We are reading The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes in my Harlem Renaissance class. While I’ve taught Hughes over the years, the last time I spent a lot of time with this particular collection was during qualifying exams for my dissertation. I was in gulp and swallow mode at the time, more intent on getting the wide rather than the deep. To some extent, the class is still following a wide rather than deep model: we are reading 35-45 pages of poetry per class session and, given that some poems are very short, that means anywhere from 50-60 poems. This time around, I’m struck by the number of poems explicitly on and around suicide. A sampling follows.
The sea is deep,
A knife is sharp,
And a poison acid burns—
But they all bring rest,
They all bring peace
For which the tired
They all bring rest
In a nothingness
No soul returns. (First published as “Song for a Suicide” in 1924)
A slash of the wrist,
A swallow of scalding acid,
The crash of a bullet through the brain—
And Death comes like a mother
To hold you in her arms. (First published 1925)
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.
Ma sweet good man has
Packed his trunk and left.
Ma sweet good man has
Packed his trunk and left.
Nobody to love me:
I’m gonna kill ma self. (First published 1926)
We’re only 90 pages into the collection, so there might be several other examples to note later.
While some poems are not explicitly titled suicide, they invoke it.
I’m goin’ up in a tower
Tall as a tree is tall,
Up in a tower
Tall as a tree is tall.
Gonna think about my man—
And let my fool-self fall. (“Lament Over Love,” 1926)
If my man leaves me
I won’t live no mo’. (“Fortune Teller Blues,” 1926)
As should be evident, this post started in another life. I want to retain that earlier trace. I return to it through a transcribed speech by Bernice Johnson Reagon circulated on twitter by Sara Ahmed. The speech is on coalition building and survival.
There are some grey haired women I see running around occasionally, and we have to talk to those folks about how come they didn’t commit suicide forty years ago.
I’m not gonna be suicidal, if I can help it.
Reagon returns me to the banality of suicide in Hughes. By banality, I mean the ease (is that the word?) with which both regard suicide as a possible and even reasonable reaction to a hostile world. I mean, as well, how death is figured as “rest,” “peace,” “a mother” who holds one.
Over the years, I have returned to “Suicide’s Note,” which I first encountered in Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk, a poetry anthology I consider the companion to Alain Locke’s The New Negro.
Death is never far in Caroling Dusk. In fact, the first two poems in the volume—“Ere Sleep Comes Down to Sooth the Weary Eyes” and “Death Song,” both by Paul Laurence Dunbar —focus on death as “rest.” The second poet in the volume, Joseph Cotter, Sr., is represented by “The Tragedy of Pete.” Here’s the final stanza of the poem,
There was a man
Whose name was Pete
And he welcomed death
From his head to his feet
By the time we get to Angelina Weld Grimké’s “Hushed by the Hands of Sleep,” 36 pages into Caroling Dusk, we know that sleep refers to death. And we begin to wonder whether death can be imagined without suicide. Grimke’s “Grass Fingers” ends,
Soon I shall be too far beneath you,
For you to reach me, even,
With your tiny, timorous toes.
And I think it’s no coincidence that at the mid-point of the anthology, we find Frank Horne’s “Letters Found Near a Suicide,” an 11 part poem, one of the longest in the collection. The first section, “To All of You,” reads,
My little stone
Into the bosom of this deep, dark pool
Of oblivion . . .
I have troubled its breast but little
Yet those far shores
That knew me not
Will feel the fleeting furtive kiss
Of my tiny concentric ripples . . .
The suicide poem is a staple found in the work of many young poets, an expected form across poetry workshops. This is not to deny the force of such poems, their attempts to explore how one inhabits killing socialities. Still, their ubiquity, as a mark of the “deep” or “dark” poem (I’ll return to this “dark”) might tells us something about the forms of truthtelling that might still be available in poetry. That they are “dark” poems might suggest something about a “common sense” (to invoke Kara Keeling) that binds blackness to forms and practices of unlife. If this is so, we might say that Harlem Renaissance poets continually ask how bodies framed as proximity to, and as incarnating, unlife imagine, which is to say inhabit, death:sleep:suicide.
(qualifiers multiply, but this, I think, is not simply academic habit, but an attempt to tread carefully)
I have been thinking about what we want from poetry, especially poetry by black poets. Sometimes, we want it to bear the weight of unspeakable pain. To inhabit a “darkness”—as proximity to unlife—that we dare not confess we experience. We want our truthtellers to incarnate our pain. And because poets are our truthtellers, we want to unimagine what it might cost them or that it might cost them.
(I’m not sure that is what I wanted to write—I wanted to write, want to write, something about the labor of staying with suicide, about Langston Hughes’s labor, about Cullen’s recognition of that labor, and about the ripples of suicide:sleep:death in Caroling Dusk, about how black life can be figured as proximity to unlife—I will not use “social death” here, because it’s not the structure I need)
At the same time, I want to disembed the possibility of suicide that Hughes and others explore from psycho-social management, that is, to think, with Reagon, about the conditions of unlivability that produce what is misnamed as black pathology (my language is infected by Moten, Wilderson, Sexton, and this is getting in the way).
Let me try again.
How should those figured as unlife, as in the hold (to invoke Christina Sharpe’s work), as figures in “mathematics” (to invoke Katherine McKittrick), as not-fully-human and not-human (to invoke Alexander Weheliye), as resistant objects (to invoke Fred Moten), as severed from their active will (to invoke Hortense Spillers), as human in a world of Man (to invoke Sylvia Wynter), inhabit toxic socialities?
Why should struggle, resistance, and resilience be the acceptable registers through which to consider black absence from the zones of life?
Before revisionary work in the 1980s and 1990s, the Harlem Renaissance was considered a failure. It might be useful to return to the place of failure in Harlem Renaissance poetry—to its concern with loss and despair, its ongoing melancholy, or what Moten terms “mo’nin’” (that space of mourning and moaning), its dwelling in what Christina Sharpe theorizes as the wake—staying awake to unforget, to coax memory, to inhabit a dangerous consciousness (staying awake) as a collective, to remain, as unlife, in proximity to death. (What is the relationship of unlife to death? Perhaps this is the question Harlem Renaissance poetry asks.)
There is no conclusion to the ongoingness within which unlife meets death, no end to the wake of black life, no end to how the making of black unlife travels and circulates, producing conditions of disposability in geographically-disparate places, creating expanding zones of non-being.