At the New Yorker Festival on Saturday, the poet Mary Karr was one of several panelists who gathered for “Rereading David Foster Wallace,” moderated by Wallace biographer D.T. Max. She was joined by the novelists Mark Costello and Dana Spiotta as well as Deborah Triesman, Wallace’s editor at the New Yorker. There, Karr read a poem she had written for Wallace that was recently published in Poetry Magazine: “Suicide’s Note: An Annual.”
It’s a knotty, complicated poem, one that bears sitting with and puzzling over. Beginning with that title. Why “an annual”? It is as if Wallace’s death were something that happened over and over, both defeating the finality of death and hammering it home. The title keeps dragging its subject to life, for better or worse.
Karr and Wallace had a stormy romantic relationship in the mid-’90s. When she writes, “So far apart we’d grown/between love transmogrifying into hate and those sad letters,” she could be remembering any one of the incidents she described to New York Magazine’s Evan Hughes: The time Wallace hurled a coffee table at her during a fight, the time he forced her out of the car in a dangerous neighborhood. Karr recalls a “letter of apology” Wallace wrote her, in which he regrets “being such a dick.” Reading the poem, you’re not sure if Karr has forgiven him. “Every suicide’s an asshole,” she writes. “There is a good reason I am not/God, for I would cruelly smite the self-smitten.”
More biographical details are there in the poem for those who want them. “I hope you’ve been taken up by Jesus,” Karr begins, somewhat defiantly, because she “couldn’t today name the gods/you at the end worshipped.” She’d converted to Catholicism; Wallace considered it but never did. Hughes mentions that the two of them prayed together. “More than once you asked/that I breathe into your lungs like the soprano in the opera…so my ghost might inhabit you,” she continues. Wallace claimed that Karr inspired him to pen Infinite Jest—not just to create it, but to make it personal and real instead of “witty arty writing.” (The thought of her animated the work in more ways than one. “The key to ’92 is that MMK was most important,” DFW scribbled in the margins of a self-help book Karr had given him, “IJ was just a means to her end (as it were).”
But the poem leaves behind biography as it goes on, replacing specific memories like the “sad letters” with abstract questions (“Does your death feel like failure to everybody who ever/loved you?”) and conclusions (“Every suicide’s an asshole”). And then it dissolves into an image just as Wallace, in the closing lines, dissolves into the elements: “We sigh you out into air and watch you rise like rain.” The verse releases Wallace but also acknowledges that he is not really gone. He “rises” both in the traditional Christian sense of a soul rising, perhaps, and in a weirder, more ambivalent way. Rain is better known for coming down. To rise like rain is to invert the natural order, as in a suicide, or, perhaps, in the unlikely immortality achieved through writing.
Like Jonathan Franzen’s essay on Wallace in the New Yorker—another literary consideration of the author by a close friend—“Suicide’s Note” sounds furious at times. At the New Yorker Festival, Treisman and Costello ponder whether there was anything left for Wallace to live for once he found he couldn’t write the way he used to. “Do some charity work,” Karr spits out. And another poem from the issue, “Read These,” which is also clearly about Wallace—“Once he was not a king, only a pale boy staring down/from the high dive,” it reads—feels angry in parts, too, as when it declares, “He wanted the web browsers to ping/his name in literary mention everywhere on the world wide web.”
But beneath the anger is a remorse that feels deliberately exposed. I’m sure Karr’s pugnaciousness and humor—“I just wanted to say ha-ha, despite/your best efforts you are every second/alive”—are meant to read like defense mechanisms. After all, she groups herself among the many who administered to DFW “collective CPR.” Every poem contains layers of revelation and control, and the line “There is a good reason I am not/God” feels unguarded in its despair. Karr implies not only that she lacked the power to save Wallace, but that such power could never have been rightfully hers.
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