music
that climbs like waves from the piano, free of the keys.
Now the notes stripped, black butterflies,
flattened against the screens.
The wind through my heart
blows all my candles out.
In my heart and its rooms is dark and windy.
From the mantle smashes birds’ nests, teacups
full of stars as the wind winds round,
a mist of sorts that rises and bends and blows
or is blown through the rooms of my heart
that shatters the windows,
rakes the bedsheets as though someone
had just made love. And my dresses
they are lifted like brides come to rest
on the bedstead, crucifixes,
dresses tangled in trees in the rooms
of my heart. To save them
I’ve thrown flowers to fields,
so that someone would pick them up
and know where they came from.
Come the bees now clinging to flowered curtains.
Off with the clothesline pinning anything, my mother’s trousseau.
It is not for me to say what is this wind
or how it came to blow through the rooms of my heart.
Wing after wing, through the rooms of the dead
the wind does not blow. Nor the basement, no wheezing,
no wind choking the cobwebs in our hair.
It is cool here, quiet, a quilt spread on soil.
But we will never lie down again.

~ Deborah Digges


Alas, now we understand what all this letting go was about, the sheet music leaving, the dresses leaving, the dresses presumably still on their hangers, thus becoming “crucifixes.” The imagery is spectacular and mysterious, unless you already know that this was preparation for departure. It’s a very dark poem to end on, so let me quickly add a favorite passage from “Ancestral Lights”:

And though I know now that Heaven may be 

only the mind’s fear of the wonders it imagines,

the way our best thoughts surprise us 

and seem not to be our own, I like to believe

we turn into light around those we love,
or would have loved, had we known them.

~ Deborah Digges


~ or would have loved them, had we known them. I, for one, feel I could love more people, more trees, more animals -- but my circumstances are constrained. I had to learn economy: a lawn in a park has to stand for a mountain meadow. But the wealth of poetry is mine. Let me give you again Rachel's poem:


Someone ought to write about (I thought
and therefore do) stage three of alchemy:
not inauspicious metal turned into
a gilded page, but that same page turned back
to basics when you step outside for air
and feel a radiance that was not there
the day before, your sidewalks lined with gold.

~ Rachel Wetzsteon



“Terminal Orpheus” is a wonderful blog. I love your accidental conflation of “exit” and “exist”: “I took the Cherry exist hundreds of times.” We all exist on the exit, obviously . . .

Your meditation on methods of suicide arrived before the news of these three holiday incidents in San Diego. During the worst years of my life, I reviewed all the options for suicide, and one thing that stopped me was realizing what a mess it leaves for others, like the people on the street who witness someone jumping out a window. Of of the three San Diego incidents this week, only the man jumping off the Coronado Bay Bridge was successful. And the police had to fish him out of the water to declare him dead.

The picture of the man perched on the freeway bridge -- so gray and desolate, and such an annoyance for the whole city.



It’s wonderful that you managed to think of the “mess [that suicide] leaves for others.” In my sane moments I thought at least about my parents and their potential immense suffering, and how I had no right to make them suffer that way. But when the impulse is very strong, sane thinking is gone. 

According to experts, most suicides are impulsive rather than pre-meditated. Having a gun in the house increases the risk of suicide five times. I have all kinds of theories about what saved me, and not having a gun or sleeping pills, or a high place to jump from, did play a role in that the impulse to end it all was not triggered in an overwhelming fashion. My practical incompetence was definitely a significant factor. I didn’t have the means, and when I thought of crashing into the concrete wall, I was too afraid I’d survive, except maimed and crippled and doomed to a wheelchair. Or, worst of all, brain-damaged. Though I felt like a failure in life, to fail at suicide in that manner was worse.

That is indeed a desolate picture in the link you sent, but it’s the comments of the readers that are an eye-opener: anger instead of compassion. And in a way, the angry are correct: life is difficult, but killing yourself is like deserting your post, or refusing the carry the burden of mortality that we all carry. Our greatest heroism is simply carrying on, in spite of existing on the exit.


I’m surprised at how our lives had so many parallels. I moved from Connecticut in 1944 to Long Beach and lived with my parents in housing. I was eighteen and got a job right away with the telephone co. which I hated but I found a skating rink  and had lots of dates. A and I were engaged but he was back East. I wanted to get an apartment with Catherine and go on to college (no money), but my parents were set against it. I despised Long Beach -- the constant reek of oil and water that tasted like rotten eggs. Probably why I decided to get married to get away to San Diego.

I still have trouble understanding depression since I have rarely been that down. And suicide-- why leave this world if it's all we have. I do know depression exists from reading Jane Kenyon and Plath, and observing friends and family who suffer from it. Who could welcome death when one remembers Autumn.

I wrote “Second Thoughts” about suicide after hearing about the suicide of the younger brother of my son in law. The police officer said, “I think he had second thoughts but it was too late.”

Digges has written so much that is memorable. My favorites are ones you quoted: the bleak  " wind blows through the doors of my heart" and "I'd like  to believe we turn into light for those we love or would have loved, had we known them."

The chard poem brings back  many memories. It's a good thing I liked it as my mother nursed the plants on and on. An aside -- I noticed  by the rose bush today the lush green leaves of a dandelion plant. We ate those too.


Thanks for this charming aside. Yes, dandelions are edible, and good for the liver too. Sorrel I never liked -- too sour. But it amazed me that you could go into the woods and bring back edibles of that sort. In Poland during wartime, even nettles were used for soup.

Depression often starts with some genuine emotional disaster, let’s say a bad break-up when you are still madly in love. But some people, including myself, have a gift for multiplying past disasters, even after life improves. As long as the sense of being a failure prevails, there are those times when it’s difficult to remember the beauty of autumn. Depression is extremely self-centered, so you can forget anything positive. The longer depression continues, the more positive memories are blocked.

The main thing is to survive one’s youth. After that, if you are lucky the way I was lucky, at some point you realize that you are going to die anyway, and life is really quite short, so you might as well make the most of whatever time is left.


This is the user’s manual for suicide. I was laughing with every paragraph.


I’m thrilled, since I meant to be humorous, though with an underlying serious message. Making access to various means of suicide more difficult can be very effective prevention, as the British example of gas stoves demonstrated. 


I love the shameless digression stories. Only a great writer can get away with such a shocking writing style.


I think it’s poetry trying to get in through the kitchen door, so to speak. The Muse of Weeping has departed, leaving me the beauty of nature, and nature imagery is the foundation of lyricism. Even writing about the weather -- a slight mizzle outside, so fine it’s invisible and doesn’t even wet the pavement -- I get a hint of lyricism, of the mystery of the world.


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