ReadingRoom

How to write about a father’s suicide

Auckland writer Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod backgrounds her book of poems for the father who she "lost".

In 2012 when I was four months pregnant and still doubled over with morning sickness, I lost my father.  Isn’t that vague, as if I wore him out on a cold morning, put him down in a warm cafe (or was it the post shop?) and never found him again?  What I mean is that my father, after several years of on-and-off-again depression and anxiety and suicide attempts, took his own life.  My mother came home and found him; I lost him.

I have one son and one daughter which makes it easy to say (as I do) “you are my favourite and my best boy” or “if I could have any other daughter in the world, I’d still choose you”. Well, my father was my favourite and my best father.  If I could have had any other father in the world, I’d still have chosen him. But he had a choice – and he didn’t choose me.

I know, I know, I’m not allowed to say that. It’s medical.  I’m not a fool or a denier. But I am a daughter, I can’t look these new facts about my father in the face. If I was going to try to capture the experience of losing my father it wouldn’t be with my own vocabulary. Clearly my own language wouldn’t be up to the task.  And it certainly wouldn’t be with the sentimental, over-spiritual or science-trumps-emotion language which had been layered on the experience by others.

I just had to find the language. I just had to find the form. So I searched through my memory for something that would. I began to look at it slant.

I chose Cats first – the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on TS Eliot’s poems. I went so far as to order the score, flipped through it once and wondered what I’d been thinking. Well, I knew what I’d been thinking, I’d been thinking in memories. My father and mother taking me to see Cats as a young child at the Civic in Auckland, my first theatre memory. Actors in cat costumes roaming through the crowd, one licking my ice cream which seems impossible now but exhilarating then. My cousins and I getting lost during the intermission, the weaving staircases and bunkered hallways a labyrinth; whichever way we went we came to a wrong door. Despite all that, Cats was a fool’s notion and the score went back to the library.

*

In 2015 I would sooth my two-year-old into his naptime and then rush to my computer to complete ModPo – Modern & Contemporary American Poetry – a 10-week online course with Al Filreis from the University of Pennsylvania. It was heady stuff and there was so much of it – hours and hours of videoed close-readings, live webcasts, online forums. They introduced me to marvellous poems, "Grandfather Advised Me" by Lorine Niedecker, "It isn’t for want" by Cid Corman, "Incident" by Countee Cullen, anything by Gwendolyn Brooks. Yet it was the experimental poets who got to me. Not their poetry itself (Kenneth Goldsmith doesn’t even expect people to read his poetry claiming it is better thought about than read) but their experiments. These poets who start with a high concept – I’m going to record myself for a week and transcribe it!, I’m going to restrict myself to using only one vowel!, I’m going to write a poem using only the first line of The Divine Comedy! – they, like me, had an idea to enact. The poetry, well, that came as almost an afterthought.

After ModPo finished I knew what I would do – I would tell my story like Christian Bök or Kenneth Goldsmith or Caroline Bergvall tell a story – full of rules and concepts and borrowing.  But I’d be different, I’d be readable. I remember hearing Eleanor Catton discuss The Luminaries; she said she’d never understand why something literary had to be unexciting to read and why a thriller had to be trash (my words). She wanted to try something high concept and readable. So did I. And that’s when I remembered Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose. 

Twelve Angry Men was produced by the Auckland Theatre Company when I was in high school and my father started taking me to the theatre – four or five plays a year (a tradition broken only by his death). I remembered the intensity of the play, of the theatre experience. I remembered the climactic end to the first act. I remembered it was about guilt and innocence and doubt and freedom. I got hold of the script. I ordered two copies of it in book form. I had no need to invent language now – I had myself a Reginald Rose-produced dictionary.

There was a long way to go of course. Some dreadful first attempts at turning the concept into poetry. A wonderful mentorship by New Zealand academic and poet Siobhan Harvey. Lots of angry poems. Lots of nonsensical ones. Slowly I found a way to take this concept, a poetry collection using unoriginal language, and write a narrative story. I spent hours reading the script. More hours typing each word into Excel, sorting them A-Z, creating my own dictionary. Many, many hours rewriting bad poems or changing words that had felt inspired but were clearly not in my Twelve Angry Men dictionary. Here’s some words which would have been useful: daughter, son, love, them (it’s those little words which I really missed over time). What words were on the copyright page?  What words in the biographies? The introduction? I used them all. But nothing else. Well, nearly nothing else; the New Zealand Government’s Fact Sheet 4 – Suicide and Self-Harm snuck in there, its content moving like a bookmark through the main text.

I thought it was all so clever. I got lost in the writing of it. And then I published it and realised that everyone would want to know about my dad and me, about his death, about its continuing currents. That I would cry with Jesse Mulligan on the radio and want to go home and never leave again but for the producers saying, “Look at all these messages, all these people crying with you.” I was lost in the concept and didn’t think about the fact that every second person at a reading or event would come up afterwards and say “my sister … my grandfather … my daughter … my friend …” What sort of country is this? What sort of sorrow? When will we really do something about it?

The poem "Rebirth" from Family Instructions Upon Release


for my son

She wants to tell her boy what he means. She wants to tell her boy that he held on, that he desired life enough to be born and come plowing through alive. She wants to tell her boy that he reset the stage, or maybe didn’t, maybe she wants to tell him that he gave her a whole new production. She wants to tell her boy that it shouldn’t work out here, without props, but that he makes it so it does. She wants to tell her boy that she doesn’t feel like such a loser, the only loser, now. She wants to tell her boy that Father can’t meet him, and that suggests Father lost too. Lost big time. Big-time loser. She wants to tell her boy that she turned a corner, walked on, when she began to meet his daily needs. When she began receiving his daily smiles. She wants to tell her boy that Father must stay, forever, behind them. But she just hardly mentions him at all. She wants to tell her boy what he means.

Family Instructions Upon Release by Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod (The Cuba Press, $25)

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