Words on Wednesday – Amiri Baraka’s “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note”

Hello everyone! Welcome to what I’m tentatively calling Words on Wednesdays (who doesn’t like alliteration?)! While Mondays will be dedicated to music, I’ve decided it’s fitting to dedicate a day to various forms of literature (though I will probably mainly focus on poetry). Most of these ones will probably end up being fairly short because it will mostly just be a place where I share some of my favorite poems and why, but I do not want to make it too terribly didactic and boring. The whole point of this blog is to provide a creative outlet to not only find new works explore and discuss in a casual, unintimidating fashion, but also to gain a deeper understanding of some of my favorite works.

With that being said, I’ve decided to begin with “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” by Amiri Baraka. I’ve only fairly recently discovered this poem, and it has been on my mind ever since. Something about the futility the speaker feels at the beginning, and then the turn at the end from a sense of despair to the acquisition of a childlike hope just gets me. The title alone is pretty depressing. Obviously the speaker must be feeling pretty down, as he’s contemplating suicide, but I find it interesting that his “note” is twenty volumes. This strange juxtaposition shows his uncertainty and the idea that he would prolong the actual suicide. It’s like he’s saying, “hey, I’m thinking about committing suicide, but only after I finish these twenty volumes, so it might be a while, and you know what? It might not even happen, depending on how quickly I can write them while still participating in my daily routines.”* In his daily routines, such as “each time [he] go[es] out to walk the dog” (line 3), “the ground opens up and envelopes [him]” (line 2). This shows the idea that he’s become bored with his life and the idea that there are no surprises anymore because he’s used to it all. His life was not always depressing and boring for him though as he states, “things have come to that” (line 6). They were not like “that” before, but now they are, and that is part of what makes it so depressing.

He also “count[s] the stars” (line 7) and continuously “get[s] the same number” (line 8) which relates to the idea of wishing upon a star and the idea that he feels he needs a miracle to turn his life around and into something more than it actually is. There is no cheer in his life and “nobody sings anymore” (line 11). There is nothing to be happy about and this is the way things have been going for a while now.

It isn’t until he sees his daughter talking to someone on her knees in her bedroom until there is a feeling of hope. The use of the transition “and then” (line 12) reveals not only the irrelevance of time that is present throughout the poem (“lately,” “and now”), but also the triviality of it since it is just something that exists in his life in the same way that he just merely exists. His days pass without any significant events that would be worth mentioning in relation to time. The only difference between this line and the others in regards to time is that he sees his daughter at night, which does give it slightly more importance as it does in a small way help to pinpoint his shift in tone.

Well, I guess that’s it for now. I’m going to go take my dog for a walk and hope that the ground doesn’t open up and envelope me.

 

Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus…

Things have come to that.

And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.

Nobody sings anymore.

And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter’s room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there…
Only she on her knees, peeking into

Her own clasped hands

 

*Please note: suicide is not something to be taken lightly, and I do not take it lightly. If you have thoughts of suicide, please reach out to someone you trust, or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or go online

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