DONALD DEAN POWELL September, 1946- August 18,1993: OR THOUGHTS ON SURVIVING SUICIDE
I want to write about him, but honestly, I only have the energy to write about myself, for the latter comes out of me like silk from a cocoon, like a filament out of a spider. I am that central to me, without apologies or regret. On the contrary, joyously! As I age, my world shrinks, I am my only concern and joy.
Today’s post is my EPILOGUE from the book of poems I wrote after Donald’s death, AS A FOUNTAIN IN A GARDEN (AVAILABLE FROM AMAZON.COM: HERE IS THE LINK):
It tells the story of how the book and the poems came to be, and something about Donald as well. In subsequent posts I will include some poems as well.
As a Fountain in a Garden was written over a period of four years after the suicide of my husband, and poet, Donald Dean Powell.
One day about a year after his death, I was going through some papers and came across several poems that I had written in some of my darkest hours since his suicide. I was surprised by them because I had no memory at all of writing them. I realized then that although the human, the lover, the wife in me mourned and grieved and suffered, the poet in me was detached, cool, even grateful for the opportunity for the intensest and most transformative experience of my life.
One cannot be so detached, one cannot acknowledge such a disturbing truth about oneself without questioning oneself, and the quality of one’s love. I wondered if what helped me survive — word, poetry – was also what made me less sensitive, less loving. Although I had been aware of the predatory nature of writing, the degree of this awareness became even more pronounced during the process of writing As a Fountain in a Garden.
The thought that disturbed me the most was that the poet in me was no better than a thug that looted for goods wherever she could find them. Worse, that the poet in me was a scavenger that ate its own dead, so to speak.
This is a thought that would trouble most human beings, but it was especially painful for me. Sati is one of the archetypes that lurks in my consciousness with a persistence and a power that no amount of reason, education or feminism can allay. Sati, the practice of widows burning themselves on the pyres of their husbands, comes from the mythic persona of Sati, Shiva’s consort, who kills herself when her husband kills himself (in one of his many incarnations) when he does not get the recognition he deserves. Sati, however, is not just an Indian archetype, but a universal one. What else can account for the persistence, even in the Western psyche, of Juliet and Romeo, Isolde and Tristan, Cleopatra and Mark Anthony, Brunhild and Siegfried? The archetype persists from that mythic time, still present and alive in us, when killing oneself in grief over separation by death from a loved one was not an indication of co-dependency but a measure of the depth of love.
When I found Donald’s body draped over a tree — he had shot himself sitting on a limb, and fallen backwards – and the pistol lying in the pool of his blood, I had thought — but only momentarily — of using it myself. The thought that had kept me from doing so was: who will take care of our cats?
Through the tortuous, painful, intense and dark path I was traveling, amidst the flurry of feelings, chaos, recriminations, fear and sometimes the desire of following in Donald’s footprints, one thing became clear to me: I was a survivor. I had used the cats as an excuse to survive, but really, if the cats hadn’t been there, I would have found some other reason to live on. Sunshine, perhaps. The summer and fall of 1993 in Southern California was golden, bright, and the sun felt like warm honey on my skin. I spent a lot of time in our garden, letting the sunshine pour its healing over me. And as the months and years progressed, I found another reason to live: poetry. But really, at bottom, my desire to survive was causeless, strong, and irrepressible.
The realization that I was a survivor was accompanied by a deep disappointment in myself. I felt I had not loved Donald enough — how could I have? Here I was, still eating and breathing and writing. I felt I did not feel enough — how could I write about, and try to cash in on an experience like this? I felt like a paparazzi taking a snapshot of Princess Diana in her wreck. I was a fake. Survivors have to be, in order to survive. And especially compared with Donald, I was an imposter. One should feel something so much as to be able to die for it. I felt that suicide somehow authenticated one’s sincerity.
I was disappointed in myself because my idea of how I ought to be was at odds with the reality of me. Even my idea of life was at odds with the way life is. Life in its essence is brutal and ruthless. The central fact of existence is that it feeds on death, both literally and metaphorically. As I continued to write these poems, I came to accept this fact and life as it is.
With the passage of time this acceptance changed to celebration. The recyclable nature of life was something to rejoice about. Not only did the way of life become tolerable, but joyous, and holy. No experience this intense, no experience that takes your head around and makes you look at your own destiny, whatever the particular circumstances of it, can help but be holy.
And not only was life holy, but the word, name, poetry was, too. In the process of writing, I came to accept myself for who I was, what I did, and the ways of the world.
That Donald should have given me the gift of his life and death is totally appropriate, too. Donald was a writer who loved, breathed and ate words, those ‘bountiful, magical letters,’ as he called them. He talked and wrote passionately about the ‘composting’ nature of writing: “You take your pain, your wounds, put everything into the compost pile of your consciousness, then feed the stuff to the garden of your words.” Donald also taught me that ‘the hardest thing about writing is telling the truth.’ I take comfort in knowing that Donald, to whom these poems are dedicated, and whose words, in italics, are interwoven into the fabric of the poem, would approve.