The memorial service proved a study in numbed, dignified restraint.
Reetika Vazirani was so warm and open, so brilliant, so beautiful, a procession of mourners said, taking the lectern to share their recollections. Reetika, the gifted, painstaking poet; the encouraging but rigorous teacher; the magnanimous friend. And her son, Jehan, such a captivating 2-year-old. A sprite attending a grown-up friend’s party in a wizard’s cape. A wonder, learning his colors in Spanish — azul, amarillo, verde. In the photos displayed at the entrance to the room — in which he rode a carousel, perched atop a slide, or nestled on Reetika’s lap — he was always beaming.
Before long, the service last July at the National Press Club took on the feeling and cadences of a poetry reading. That was fitting: The room was full of poets, and poetry had given Reetika her place in the world. One friend chose Edna St. Vincent Millay. A colleague from William & Mary offered a few lines of Langston Hughes. A poem by Yusef Komunyakaa, Jehan’s father, began “I am five”; the friend who read it wanted to evoke an age Jehan would never reach.
People read from Reetika’s own poems, too, of course: the one starring Billie Holiday, the one titled “It’s a Young Country” (”pack lightly we move so fast”), several reflecting on the immigrant experience she knew well, having come to America from India as a child. And someone read her aching three-line “Lullaby”:
I would not sing you to sleep.
I would press my lips to your ear
and hope the terror in my heart stirs you.
Did anyone wail or pound at the lectern? Or demand an explanation — “How could you do this? Why did you do this? What on earth happened?” Nobody did. Reetika’s family, stoically listening in the front row, said nothing, except for her brother, Ashish, who welcomed everyone with remarkable composure. Yusef Komunyakaa, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet with whom Reetika had a troubled relationship, also kept his silence.
The week before, on July 16, while housesitting on a lovely block in Northwest D.C., Reetika killed her adored son — stabbed him with a kitchen knife. Then she stabbed herself to death. No one who knew her had thought she was capable of such violence, against anyone, much less her child. No one could understand.
In the wider world — as people called one another with the news, posited theories, posted opinions and tributes on the Web — there was anger at Reetika for her murderous selfishness, for going beyond suicide to the still greater horror of infanticide. Or at Komunyakaa for somehow failing to halt her descent and its awful consequences. Or, if they knew Reetika, at their own inability to stop her. There had to be someone to blame.
Rita Dove, the former U.S. poet laureate who became Reetika’s teacher and mentor, tried to counter the outbursts. “This was not the Reetika that you knew,” Dove kept telling the enraged and appalled. “At that moment, she was truly insane. She couldn’t find her way back to herself.”
But none of that debate penetrated the dull sorrow at the memorial. There, Dove recalled the younger Reetika she’d taught at the University of Virginia. She spoke of her eyes that “shone out with a clear, invigorating joy” and of her poems “whose musicality was threaded through with pain and yet, simultaneously, the ironic acknowledgment of pain’s passing.” She wondered whether Reetika’s artistic perfectionism meant that she “could not confess, even to her closest friends, the unfinished, unpolished despair that drove her to take leave of us.
“We didn’t know, Reetika,” Dove concluded, in the end yielding to the impenetrable mystery at the core of any suicide. “We didn’t know.”
I say, sailor, we are both marooned on this beach.
— from “White Elephants”
SHE TAKES THE MICROPHONE looking poised, at ease among friends, sure of her power. She’s wearing a low-cut, coral tank top under a black jacket, with a pendant shining against her collarbone — a stylish, dramatically beautiful woman with a mass of glossy black hair, brows arched over wide eyes. She’s 39 and starting to appear in public in rimless spectacles. A tiny person, about 5-2 and a size 4, she has always worried about playing into ethnic stereotypes (”she hated more than anything being portrayed as a submissive Asian woman,” a friend says); the eyeglasses add gravitas.
For years, doggedly determined to establish herself in the poetry world, Reetika Vazirani would travel almost anywhere to read her work: bookstores, campuses, festivals. Often she had to tote her own books to sell, buy her own train ticket, e-mail friends in the area to drum up attendance. As long as the audience outnumbers the poets, the joke goes, that’s a successful reading.
But now, to see and hear Reetika read requires videotape. This one dates to January 2002, when Callaloo — “the premier African diaspora literary journal,” to which she’d contributed for years — was celebrating its 25th anniversary.
“Let me just say, it’s always a challenge to be the Other,” Reetika says, before reading from World Hotel, her second volume of poetry.
Many of the poems she reads, in a breathy, incantatory alto, tell about Otherness. One series fictionalizes the life of her mother, Heea, educated in an Indian boarding school and then a college in the American South, who straddled two cultures ever after. Another, from her 1996 debut collection, White Elephants — a title, she often noted, that in India refers to a sacred animal but in America denotes cast-off possessions — delineates in sonnets the experiences of newcomers to the land of opportunity.
People who knew her as a child might be surprised by her sense of alienation. The Vazirani kids went to “a melting pot of an elementary school” in Silver Spring, says her older sister, Deepika Harris. Reetika (pronounced REE-ti-kuh) biked with friends, took ballet lessons, made the varsity track team at Springbrook High School. It looked, from the outside, like a normal middle-class suburban life. Yet her poetry picks relentlessly at her immigrant discomfort. “She wasn’t segregated,” insists her sister, who thinks Reetika “magnified” her experience. Maybe, Deepika muses, she needed a compelling, even fashionable subject. Whatever the reason, Otherness became an enduring theme.
When the children went to church, Reetika tells the Callaloo audience between poems, “there were these elderly ladies who loved to question us, the five of us kids in my family. How many books are in the Old Testament? they’d ask us. How many books are in the New Testament? And weren’t we the cleverest children ever? They were so happy that we were the ‘Vietnamese refugees’ they had decided to sponsor.” The crowd chuckles.
“I grew up in a house of accents,” she observes at another point. “I wanted to have no accent. I wanted to be Nancy from the Midwest.” More chuckles. “My brother changed his name to Kenny for a while.” Then, adopting her grandmother’s British/Indian tones, she reads from her ruefully comic poems about a transplanted Mrs. Biswas who laments:
last week I sent my sari
to new dry cleaner, and I was in shock
to be billed for two tablecloths.
She’s telling her own history, but embroidered, reimagined.
She was 6 when her family left Punjab in 1968 and settled, after a few interim stops, in a new colonial in White Oak, part of a wave of Indians coming to the United States after its immigration laws loosened in 1965. Her father, Sunder Vazirani, an oral surgeon who’d gotten his graduate education at the University of Illinois, became assistant dean at Howard University’s dental school. There were four children then (Reetika was the second oldest), members of what Indian Americans had not yet dubbed “the 1.5 generation,” meaning born there, raised here. The youngest sister was born here in 1969.
In some ways, the Vaziranis were multicultural before the word came into vogue. Sunder and Heea didn’t have an arranged marriage, Deepika points out; they met in the United States and married despite differences in native region and language (he was Sindhi, she was Bengali) and in religion (he was Hindu, she was Christian). Because he taught at Howard, many of their friends and associates were African American. Heea exposed the children to a variety of religious practices, as well as to museums and theaters.
Then, in June 1974, Sunder Vazirani committed suicide at 46. As the police and paramedics arrived, the children — just coming home from a day’s shopping — were whisked off to a friend’s home. Reetika, almost 12, and the others weren’t sure until later what had happened. “Mom was very discreet and protected us,” Deepika says. “It didn’t even click for us that he’d died. We were having pizza.”
Their father had worked almost nonstop, combining a dental practice with his academic duties. Even so, he’d found it difficult to support a family of seven, Deepika says. Beyond that, she can’t explain what went wrong; it was a family where much went unsaid. Today, she’s the only family member willing to publicly discuss her sister’s death.
As an adult, Reetika grew to resent her mother’s tight-lipped approach. “She never said he was dead, and I didn’t ask, because I knew he would turn up in an airport and come back to us,” she wrote in an unpublished essay, part of a collection assembled by University of Tennessee writer Marilyn Kallet. The children weren’t told how their father died; it was Deepika, pointedly questioning her parents’ friends, who eventually determined that he’d taken an overdose of Valium. As teenagers, she and Reetika were “the snoops of our family,” Deepika says. “We discovered things, rather than things being told to us.”
After her father’s death and her mother’s remarriage four years later, Reetika spent a long time feeling “numb,” she told Renee Shea, who interviewed her for Poets & Writers magazine in 2002. “I had no sense that there was a place for me in the world except in books.”
She went off to Wellesley College, planning to become the doctor her father had urged her to be. Then she went to a reading by West Indies-born poet Derek Walcott — another chronicler of cultural and racial crosscurrents — and knew suddenly that she was not headed for medical school.
The letters she wrote her friend and adviser E. Ethelbert Miller in the late ‘80s and ‘90s show her struggling to get noticed, to get published, to connect with the world of culture and literature where she clearly felt she belonged.
She was living, instead, with her husband, John Jordan — a family friend and aspiring musician she’d married in 1989 — in Nashville and then Blacksburg, Va. She was sending her submissions to small literary journals, getting turned down, sending them out again, all the while scrounging for money for postage and photocopying.
“I am in the Nice Note Phase,” Reetika wrote Miller in 1990, when Callaloo editor Charles Rowell had accepted a poem, but almost everyone else was sending encouraging rejection notes. “I Would Like to Get Out of It!” The following year she reported: “So far I have had six journals accept a total of 10 poems. Do I qualify for an NEA [grant] yet? Or do I have to be in 10 journals? Or 150 journals?”
By 1994, important publications had begun to accept her work, but she still sounded frustrated. To make ends meet, she’d been working at Pier 1 Imports, then at a bookstore; she taught English at private schools. Restive in her marriage (it ended in 1997), she was starting to think about the graduate writing program at U-Va. “I guess it’s partly the panic of being 32 & having no job, no future,” she fretted in a postcard.
But if Reetika found her campaign for a career discouraging, others saw only promise. Admitted to U-Va. with her first book contract in hand, “she came to our program as a poet who was going to make it, regardless,” Dove recalls. “It was just a question of how fast.”
Her subject matter was attractive, fresh — America was slowly discovering the vibrant South Asian culture flourishing in its midst, with its attendant allures and confusions. In her early poems, elders remember their pasts in the home country; young people feel burdened by and curious about their history; everyone faces the New World’s demands with bewilderment. Sometimes they can only shrug at its comedy and heartbreak. Her later work addressed another variant of contemporary rootlessness, a transitory America whose inhabitants stay in constant motion and can’t seem to light anywhere for long.
What also distinguished her poetry, however, was her skill. She was known for continual revisions, for chipping at each line, sanding down every couplet. “Always just the right word in just the right place to evoke the exact, appropriate effect,” says Rowell. “This is devotion to language, devotion to craft, the assumption that a poem is a piece of art, not just an assertion of an emotion or some sort of divine inspiration.”
Marilyn Hacker, who had discovered her work among the 800 submissions she received each month as editor of the Kenyon Review, was taken with “the novelistic eye for detail and character and landscape, the spoken voices with different inflections.” It was Hacker who awarded Reetika the Barnard New Women Poets Prize, which put her on the map and got White Elephants published.
Though she hadn’t yet cracked the top tier — her poems had yet to appear in the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly or Poetry magazine — Reetika was well on her way. By last summer she’d won a host of awards (the Discovery/The Nation Award, the Pushcart Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award). She’d been invited to major artist colonies and workshops (Yaddo, Bread Loaf, Sewanee); she’d taught (superbly, everyone said) at colleges and conferences.
The poems and, of course, everything she said or didn’t say, did or didn’t do, are receiving new scrutiny now. Her friend Meena Alexander, a sister in the small sorority of Indian American poets, likes to quote Adrienne Rich on how poets must go where the fear is. “I would never have said this in this way, except for what has happened,” Alexander says, haltingly, of Reetika’s poetry. “There was extraordinary surface embellishment. Fantastic manipulation of form. But I always felt, this girl is not going where it really hurts. I always felt it didn’t go to the darkness. And now I understand why — it was just too scary.”
Everyone I know and love is an ego-maniac.
— from “Today I Am”
ANOTHER READING, last March. Reetika is about to go onstage at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in Manhattan, which has managed to shoehorn offices, a bookshop and a performance space into one Garment District loft. There’s a stool and a mike set up on the low wooden platform, a flight of origami birds fastened to the wall behind her.
She’s traveled up by train from Trenton, N.J., where Yusef Komunyakaa lives and is caring for Jehan while Reetika makes this appearance. She’ll head to Smith College the following week, to a Virginia community college in April, on to D.C. and Texas in May.
She’s finding it exhausting, the traveling wedged among classes (she’s teaching at William & Mary this year), the Q&A sessions and receptions, all made more complicated by the needs of her toddler son. But such events keep her name and her work in front of the small public that cares about and buys poetry.
Sometimes very small. At the appointed hour there are exactly eight people in the audience, including the workshop staff and a friend she phoned that day. “An intimate audience,” Reetika says dryly. And then she reads.
Establishing a poetry career requires a combination of courage and foolhardiness. Success is likely to bring neither fortune nor fame, yet the competition is ferocious and growing.
Certain key numbers are tiny. Print run of Reetika’s second book: 3,000 copies. Advance paid by the publisher, the nonprofit Copper Canyon Press: probably about $2,500. Circulation of the nation’s largest poetry magazine: about 12,000.
Even at a time when poetry’s visibility is growing, very few poets achieve financial security, most often through academic positions. Beyond literary circles, even the most eminent can remain obscure. Komunyakaa, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is about as honored as an American poet can be, apart from not having been named (yet) the nation’s poet laureate. He teaches at Princeton; he’s won the Pulitzer Prize and all the major poetry awards, published a dozen books, been elected chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. But stop any 10 reasonably well-educated people on the street and ask whether Yusef Komunyakaa is (a) an African diplomat, (b) a prize-winning poet or (c) the winner of the Boston Marathon. How many would get it right?
The marginalization can become painful. Yet the number of would-be poets — and the university programs granting them degrees — keeps multiplying. Editors and competition judges are overwhelmed by submissions. Entrants vying for the Barnard New Women Poets Prize when Reetika won: 800. Manuscripts sent to Copper Canyon each year: 1,500, of which it publishes a dozen, plus several reissues. Submissions to Poetry magazine annually: 90,000, from which it selects no more than 350.
Because of the intense competition, the poetry world can be an incubator for jealous scorekeeping as well as supportive mentoring. “The ambition, the monumental egotism that besets a lot of poets is not a very pleasing human characteristic,” says Joseph Parisi, who edited Poetry for 20 years. “And it’s fairly prevalent.” Women and minorities still see the field as dominated by white males, and women swap stories of come-ons and liaisons that in another sphere would precipitate sexual harassment complaints.
But Reetika navigated this minefield “in a way that looked entirely graceful,” says her friend Kendra Hamilton, a Charlottesville poet. “It was an amazing balancing act.”
She was a genius at friendship: gracious and open (yet discreet), people say. You felt, after talking to her for an hour or two, that you’d known her half your life. You’d get little notes and know she was thinking of you, even if you hadn’t spoken for six months. She once took leftover fabric from a shortened silk skirt and made scarves for her junior faculty (i.e., insolvent) friends. “Very giving, very effervescent, extremely sweet,” says poet Garrett Hongo, who brought her to the University of Oregon to teach one fall. “It was not hard to be her friend.”
She could be a hustler, too, ambitious on behalf of her career. Poetry is anything but an ethereal profession whose practitioners can rely on their muses. Getting attention requires relentless networking, a resume full of publications and awards. “Create a buzz around yourself,” Reetika advised a poet friend. “That’s what I did.”
Jeet Thayil, a New York poetry editor, watched with admiration as Reetika e-mailed notices of upcoming readings, reviews of her book, even order forms to a long list of friends and acquaintances, with exhortations to pass the word. “If she’d held a class entitled ‘How to Promote Your Poetry,’ I’d have paid to attend,” Thayil says.
She had an instinct, too, for finding protective older poets to guide and advance her, like Ethelbert Miller, Washington’s Mr. Poetry, who arranged her first readings, and Rita Dove, who included her in the Best American Poetry collection in 2000.
Yet despite the buzz, she still wasn’t where she wanted to be. A stable academic job, financial security, the critical appreciation she thought she deserved, none of that had materialized. A woman who felt like a refugee much of her life had chosen a profession whose demands exacerbated her fears, and, as she became a mother and rounded 40, that was wearing on her.
Seven of us.
— from “Quiet Death in a Red Closet”
SHE KNEW SUFFERING, even despair. Her father’s death haunted her. It infiltrated her thoughts and her work — the 42 sonnets dedicated to his memory in White Elephants constituted “my funeral for my father,” she told an India Today interviewer. “I have been desperate, silent, silenced, alone, hungry, angry, and crushed,” she wrote to Rita Dove in a 2003 New Year’s letter, recapping three trying years that included pregnancy and birth, the start and looming end of her relationship with Komunyakaa, repeated moves, unsettling emotions. “Surviving that has been the last and best stage of my recovery from my father’s rejection of himself.”
She worked at recovering for years. As early as Wellesley, she sought help from a therapist, says her sister Deepika, who doesn’t know much about her diagnosis or treatment. People sometimes glimpsed the melancholy under Reetika’s high spirits. Rootlessness was not merely a poetic subject; her yearning for permanence was striking. She often listed the places she’d lived — three Indian cities, addresses in and around D.C., Massachusetts, Florida, Tennessee, Virginia, Oregon, New Jersey — and if the number of locations sometimes varied, her point was unmistakable. She lived, friends say, like a nomad.
“She had a longing for a home of her own that was overwhelming,” says Kendra Hamilton, whose tin-roofed 1920s house in Charlottesville moved Reetika to expressions of envy.
The attempt to find a cultural and racial identity was a related preoccupation. Not a U.S. citizen until her college years, Reetika depicted in her poetry a lingering fear of deportation. “That feeling never goes away,” says her friend Vijay Prashad, a professor at Connecticut’s Trinity College with whom she kicked around questions of race and ethnicity. “When are they coming for me?”
She also developed an acute sensitivity to questions of color and wrote often of her mother’s use of Porcelana skin cream. To Deepika, it was just a cosmetic meant to prevent sun blotches, no more meaningful than fingernail polish. To Reetika, Porcelana bespoke a desire for whiteness, “an attempt at erasure,” she told Poets & Writers.
She identified with African Americans — Marvin Gaye, the Supremes and James Baldwin show up in her poetry. No one at the Callaloo conference, where she taught each summer, paid much attention to the fact that she had scant actual connection to the African diaspora. Many of her friends, and ultimately the father of her son, were black — not a common choice among Indian American immigrants. She fused that affinity with her own roots. Like her father, she was a serious practitioner of yoga; she studied Hindi and scattered it through her poems.
She didn’t feel at home anywhere, she told one friend.
Perhaps the last time she knew some stability was at Sweet Briar College, a tiny women’s school in a small central Virginia town where Reetika was writer-in-residence from 1998 to 2001. Sweet Briar provided a two-story brick house; she painted the rooms in bright colors, sunny yellow, robin’s-egg blue. She acquired a circle of friends, self-christened the Very Junior Faculty, and brought her specialty, the lentil dish dal, to potluck suppers. And though her salary was modest — in the mid-$30,000s — the college offered health insurance, which she used in part to pay for psychotherapy. Friends knew she made regular visits to a Charlottesville therapist, though they didn’t know precisely why, and that she had tried the antidepressants Paxil and Prozac.
It was not altogether a happy time. Professionally, she felt stalled, as her second book got rejected by one publisher after another before finding a home at Copper Canyon Press. Personally, she was searching for someone to share her life; she had a destructive tendency, she told her writer friend Carla Drysdale, toward involvements with older men who were unavailable, sometimes because they were married. She had always wanted a child, but she was in her late thirties and single. She and Drysdale mused aloud about men and love and whether, as poets, they would ever have the homes and families that others took for granted. People saw her struggling with dark moods.
But they also started hearing about a new romance. Exactly where Reetika met Yusef Komunyakaa is unclear — they’d been at several conferences together. She admired his work enormously from a distance, but now they’d finally arranged an actual date, and “she called me, all excited,” remembers Garrett Hongo. “She’d had a crush on him for years.”
Lots of women found Komunyakaa (born James Willie Brown Jr. in Bogalusa, La.) attractive. He was another older man, 15 years older than Reetika and starting to gray, but charismatic in the extreme. His readings, despite a whisper-soft voice, could be electrifying. “Middle-aged white ladies were about to toss their panties on the stage,” says Kendra Hamilton. Reetika seemed both flattered and awed.
The relationship struck a number of people as odd, nonetheless. She was funny and gregarious, Komunyakaa cerebral and so reserved that ordinary small talk could be difficult. He already had an adult daughter with his ex-wife, and Reetika told Drysdale she was willing to sacrifice her own desire for a child to be with him. Though that became unnecessary because of her pregnancy, apparently unplanned, friends wondered how long the relationship could endure. “They were never around each other for any extended period,” says a Sweet Briar colleague, who agreed to discuss the relationship only without being identified. “Nothing in it suggested permanence and commitment.”
Still, they both cherished Jehan Vazirani Komunyakaa from the moment he was born, by Caesarean section, in December 2000.
I’ll say there was joy,
but it was never what we had in mind
— from “Letter to Jaipur”
SHE WAS EXCITED about motherhood and had prepared carefully, eating healthily, substituting a less demanding yoga routine as her pregnancy advanced, lining up girlfriends to help her through birth.
Komunyakaa took a train from New Jersey and arrived at the hospital in Lynchburg the day after Jehan was born. “Yusef was sitting in a rocking chair, and Reetika was in bed,” her friend Diane Taylor remembers. “Yusef was holding tiny Jehan in both hands, just admiring this little baby, and a soft smile came across his face.”
They raised him like “a little prince,” adds Charles Rowell, his godfather. That fit: Jehan was named for the ruler who built the Taj Mahal. They exposed him to the things they cherished — music, art, friends. He had a small guitar he loved so dearly that he slept with it. As he grew, instead of reciting that cows go moo, Jehan learned games about musicians and instruments. “Who’s your favorite musician?” Komunyakaa, whose poetry is often infused with jazz, liked to ask him. And if Jehan replied “Wynton Marsalis,” his father would tease, “I thought your favorite was Miles Davis.”
A toddler able to gaze at paintings and identify the ones he liked, Jehan could amuse himself for a considerable stretch with crayons and paper. At the most recent Callaloo workshop, he could be found drawing horses with poet Percival Everett at dinner while they chatted about going riding at Uncle Percival’s ranch one day. Jehan was frequently the only child in a roomful of adults, which had its advantages. “Everyone was always reaching for him,” says Edwige Danticat, who also taught at Callaloo last spring.
Reetika loved watching Jehan grow — he was “a total joybird,” she wrote to Dove — but coping with a newborn and her academic work drained her. “You won’t be able to put together a sentence, but you have to keep trying,” Dove had warned, and she had a point. Essentially a single parent — Komunyakaa remained at Princeton — Reetika grew emotional, occasionally even snappish, as she tried to regain her equilibrium. Colleagues thought she might be experiencing depression postpartum, a period when women with psychiatric troubles are particularly vulnerable.
Though she and Komunyakaa never married (she told friends that he was willing but she’d declined), she did want to give their relationship every chance, to give Jehan a family. She left Sweet Briar a year earlier than planned and moved into Komunyakaa’s big old house in Trenton in the spring of 2001. But the place seemed “cavernous,” she complained; the neighborhood felt dangerous; she was far from friends and family. The relationship — about which she was discreet — evidently wasn’t working. She began to talk about being afraid, though she never said exactly what frightened her.
Vijay Prashad and his wife, Elisabeth Armstrong, academics living in western Massachusetts, received an unnerving message, apparently e-mailed to a group of friends, that fall. “It sounded sudden and it sounded scared,” says Armstrong. “Something like, ‘For reasons I can’t get into here, for my safety and the safety of my child, I need to leave where I am. Is there anyone who can open their home to me?’ “ Prashad spoke to Reetika by phone. “She said, ‘This is terrible. It’s not working out with Yusef and me. I’m scared . . . ‘ That kind of language.”
Prashad and Armstrong had a new baby, and they’d just moved — but how could they turn away a friend in such distress? Without knowing any more, Prashad told Reetika to come. I’ll send you money for train tickets, he offered. I’ll drive down and pick you up. Just come. They made the bed in the guest room, emptied the drawers in the dresser.
But Reetika didn’t come. After a few days, Prashad called back. Things were better now, she said.
She accepted an offer from William & Mary for the next academic year, and she and Jehan moved into a Williamsburg apartment in August 2002. She seemed more in transit than ever, bringing only a desk, a mattress for Jehan, a futon for herself, her computer. She decided she couldn’t afford to purchase health insurance on her $30,000 salary. Though Jehan was covered by his father’s policy, Reetika had been uninsured, and apparently out of treatment, since leaving Sweet Briar.
That fall, Emory University approached Komunyakaa with an enticing deal: an endowed chair, a hefty salary, a reduced teaching load. He said he’d be more willing to relocate if Reetika could teach there as well, and a job appeared: an annual contract, indefinitely renewable, at a salary — about $50,000 — higher than she’d ever earned. They accepted, and Reetika started house-hunting in Atlanta. Here was a chance to end the annual job-hopping, to be in the same city as Jehan’s father, if not necessarily the same home (she went back and forth on that). The nomad could finally unpack.
But doubts struck almost immediately. It wasn’t a tenure-track job. She couldn’t face moving so far from everyone and everything familiar. She was an afterthought, a consort. Perhaps she’d seen the press release Emory sent out: 10 glowing paragraphs about “Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa” and another prominent African American literature scholar joining the faculty, accolades from the provost, lists of their honors. And at the very end, a single paragraph: “Also joining the English department faculty in 2003 is poet Reetika Vazirani . . . “
By last spring, she was telling friends that the relationship with Komunyakaa was over and that she didn’t want to go to Emory. That left her, once again, alone with her child, pressed for money (though Komunyakaa sent monthly checks for Jehan’s care), facing unemployment, looking for a place to live. She had finished her third volume of poems and sent it to Copper Canyon, but she was losing altitude.
As the semester was winding down, her friend Diane Taylor spent a few days visiting. Taylor had gone out on an errand and returned to find her friend stretched out on the sofa, in tears. “Just lying on her stomach, bawling, sobbing and sobbing and sobbing.” She’d never seen Reetika so miserable. “Jehan had his hand on her head. He knew something was wrong, too.” Taylor helped Reetika calm herself.
Later, after Reetika and Jehan were dead — as friends compared notes and learned that she’d several times told one or another of them she felt “unsafe” — an uneasy idea began to take shape. Maybe the unnamed source of her fear wasn’t Komunyakaa, as some had assumed. Maybe she was terrified of herself, of what she feared she might do.
Fog owns the morning and you can’t travel.
— from “Tiffin for Tea, Lorry for Truck”
AS DISTURBING AS JOB TRAVAILS or failed relationships can be, those events don’t explain why people take their own lives, mental health experts agree. They can serve as “precipitating events,” which push a vulnerable person beyond her instinct for survival. But in the great majority of cases — 90 percent, by some estimates — the person who commits suicide has an underlying mental illness, most commonly one of the “mood disorders,” a category that includes depression and manic-depression. And those illnesses occur more frequently in creative artists than in the general population, researchers find, and in poets more than in other artists.
The idea of the tortured artist is such a centuries-old cliche that it’s tempting to dismiss it. Writers themselves bridle at it. Surely accountants and electricians are equally prone to psychopathology? “The making of a monument to these madwomen poets,” Meena Alexander protests, anticipating the inevitable comparisons to Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton, both suicides, “I think that’s terrible.” And it’s true that most artists don’t suffer from mood disorders, while most people who do aren’t particularly creative.
Yet a higher incidence of depression, manic-depression (also called bipolar disorder) and suicide keeps showing up in that group. “In the last 20 or 30 years there’s been a great deal of research, some biographical, some studies of living artists and writers,” says Johns Hopkins professor of psychiatry Kay Redfield Jamison, who’s written about her own manic-depression. “There’s a consistent pattern of finding an elevated rate of mood disorders in artists and writers.”
Her book Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament includes her own study of major 19th-century British and Irish poets, accompanied by a chart. In it, black squares indicate which poets suffered from recurrent depression or manic-depression, spent time in an asylum, committed suicide; there are lots of black squares. Two centuries later, tests and interviews of graduate students at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop found that the majority of the sample met the medical criteria for mood disorders. Other investigations have reached similar conclusions.
Genetics can explain some of this association. But mood disorders may also confer a kind of creative advantage, Jamison theorizes. “There’s a certain kind of temperament that often goes along with having been depressed,” she says. “People tend to be more intense, more mercurial; they see the world differently.” Mental illness can kill; it may also, in its milder forms, inspire.
Researchers know that suicide — which takes 30,000 American lives a year, far more than homicide — also runs in families; the risk doubles if a parent or sibling has already committed suicide.
Reetika was therefore at heightened risk because of her father’s death. But did she suffer from depression? While she told friends about seeking therapy and using (and disliking) antidepressant drugs, she doesn’t seem to have actually described herself as “depressed.” She was more likely to say she’d had “a very hard time” or “a difficult day.” Without a diagnosis from her therapists, any exploration of her mental condition is speculative.
Yet last year, during the spring and early summer, Reetika did exhibit a number of classic symptoms of major depression. She showed depressed mood; several friends witnessed crying episodes. Always slender, she’d lost weight. She complained of fatigue; she had wicked insomnia. “We talked about how you got so tired of saying you were tired that you stopped saying it, but you were desperate,” says Susan Sears, a Washington poet who also suffered from sleeplessness. “She said, ‘Yeah, I know. Isn’t it hell on earth?’ “
Certainly she was indecisive, waffling almost daily about whether to proceed to Emory. “The cold-feet syndrome,” her sister Deepika calls it. Sometimes Reetika announced that she’d return to Williamsburg and write a novel; sometimes she said she’d accept Deepika’s offer to share her Southern Maryland farmhouse. Maybe she’d teach yoga; maybe she’d travel through Rajasthan with a photographer friend and produce a book.
And certainly there were suicidal thoughts. In June, on the phone with Meena Alexander, she bemoaned her conviction that Emory really wanted only Komunyakaa. “Something started to slip in the conversation,” Alexander says. “She said to me, ‘Meena, sometimes I think it would be easier to do what my father did and just go to sleep.’ “ Alexander heard her voice go flat.
Despite her reputation for an endearing openness, Reetika was actually selective about her disclosures. She confided lots of details to lots of people, but almost no one knew everything. People who’d felt close to her for years didn’t know about her father’s suicide. Girlfriends outside the literary world sometimes heard more about her relationships than longtime poet friends.
Whether or not her state of mind can ever be accurately labeled, she must have been experiencing an anguish few can envision, and people who thought they knew her saw only glimpses of it, if they saw it at all. It’s a kind of torment that would normally produce more sympathy than censure, except that in this case, Reetika was not its only victim.
Why couldn’t she at least let her son live? “I am still angry because there were so many ways to not hurt the child,” Percival Everett says via e-mail. “I am sick with the knowledge that his sweet life is over.”
She must have felt enormous rage, one interpretation goes. “How could you kill the child without realizing how painful it would be to Yusef?” says Komunyakaa’s close friend poet Stanley Moss. “She clearly was trying to hurt him in this horrible way, and succeeded.”
Yet psychologists investigating women who kill their children — termed filicide — seldom see retribution in these crimes. That’s more likely to be a motive for murderous fathers.
Reetika didn’t fit most of the categories of filicidal mothers developed by Cheryl Meyer and Michelle Oberman, authors of Mothers Who Kill Their Children, whose team tracked more than 200 cases. She wasn’t a panicked, pregnancy-denying teenager; she wasn’t an impoverished and isolated woman who inadvertently killed through neglect or abuse. She killed intentionally. But she does seem to belong with a group of women who commit what’s sometimes called “altruistic” infanticide: A devoted mother plans to kill herself, and in her disordered mind decides to “take the child with her.”
A mother’s killing her child is not as extraordinary a crime as we sometimes think; Meyer and Oberman had no trouble finding 1,000 such cases in the United States over a decade. Among those who commit “purposeful” filicide, it frequently converges with suicide. More than half the 75 mothers in this category in the Meyer/Oberman study also killed themselves, or attempted to. They could not bear to abandon their children through their own deaths, explains Meyer, a Wright State psychologist who interviewed 40 surviving mothers in prison. They said and thought things like, “I cannot go on. And no one can raise my child as well as I can.” Or, “I wouldn’t want this child to grow up without a mother” — an idea that might particularly seize a woman who knew the pain of a parent’s suicide.
In reality, any number of people — his father, his godfather, his mother’s family — would have given Jehan a loving home. But if Reetika was mentally ill, she was not thinking rationally. She may even have become psychotic, hearing voices or having hallucinations, Meyer points out. The extreme violence of the killings argues for psychosis; use of a knife is unusual, even among women who commit suicide or filicide.
To see Reetika’s act as a disturbed form of love is the only explanation that makes sense to the people who mourn her. “They were always together,” Deepika says of Reetika and Jehan. “I don’t think she could imagine herself being without him. And I don’t think she could imagine him being without her.”
god knows what you sculpt in your mind
Sometimes after dark or first thing in the morning
— from “Dolmen Builder”
HOW COULD ANYONE, watching Reetika dance through a big stone house in late May, have envisioned what was coming?
It was the end of the annual Callaloo workshops at Texas A&M University, and Charles Rowell, the journal’s founder and Reetika’s dear friend, had planned a small faculty celebration at his new home. He set tables with his best china; a student prepared fabulously seasoned catfish; the conversation was sheer pleasure. Rowell had Afro-Cuban music playing in the background, and at one point, succumbing to its euphoric rhythms, “we were all conga-line dancing through the house and singing, even though we didn’t know the Spanish words.”
Reetika, chic as always in a jazzy red blouse and black pants, was leading the line through the kitchen, the living room, the great room. Then she danced with Komunyakaa, in a hybrid swirl blending salsa with Indian hand gestures. “She was exuberant,” Rowell remembers.
Yet only a week or so later, as Ethelbert Miller was preparing to leave for work at Howard University, Reetika called. “I just want to be with you,” she said.
They drove together to the Howard library, where she spent hours working at the long wooden table opposite his desk. He assumed she was writing the lectures she would give the following week at Bennington College, where he’d invited her to spend a few days teaching in the writing program, a brief Vermont vacation. At lunchtime, they headed out to a West Indian restaurant on Georgia Avenue, then went back to work.
In late afternoon, he noticed Reetika slipping the pages she’d written into a cabinet where she knew Miller, an archivist as well as a poet, stored letters and manuscripts from scores of writers, herself included. After she’d said goodbye and gone, he wondered, “What’s she doing messing with my file?”
She’d left him 12 handwritten pages, “all these instructions — very careful and considered,” directing what should be done after her death. They included friends’ phone numbers and e-mail addresses, information on where unpublished manuscripts were stored, a directive that Miles Davis and Chaka Khan be played at her memorial. There was a long goodbye letter to Jehan, whom she clearly expected to survive her, reminding him that people loved him, that he’d be cared for. “This is scary,” Miller thought; he called her and said, “I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
He insisted she stay at his home, and she spent a few days with him and his wife, Denise King-Miller, a minister. Denise and Reetika talked into the night about her Emory misgivings. “I kept trying to tell her, you have options, you don’t need to feel you’re in a box,” Denise says. She also pressed Reetika about her suicidal thoughts, asking if she was planning to “leave” the same way her father had — and was relieved when Reetika said, No, she had to take care of Jehan. When she left, planning for a return to Williamsburg, Denise and Ethelbert thought that she’d righted herself, that her flirtation with death — if that’s what it had been — was behind her. “She appeared to be happy, she really did,” Denise says. “Ethelbert and I said, Maybe we’ve got her turned in another direction.”
Through the spring and into the summer, Reetika had alternately alarmed and reassured her friends this way. At times, she looked and sounded imperiled. After her reading at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, for example, she sat drinking herbal tea with Carla Drysdale in a bakery across the street. “Carla, I can’t believe my self-esteem was so low that I thought being with a great poet could make me feel better about myself,” she told her. Drysdale thought she looked “like someone who was in flight, like a ghost in lipstick.”
Later, when Kendra Hamilton saw her in Charlottesville, “she’d lost weight, she was pale, her skin had broken out. She looked like she’d had a serious illness and was recovering.”
People tried to help. Drysdale told Reetika to pack a bag, grab Jehan and come to her Brooklyn apartment that very weekend. Hamilton wanted to put her in touch with a lawyer who could negotiate a long-term child support arrangement with Komunyakaa. Meena Alexander urged her to see a therapist, and Susan Sears offered to help her apply for Medicaid to pay for one.
But Reetika would shrug, decline, offer excuses, simply melt away, or leave subsequent upbeat phone messages without providing a number to call back. Or she’d go off to Callaloo or Bennington and be her usual dazzling, spirited self, so that friends who had worried would relax: She was okay; they could back off.
Her time in Vermont seemed to confirm it. How could she still be in trouble if she could wow everyone with her Bennington lectures and readings, attract writers to a 6:30 a.m. yoga class, appear so cheerful with Komunyakaa, who arrived a few days later with Jehan? One afternoon she and Ethelbert Miller sat back to back on a campus bench, rocking contentedly in the sunshine. “I said, ‘I can feel where your poems come from,’ “ Miller remembers. “We felt good. We said, ‘This is better than sex.’ I thought she’d put everything together.” She seemed to be cycling between happiness and despair, possibly a sign of manic-depression, another mood disorder.
But laypeople often don’t recognize the symptoms of psychiatric illnesses or the dangers they pose. “There is, in some people who are very creative, a great deal of independence and originality, the capacity to stand back and see the world differently, to have a great number of friendships, good relationships — and still have an absolutely devastating disease,” psychiatry professor Kay Redfield Jamison cautions. And such people can tailspin quickly.
Sunday, July 13. Reetika — now housesitting in Washington at the comfortable Quesada Street home of poet Jane Shore and novelist Howard Norman — took Jehan to services at Denise King-Miller’s church in Georgetown. She’d been drawn to religion more lately; in Williamsburg, she’d joined a Bible study group. Reetika loved the service, but on the phone with Susan Sears that evening, she was weepy. “She felt hopeless,” Sears says.
Monday, July 14. She invited herself to the Miller home for dinner, bringing salmon, broccoli and cherries from Whole Foods. While they chatted, Denise fixed the meal. (“That was delicious,” Jehan declared afterward.) She was leaning toward Emory again, Reetika revealed, because Jehan had been accepted into an excellent preschool.
Tuesday, July 15. Jay Mandal, a New York photographer friend who took her publicity photos, visited Reetika while he was in Washington on a one-day assignment. “I think I want to kill myself,” she confessed to him. Once he realized she wasn’t joking, Mandal called a psychologist he knew in the District, leaving messages (not returned in time) at his office, his home, on his cell phone: A friend needs your help.
That same day, the Rev. Percival D’Silva received a message at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament down the street: A woman needed to speak to a priest.
He’d seen Reetika before, D’Silva realized as she sat in the brocade wing chair in his quiet office; he’d waved at her as she strolled in the neighborhood with her little boy. Maybe she felt drawn to him, though she wasn’t Catholic, because he was also Indian American. Or perhaps the church itself — an imposing Gothic structure with a bell tower — promised sanctuary. She also knocked on a neighbor’s door that day and asked to borrow a Bible.
“On the outside, she seemed pretty calm. But from what she was telling me, I could see she was disturbed. At times there were tears in her eyes,” D’Silva remembers. After 39 years in the priesthood, he thought he could recognize depression. He asked Reetika, several times, to make no decisions that could harm her — “Put things on hold” — and she agreed. He promised to locate and lend her a book, Spiritual Help for Depression.
Wednesday, July 16. Reetika awakened her friend Diane Taylor with a 7:15 a.m. call. “Diane, I’m going to hurt myself and Jehan,” she said in a whispery voice. Call the suicide hot line right now, Taylor urged.
“No, they’ll put me on drugs, and they’ll put me in the hospital,” Reetika said.
“No, they won’t.”
“Yes, yes, they will.”
Then call that minister you know there, Taylor said, changing tactics, and call me right back.
But the minister, Denise King-Miller, was out and didn’t hear Reetika’s message, “I think I’m going to hurt myself,” until several hours later.
An acquaintance Reetika was scheduled to lunch with on Thursday also got a confusing call. She was having an “emergency,” Reetika said, so the woman, a poet who knew Jane Shore and had a key to the house, should just let herself in. Her apparent role was to discover the bodies.
In a few hours, several people were frantically trying to reach Reetika: Diane Taylor, who hadn’t heard back from her friend; Denise and Ethelbert, who didn’t know the address where Reetika was staying; and D’Silva, who wanted to give her the book and see how she was. The phone rang and rang; no one answered.
The acquaintance did go to the house Wednesday afternoon, and found a horrifying bloody scene in the dining room. D’Silva, seeing the ambulances and police cars converge on the quiet street, knew something had gone terribly wrong.
Jehan, the medical examiner determined, was stabbed in the chest, neck and forearm, damaging his blood vessels, lungs and heart. Then Reetika stabbed herself, many times. Her death was ruled a suicide.
The note she left on lined paper was lucid, though the handwriting slanted noticeably. She said she couldn’t take the “tough love” that everyone was giving her, recalls Deepika, who saw a copy. She’d moved so often, 22 times. Things hadn’t worked out with Yusef. The note wasn’t angry or reproachful, Deepika says; “it sounded like she had given up.” Jehan, Reetika said, was going with her.
For months afterward, people close to Reetika, some haunted by guilt, played over their final conversations, the possibly unrecognized signals, and asked themselves what they should have done. So many people had tried to help, yet no one imagined how imminent the danger was. What if someone had just said, “Get in the car; I’m driving you to the emergency room”? But even seasoned professionals can misjudge a patient’s risk. What Reetika’s friends told one another, as they compared notes and tried to understand, was what Rita Dove would later say at the memorial: We didn’t know. We didn’t know.
The funeral took place the next Monday at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Montgomery County, a short service on a hot summer morning, led by Denise King-Miller. She and D’Silva said a few prayers, and Ethelbert Miller spoke briefly about Reetika and Jehan. “Maybe we could have loved them better,” he said, “but we couldn’t have loved them more.” The cluster of mourners — her family, Komunyakaa, a couple of friends — left white roses on the two caskets, one large and one small.
I’m no anchor
life’s points will cut you
— from “Personal Ads”
“WE’RE IN LUCK,” says the manager at Gate of Heaven, leading the way to a rise of land on St. Jude’s Avenue. A snowfall has made finding graves difficult, especially in the gray pre-dawn, but because there was a burial yesterday, a swath of lawn has been cleared.
The surrounding markers offer silent testimony to the multicolored world Reetika inhabited and the transplanted lives she explored. The stones say Perez, Kim, Chiang, Nguyen, McClain, Diggs, Carballo. And there’s a pink granite marker for Ras Mohun Halder, Reetika’s maternal grandfather, to whom the first sonnets in her first book are dedicated. “A plot of grass down Rockville Pike,” she wrote of this grave, perhaps preferring the hard echo of k’s to the softer sound of Georgia Avenue, where the cemetery is actually located.
The Vazirani family hasn’t yet chosen a tombstone for its most recent dead, so there is little to distinguish this site — just a young tree nearby, some flowers half-covered by snow. But one day there will be a flat bronze tablet to show where Reetika and Jehan are buried in a single grave.
It’s Me, I’m Not Home
By Reetika Vazirani
It’s late in the city and I’m asleep.
You will call again? Did I hear
(please leave a message after the beep)
Chekhov? A loves B. I clap
for joy. B loves C. C won’t answer.
In the city it’s late, I’m asleep,
and if your face nears me like a familiar map
of homelessness: old world, new hemisphere
(it’s me leave a message after the beep),
then romance flies in the final lap
of the relay, I pass the baton you disappear
into the city, it’s late and I’m asleep
with marriages, they tend to drop
by, faithful to us for about a year,
leave a message after the beep,
I’ll leave a key for you, play the tape
when you come in, or pick up the receiver.
It’s late in the city and I’m asleep.
Please leave a message after the beep.
From World Hotel. © 2002 by Reetika Vazirani. Reprinted with the permission of Copper Canyon Press (www.coppercanyonpress.org).
If Someone You Know Seems Suicidal
●Take his or her comments seriously; listen nonjudgmentally.
●Don’t try to argue him out of suicide, but explain that treatment is available.
●Help him find a reputable therapist or clinic. If necessary, make the appointment yourself and accompany him.
●In a crisis, when you believe danger is imminent, don’t leave him alone. Take him to a hospital or call the local emergency number.
●The 1-800-SUICIDE hotline provides trained counselors and referrals around the clock.
●For more detailed information: www.afsp.org or www.suicidology.org.