Poem: Randall Jarrell

Randall Jarrell
Originally appeared in Southeast Review 23.1 (2013): 14.

Headlights show me where the world will make my name
its dream, the way the night assigns these ball-breaking stars
to their stations. Elm trees slouch deep enough in the dark to know
me in the Nashville night, where I’m a boy captured by
the something in me I never could name—Kirilov
on a skyscraper. Here in the Chapel Hill dusk
I am nothing, a flower folded in a book
the admired one left behind, the man
who walks the length of his life in an hour.
To plunge this deep in a prayer and not know it,
to never consider that Mary might be made to miss me,
are the troubles of those free to choose
among the attitudes the nameless days enable.
Even the comical traffic I’m stepping into
knows the road to my life’s low chore.
An automobile’s headlights boil in the trees—

Ten years ago I first attempted a sestina that seemed to have as its focus the death of Randall Jarrell. That sestina, like all others I have attempted, failed, and rather miserably at that. But some of the lines that attended its failure stuck with me over the years. Here and there over the past decade they would call me back to the page, demanding that I find some way to make them all get along somehow. That sestina eventually yielded to a pared-down poem of 16 lines in which I explore Jarrell as a voice just as Jarrell had explored so many voices as a poet himself–ball turret gunners, school children, aging women. I’ve always very much enjoyed so-called “persona poems,” the opportunity they offer to explore identities that are impossible to know any other way.

The facts of Jarrell’s suicide–it seems apparent by now that all ambiguity once shrouding his death has conceded to the facts–always have lingered with me. This poem was an attempt at getting closer to them, and to the man himself, to try to understand what goes on in the mind of a man who has decided to die. The definitive story about that terrible last night in Jarrell’s life was written by Jeffrey Meyers for the Summer, 1982 issue of Virginia Quarterly. You can read it here. Jarrell had attempted suicide in January, 1965, apparently slashing into both the wrist and the crook of his left arm. He was convalescing at the North Carolina Memorial Hospital’s Hand Rehabilitation Center in Chapel Hill when he went out for a walk in the night along Highway 15-501, “which runs between Durham and Sanford and bypasses Chapel Hill,” Meyers explains. He had been seen by witnesses staggering as though intoxicated–potentially the influence of painkillers prescribed his his doctor–about ten minutes prior to his suicide. He died by lunging in front of a passing car, fracturing his skull on the windshield and laying unconscious momentarily before fading away.

The story linked above recounts the ongoing tragedy of Jarrell’s life better than I can here, so read it if you, too, have a craving to know more about what went wrong in the life and mind of this genius. I believe Jarrell was a poet who deserved as much regard as the greatest poets of his generation–Lowell, Plath, Sexton, Rich, Berryman, Dickey, etc.–and I also suspect the reason he failed to garner as much acclaim for his poetry as for his literary criticism in his life was that the criticism made the wrong enemies. I do not see how it is possible for anyone today to scroll through The Complete Poems, available in a beautiful volume from FSG, and claim he was not one of the greatest poets of his time. The loss of Jarrell dealt as cruel a wound to American letters as the loss of so many of his peers not just because his death underscored the tragedy of that self-destructive crop of poets, but because his death robbed us of a brilliant poetic voice.