Do you read the obituaries? If you do, you know there’s really only one specific thing that people die of: cancer. We are often told that someone died after a long (or, unfortunately, sometimes short) battle with cancer. Every other death is largely indeterminate. They might come after long illnesses, or peacefully surrounded by family, or only be described in euphemism: people going to be with their lord, or to see friends again, or simply passing.
There is a class, too, that invites speculation: suddenly, unexpectedly. What are we to make of these? Heart attacks? Car crashes?
These last, of course, are never mentioned. There’s pretty good data and a long tradition that says mentioning suicides makes them more likely to happen. High-profile suicides, in particular, but any increase in even fictional stories about suicide has been shown to lead to an increase in suicides. And so we hear about them only rarely, usually when a parent has lost a high-schooler and wants to raise awareness; sometimes, lately, when cynical people want to punish public education for being in an impossible position.
Hardly ever do we get art that explores the topic from the inside, the interior monologue of the suicidal. So it is hard not to handle the debut collection from Portland Poet Laureate Maya Williams — “Judas & Suicide” — a bit like a live grenade. At its core are a series of poems built on Bible verses where figures contemplate suicide, or go through with it, and Williams is unapologetic.
“I’ve written about suicide for a very long time,” they say, over coffee on India Street not far from their apartment in the East End of Portland. Williams got degrees in social work and English from East Carolina University and then moved here and received a Masters in social work from the University of New England in 2017. They look young enough that it’s hard to think of them writing about anything for very long, but Williams has been processing suicidal ideation since their own attempt at age 15.
Their poem “Google Search History, Age 15” gets the idea across, and at the heart of this collection, in its last four entries:
How do I not kill myself?
What is another word for killing yourself?
How many people have killed themselves?
What does the Bible say about killing yourself?
Raised in the South and Christian — though not necessarily “in the church” — Williams considers themselves a Christian still. “Amidst all of the complexities and contradictions in engaging with Christian people,” they say, “what’s maintained itself is having a reclamation of my relationship with a sense of Christian spirit and how that aspect has been keeping me alive.”
Part of this collection is a rebellion against the idea, perpetuated by leaders of various Christian churches, that God works through trauma, and that trials and tribulations are a path to some kind of promised reward. “I should not have to experience any of this trauma in the first place,” Williams reasons, “and I don’t believe in a God who would want me to suffer like this.”
The Bible verses, like the one that opens “Curses, Suicide, & Just Pray About It,” almost seem like evidence to this effect: Two thousand pigs, in Mark 3:15, drown themselves when unclean spirits come into them. In “Curses,” Williams is swimming in a lake, contemplating not coming to the surface. Their father tells them to “pray about it,” but Williams rejoins on the other side of the page, opposite, “I did not conjure my depression.”
“What’s been cool about this collection,” Williams says, “has been going back to the text. When we hear stories of Samson or Jonah, we never think of them and they were never taught to me as stories about suicide or instances of contemplated suicide. I had to read that for myself. I didn’t know it was there the whole time … It’s a healthy reminder that Biblical characters are human … ‘Oh, my God, take my life.’ ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ You get to see the struggle.”
All too often, Williams says, we’re presented with stories of overcoming mental health issues and (they sort of sing this part), “I was depressed, but I have overcome and I am cured!” Just as we all know about Jonah escaping the whale, but not as much about how he first begged, “So no, Lord, kill me instead, because I would rather die than live!”
This verse — Jonah 4:3 — opens “Jonah, Suicide, & GOD Doesn’t Give You ANY More Than YOU CAN HANDLE,” an early poem in the collection, written after Raych Jackson, a poet and performer out of Chicago. It riffs on this idea offered up by Christians, including Williams’ family, that God would never put anything in front of them that they couldn’t handle.
But Williams closes: “GOD has GIVEN me A LOT that I COULDN’T handle.”
Underneath so many of these poems, which also explore sexual violence and societal gender expectations and the bitter/sweet experience of coming of age, there is a fury born of being condescended to, invalidated, told over and over again your feelings and beliefs are not legitimate. It’s the rage of seeing hypocrisy everywhere and not being able to unsee it — in our justice system, our politics, our economy. It’s the rage that has tens of millions of our American young people streaming $uicideBoy$ songs about killing themselves.
There is joy here, too, though. Fun. Brief flashes of humor, even if sometimes dark. And there is style and talent in abundance, poems that have to be written in exactly the way they are.
The erasure poem “A Facebook Message From My Stepmother” forces us to contemplate the big white spaces as we focus on “don’t think of suicide anymore / pray for your dad / he will struggle with demons.” How did we get from here to there? Later, Williams applies the technique to a Chainsmokers song, “Sick Boy” — “America / lies / and expects you to listen to ‘em.” The scalpel is sharp and pointed.
“It’s a delight to learn that the forms will come when you want them to,” Williams says. There’s even a villanelle for those of you who like quatrains.
In short, there is something for everyone. Everyone who has wondered why, who has felt less, who has doubted. Williams’ work asks us to come up with better reasons to live.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the degree that Maya Williams received from the University of New England.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].