“You Make Your Life; Your Life Gets Made”: The Weight of Inheritance In James Arthur’s The Suicide’s Son

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The Suicide’s Son
James Arthur
(Signal Editions, Véhicule Press, 2019, $14.95, 77 pp)

James Arthur’s second collection of poems, The Suicide’s Son, is a challenging book with philosophical heft, which doesn’t surprise, given that his earlier work has been described as earning “nearly every award, fellowship, and grant an emerging poet could hope to win.” Arthur has already established himself as an inventive craftsman, able to move deftly between religious, mythological, historical, and personal topics while writing free verse lines that at times cleverly incorporate rhyme and meter.  In The Suicide’s Son, we encounter his mastery of individual lyrics, but the collection is more than the best of his journal publications. It gathers in the mind as a single text as Arthur both poses and answers questions about the ideas, objects, and traits we broadly inherit—as family members, as members of a culture, as animals—and how we respond to the often troubling content of that inheritance.

The book’s title itself is dramatic signage leading us to Arthur’s world. To be the son of a suicide is to exist in the aftermath of a terrible, woeful event. Placing ourselves in the son’s position, we necessarily struggle to make sense of a parent’s rejection of life. How do we respond to an occurrence that both annihilates meaning and brings troubling new meaning? The title is taken from the opening stanza of “School For Boys.” Arthur writes,

I believe in the power of original sin,
in the wound
that keeps on wounding. The son
of the suicide
becomes a suicide. His own son
becomes a drunk. You’re not meant
to be so unhappy,
you think, so it must be something
that you’ve done;
there must be a reason why you are
the way you are.

This bold, matter-of-fact initial statement drives through the entire poem. In Arthur’s formulation, those who come before us pass suffering down, and we in turn suffer. Something deleterious is at work in the transition between generations; searching for reasons, the speaker seems to ask, why not original sin? In “School For Boys,” we both inherit and employ a dismal nature resulting from acts perpetrated against us. The speaker forgives the pedophile who molested him at age seven, and later observes, “The anger, the shame: / over time, these things just become / a piece of who you are.” The violence done manifests as negative emotion and becomes, tragically, integrated into the self. Arthur’s casual diction creates an intimacy that keeps us close to the violent and cruel boys of the poem, including the speaker himself, and the poem concludes without offering redemption of any kind, though it hints at a solution when a teacher tells him “be one man for the world / and another for yourself.” This dichotomy establishes a mistrust of the social world that recurs throughout the collection. Reading these poems, we become wary of how we communicate, or fail to effectively communicate, our need for love, acceptance and connection. Indeed, there must be a reason why we are the way we are.

If “School For Boys” is the thesis poem of the collection, many of the others provide examinations of the problems it poses from a variety of perspectives. The book is organized into three sections; however, the reader will want to jump back and forth across sections, revisiting poems that provide different takes on the central problems.  One such second take is “Frankenstein’s Monster.” Spoken by the monster himself, the poem humorously provides a portrait of a somewhat cosmopolitan individual now residing in New York City. All of Dr. Frankenstein’s misguided ambition has yielded a monster who is “already dead” with grimy teeth and mismatched limbs. Yet he observes “I’m happy in this place / where I’m one more person with panache / and an ugly face.” The monster, it appears, has overcome his circumstances and is now leading a fulfilling life, finding familiarity in those surrounding him rather than the extreme alienation of an actual monster. The poem concludes, “My name isn’t Frankenstein. / Frankenstein was my inventor.” By rejecting his patrilineage he rejects all that was done to create him. In light of “School For Boys,” we can see the doctor’s monstrous vision as the original sin that created a monster who initially “spent years in the Arctic, / eating seal fat and things better left unnamed.” However, the monster has discovered a wherewithal not yet known to the boys at the school. At the very least, he seems to have the individual power to name himself, and thereby give himself license to grow in a productive way.

And yet, the process of recovering from one’s wounds brought by prior generations seems more complex than the conclusion of “Frankenstein’s Monster” implies. Arthur broadens his scope in the book’s second section to contemplate how we deal with historical knowledge by both erasing and remaking the past. These ideas come together powerfully in the poem, “Nostalgia,” in which Arthur provides a treatment of the Eden story. The word “nostalgia” is fraught, in that it contains meanings in tension with each other, such as homesickness and sentimentality, fondness and regret. To feel nostalgia is to feel unstable, and the potential to obtain and retain detailed meaning falters throughout the poem. “There’s no going back to the garden,” the unnamed Eve states, and what follows is an anachronistic litany of things and activities for which one might feel warmth or sentiment:

No more reading poetry
in the reservoir park. No more origami.
There won’t be anymore lunches at the Green Room
or long weekends in New York.
No traveling by ocean liner.
No silk stockings, no poke bonnets, or broadfall pants
for the men.
No collecting beach glass
or writing out letters by fountain pen.

The descriptions of ocean liners and poke bonnets bring to mind the late Victorian period—certainly a time for which someone in the present day might feel nostalgia, but the speaker situates them as belonging to “the garden,” a mythical place forever removed from us. Arthur elides the ancient and the more recent, making the experience (and problem) of myth on-going. What value do these perceptions hold?  The best one could do is play-act the past, with these lines acting like a prop list for an enactment one senses would be charming but thin on the details of pain and suffering that would make the portrayal vital. The past has been made palliative, and the speaker misperceives it as an idyll, meant to be longed for rather than fully understood.

The poem continues,

As the man and woman walked deeper into exile
from the garden outside of time,
their memories of where they’d come from
grew hazy and recombined…

Time here is associated with loss. By leaving the garden, Adam and Eve experience time, change, and its accompanying disappearance of the material condition of feeling. Of course, in the Garden of Eden story, the first loss is innocence itself, and as the poem’s narrator states, “the lovers had invented nakedness / and put on their garments made of shame.” “Nostalgia” is Arthur’s meditation on the limitations of our memory and the damage that limitation does to our psyches. The past is remade inexpertly again and again, and as we communicate these distorted figures of meaning, the way to some kind of originating truth is blocked, as the poem implies with its final forbidding image of the angel guarding the gates of Eden.

We don’t learn directly from the past so much as we remake it, as many of the poems in this collection suggest. It would seem that we begin making history and, through our own limitations, transform it into myth, in which we can retain ideas and messages that at best are poor guidance and at worst directly harm us. What is at stake is nothing less than the well-being of ourselves and our children.  This gives rise to a gloomy tone as one reads, but it is punctuated with relief. The endings of both “Tree-planting” and “In Al Purdy’s House” seek to suspend or reverse time as a means of holding graceful moments in our attention. In this, Arthur is nodding to the power of literature to frame and preserve what we value, if not nostalgically, then sincerely, in the midst of loss.

Of course, literature is itself a form of myth-making, and Arthur leaves room for the restorative power of imagination, language and communication to change us for the better. In the poem, “On The Move,” the poet contemplates the animal world while on a morning walk. He confesses to feeling a lack of agency, “as programmed as the stubborn birds”, and observes that birds pass down identical songs across generations. However, in contrast, his relationship with his own son feels changeable and not fully formed:

Day by day, I’m feeling my way into fatherhood.
Learning what my son is to me, and I to him;
My boy, my kid, an eight-toothed homunculus
Clutching an acorn in his fist, bewildered
That a paper plate set down on the grass on a windy day
Won’t stay put, but lofts, and spins away.

There is much that the poet needs to understand about his son, and much that the son needs to learn, and the poet’s awareness of this places him and his son far afield of the animals he contemplates. It’s clear that his child is both loved and still strange. The “songs” he needs to sing to his child won’t be formulaic, but rather tailored not only to the personality of the child, but to the nature of their relationship itself. Who are they to each other, and how does their communication develop a character that is theirs alone? In light of other poems in The Suicide’s Son, the ability to exist in unique relation to each other becomes a critical ability in the midst of all the difficulty we inherit and experience. The character of loving human relationships mitigates suffering in that we continue to discover things about each other that charm, surprise, engage, all enabled by language. Today, the poet can teach the boy about something as sweet as the physics of wind and paper plates. In the future, more difficult subjects will need to be addressed.

In Arthur’s view, we are animals marked by the power of language, both damaging and salvific. For all our willful distortions of our experience and transference of suffering, we can recover enough to see the truth of our condition and speak to it honestly, and this has direct benefit to others who can hear that honesty. In language, there is discovery, and the possibility of salvation. This condition, though it can put us at cross purposes, makes all the difference to Arthur, who writes “I’d rather be dead than be a creature / of any other kind. I walk upright, practicing / the song of my species, by speaking.”