Poet's Choice

By Mary Karr
Sunday, September 21, 2008

When prose cult figure David Foster Wallace committed suicide on Sept. 12, he succumbed to the depression that's murdered too many literary titans. The loss slammed into my solar plexus like a black medicine ball, knocking the wind out of me. Almost 20 years back when David crossed my path, I was battling my own black mood, and David tried -- patiently, assiduously -- to cheer me up. He softly thwacked tennis balls at me and edited my paltry attempts at an essay. Thanks to him, I'd find in my office mailbox rap mix tapes he'd annotated with his not-yet-famous footnotes.

Those days, I was still young enough to indulge my misery by rereading John Berryman's "He Resigns," penned shortly before he leapt into the Mississippi River: "Age, and the deaths, and the ghosts./Her having gone away/in spirit from me. Hosts/of regrets come & find me empty.//I don't feel this will change./I don't want any thing/or person, familiar or strange./I don't think I will sing // any more just now;/or ever. . . ."

How could David's manic genius have gone as dark as this? I'd assumed, from our scant communication during the past decade, that we'd both outgrown our melancholia. For days, I've trolled my poetry shelves for the right words to grieve with, the way an insomniac pharmacist -- desperate for sleep -- might pick through her tinctures. At first, I sought Heather McHugh's sweet variation on Rilke's goodbye poem, which is spoken by a dying man: "My friend, I must leave you./Do you want to see/the place on a map?/It's a black dot. // Inside myself, if things/all go as planned, it will/become a point of rose/in a green land."

Rilke's afterlife here becomes an eternity of green in which he can blossom like a rose, as no doubt David will in the minds of his devoted readers. But, ultimately, this childhood snapshot by Weldon Kees, a poet and presumed suicide, captures the innocent melody of my early friendship with David, while permitting -- sandwiched in the center stanza -- some rage against adding his death to the planet's roster of horror:


The porchlight coming on again,

Early November, the dead leaves

Raked in piles, the wicker swing

Creaking. Across the lots

A phonograph is playing Ja-Da.

An orange moon. I see the lives

Of neighbors, mapped and marred

Like all the wars ahead, and R.

Insane, B., with his throat cut,

Fifteen years from now, in Omaha.

I did not know them then.

My airedale scratches at the door

And I am back from seeing Milton Sills

And Doris Kenyon. Twelve years old.

The porchlight coming on again.

Dear David Foster Wallace, thanks for the light.

("He Resigns" is from "Delusions, Etc." Copyright 1972 by John Berryman. "Four Poems after Rilke" is from " Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968-1993." Copyright 1994 by Heather McHugh. Reprinted with permission of Heather McHugh. "1926" is reprinted from "The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees," edited by Donald Justice, by permission of the Univ. of Nebraska. Copyright © 1962, 1975 by the Univ. of Nebraska.)

Mary Karr has published four books of poems, most recently "Sinners Welcome."

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