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All up and down my referral log this weekend…

… are readers from Wesleyan University, opening University Diaries in hopes of finding further information about — maybe even finding a sort of explanation for — a student’s suicide by self-immolation on their campus this week.

At about this time two years ago — Halloween night, actually — a University of Rochester student went to the cemetery next to campus and immolated himself.

In April 2000, an MIT student burned herself to death in her dorm room.


The cruelty to which you subject your body in this method is only one of its shocking features. There’s also the will to leave in a public or semi-public setting your charred corpse.

The reality is that we’re shocked senseless by self-immolation, especially when, as in these cases, it has no political or spiritual motive.

Without those motives we’re forced back on sheer vindictive rage — against oneself, against the world.

Madness, we say. Lunacy. Yet if we truly believed that, we wouldn’t keep circling the fire.


University students are young, intense, in their physical prime. Their methods of suicide often reflect, bizarrely, their vigor. They race off of the Empire State Building. They leap over campus bridges. There’s a twisted vigor to self-immolation as well.

“When there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire,” were the words, from a Stars song, the Wesleyan student left on her Facebook as a final message.

Which is strange. If you listen to the song, that sentence seems to be about hyper-vitality, about fiercely illuminating the world with your passion, and when you’ve accomplished that, making your very being a beacon of life. The lyrics affirm a person’s survival of dashed passions; when the speaker encounters an old girlfriend, it’s nothing to him, because he’s put it away. Still impassioned, he moves forward into more life, unencumbered by the past.

You were what I wanted
I gave what I gave
I’m not sorry I met you
I’m not sorry it’s over

The song’s form — an insistent, dissonant, waltz — conveys the brittle nature of sexual passion even as it affirms its reliable recurrence. Broaden the idea out to life itself, and once more there’s the insistence on burning brightly without fear of scorching.

This scar is a fleck on my porcelain skin
Tried to reach deep but you couldn’t get in

Nora Miller took the lines literally. For her, having used up her life force, she could do nothing but direct what force was left against herself.


Maybe. We can’t, as Donald Justice writes in his poem For the Suicides, know.

At the end of your shadow
There sat another, waiting,
Whose back was always to us.

What we can know, and what I think can help us think about and respond to suicides, is the other side of all of this — the particular incandescence of the not-at-all suicidal lives most of us live. Suicide wounds because it throws in our faces, forces a confrontation with, the foundation of our willingness to live. The question Why did they do it? can’t really be answered; but the question Why don’t we? can. It can be answered, and it should be posed.

As it is posed, again and again and again, in so much of the poetry that we love. Often poets simply want to convey what it feels like to exist, what we adore about the world, how the world comes at us and how we come at it, the mystery of our lives and the electrifying delight we take in them even as we understand almost nothing about the world and human existence.

That’s where I would go in the face of a suicide like this one, that shatters my sense of what life is — to the best poems about what life is. Because if Henry James is right that “Life is, in fact, a battle… [T]he world as it stands is no illusion, no phantasm, no evil dream of a night; we wake up to it again for ever and ever; we can neither forget it nor deny it nor dispense with it,” then suicide should have us girding our loins.

Take a poem like James Schuyler’s ridiculously long Hymn to Life. It takes him over a half hour to read it! And what is it… It’s a tumbling riot of observation and feeling and meditation… The poem itself, in its luxuriance, is life overflowing, the poet bursting with things to say to us and to himself about … about everything. The seasons, love, God, cities, animals, illness…

… The truth is
That all these household tasks and daily work—up the street two men
Install an air conditioner—are beautiful.
… The days slide by and we feel we must
Stamp an impression on them. It is quite other. They stamp us, both
Time and season so that looking back there are wide unpeopled avenues
Blue-gray with cars on them…
To know: what have these years of living and being lived taught us?
… Attune yourself to what is happening
Now, the little wet things, like washing up the lunch dishes. Bubbles
Rise, rinse and it is done. Let the dishes air dry, the way
You let your hair after a shampoo. All evaporates, water, time, the
Happy moment and—harder to believe—the unhappy. Time on a bus,
That passes, and the night with its burthen and gift of dreams.
… Life, it seems, explains nothing about itself.
… You
Suddenly sense: you don’t know what. An exhilaration that revives
Old views and surges of energy or the pure pleasure of
Simply looking.
… Art is as mysterious as nature, as life, of which it is
A flower.
… You see death shadowed out in another’s life. The threat
Is always there, even in balmy April sunshine. So what
If it is hard to believe in? Stopping in the city while the light
Is red, to think that all who stop with you too must stop…
… Life, I do not understand…

On and on it goes like that, a mind in motion, taking in existence, teaching itself to accept enigma, wondering why the person attached to this mind is so beautifully fitted to the world…

So. UD says: Burned by negation, turn back, full-hearted, to the world.

Margaret Soltan, September 19, 2010 4:13PM
Posted in: poem, STUDENTS

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