Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Difficult Poetry

This is a strange week.  I.E.  Millstone apparently took his own life last Saturday although his body has not yet been found.  He drove to a bridge 100 feet above the Missouri River, walked to the edge, and let himself fall over the side (according to a witness who saw "an elderly man fall").  He didn't climb out on to a railing, or even jump, but merely slumped over the side, like a slinky.  My mind goes to the moment I.E. stepped from the car after having written a note with no more on it than his name and the names of relatives he knew the police could use to identify him.  I see the door handle through his eyes, and the steps he took, through his eyes, and the railing, the river below, his knuckles on the rail, all through the limited lens of his eyes.  I see the green paint of the bridge and the dark, muddy swirl of the flooded river below.  I feel the blood in my ears as I imagine him dropping his head below waist level, before he went over.  I feel the cold (or heat?) under his hands and hear traffic moving behind him.  However, what I do not feel is what he was thinking.  I can imagine the desperation, anger, fear, loneliness, anxiety and even will, but, I can't imagine the calm (or fiery) acceptance of finality, though I'm absolutely sure that his choice of method by which to die must have anchored his mind to the moment in a way that made his follow-through possible.  

In his method of slipping over the side of life is an indecipherable poetry, one that can only be hinted at by our knowledge of his life's story--a story that is built on the scaffolding of his work as an architect, engineer and builder, as much or more than on his work as a philanthropist (which the media has focused on) or his life as a husband, father, grandfather and patriarch (which his family focuses on).   I.E. was an atheist with no hope of an afterlife, so the eternity he chose was that walk across the bridge, his lean over the railing, and the drop toward the fast-moving water.  He did not choose pills, nor a fire arm, nor the assistance of others.    He chose this, the specifics of which gave his mind--his imagination and passion--something to do.  It provided a mantra; it busied his attention with the details of his chosen method of suicide; or, so I imagine.

And the details of his chosen method include not only the care he took in leaving a note to identify himself to police.  They also include his having  had no qualms about forcing the community to search for his body, something which he, as an engineer (and as a man with a mind much younger, and more capable, than his body), must have well-enough understood.

The difficulty of that search is an element of the difficult poetry of his method, which no hermeneutics will decipher (including mine).  Four days after he suicided himself, his body has yet to be recovered.  Given the harshness of the elements, it's possible to imagine that it never will be, in which case, the pre-eminent patriarch of the St. Louis Jewish community will have found a way not to have died, at least in the memories of those whose high regard he took seriously.  The communal memory of him will not be anchored in the images of nursing homes, physical and mental helplessness, second childishness, or, in a word, dependency.  No, he has assured that he will be remembered as having not so much as fallen as having flown off... to... no one would ever be able to say where.  Death?  Without a body, we'll never be sure.  Heaven?  He was an atheist through and through.  Into immateriality and mystery is as close as we, the community he left behind, will ever come to imagining him, now.  

And what shape our spiritual imagination  can give to the idea, or realm, of 'immateriality and mystery' can, now, only be found by our meditating on the unutterable audacity, courage-cowardice, indifference to-exhaustion with physical pain, and independence-stubbornness of this final act of a life.   I.E. Millstone, a man of action and not of letters, wrote a final stanza more knotted and tantalizing than any modernist masterpiece.  I would express grieve, but that is insufficient.  I would say "bravo," but that would be too simple.  In fact, no word or feeling that any of us, in the community, can have can be sufficient to this moment, this final act in an epic life, this difficult poetry.


suzy vitello soulé said...

Oh David. What a beautifully rendered and poetic tribute to the event of your grandfather's likely suicide.

In the biggest of all spiritual pictures, your expressions herein reflect deeply our collective experience of humanity.

Cindy said...

Difficult poetry, indeed.

One of my most influential teachers once asked our class, "Why is it that pain rhymes?" Here, you have made it sing, a heavy melody, but not one without grace.

I'm sorry for your loss, David, and for the loss that his death has bequeathed to so very many others.

Mead said...

David, I've been away from your blog for over a week, while entertaining relatives here in Portland, and now I find I missed a LOT: your graduation, of course, and your grandfather's flight into oblivion. His was a troubling and yet oddly inspiring final act.

It's hard for me to know what to make of it, so I can only imagine the complex skein of cross-cathects you've got going on. But I've re-read your astonishing account of this moment several times now. And I must say that I'd love to see you add writing to your professional arsenal, whether it's playwriting or prose or both. You're a powerful writer.

But then you knew that, I hope....