Mary Karr’s harrowing poem about a friend lost to suicide

Mary Karr is one of my favorite writers. She is a poet by trade, but it’s her memoirs that made me a fan. She’s had a hard life. But in Cherry, The Liars’ Club and lit, she tells stories of that life with a potent mix of piercing honesty and dark humor. Her words cut to the bone. They take readers to places where they may not want to go, but they can’t help going, since Mary’s words are so powerful.

Her new poem, Face Down, appears in this week’s New Yorker. It’s about a real-life friend who committed suicide. As always with Mary Karr, the words pack an emotional punch. Yet I have mixed feelings about this poem. They come out of reading the poem’s opening lines:

What are you doing on this side of the dark?

You chose that side, and those you left

feel your image across their sleeping lids

as a blinding atomic blast.

It is the words “You chose that side” that jump out at me–and not in a good way. I assume that Mary’s friend had some kind of mental illness–maybe several. And if that is the case, then chances are he did not “choose” suicide, any more than someone who has a heart attack “chooses” to die. Is is MENTAL ILLNESS that kills people; suicide is how that happens. I’ve come to believe that it may be impossible for people who do not have a mental illness to completely understand this. But I wish they could. It’s not just because the whole idea of choice here is a myth; it’s also because a better understanding of what goes on inside a suicidal person’s head might actually bring some comfort to those who have lost friends and loved ones to suicide.

So often, I hear things like “I wish I could have helped more,” or “I wish I could have done more.” That’s understandable, and very human. But I think this belief is tied in with the “suicide is a choice” myth. People think, “If only I did this, so-and-so wouldn’t have chosen the dark side.”

But here’s the hard truth. At least in my case, “the dark side” is much more insidious and complicated. I am here right now only because I’m not very good at suicide. But in my darkest hours, it was as if I had no control at all over what I was doing. All I wanted to do was to not be here anymore. This was NOT something I chose. It was my depression taking me in its grips and shaking me to my core.

But back to the poem: it’s still Mary Karr, so it’s still powerful. It honestly conveys the enormous anger and sense of loss felt by so many who have lost loved ones to suicide. Not to give the poem away, but the “face down” image at the end is heartbreaking. I’ll give Mary Karr this: she writes what she knows, and she writes it damn well.

You can read the poem, or listen to Mary recite it, here. I’d love to hear what you think about it, so please comment below.



2 responses to “Mary Karr’s harrowing poem about a friend lost to suicide

  • aprilgoldstein

    Hi Alan, I love Mary Karr too! I read the poem and thought it was really powerful, and suspected that it was written about her close friend David Foster Wallace. Here is an interview where she talks about his struggles with mental illness in more depth. Thanks for writing about this!

    Liked by 1 person

  • Alan Kravitz

    Thanks for the link, aprilgoldstein. It was a great interview, but here again, Mary’s reaction to David’s suicide bothered me. I get the anger–but did she really have to call him a moron? Would she call him a moron if he died of cancer? She doesn’t seem to get that David died due to an ILLNESS. I seriously doubt that he thought, “Gee, what could I do to screw up my wife’s and my friends lives today.” I still like Mary. She’s too damn good a writer not to like. But I must admit that I have less respect for her right now.


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