A cup of fine tea: Anuradha Vijayakrishnan’s “Suicide Note”

Anuradha Vijayakrishnan’s “Suicide Note” [Read the poem here]
(First published in Issue #10 of Cha, this poem was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010.)

-This post is co-written by Tammy Ho and Jarno Jakonen.

Also read Tammy’s creative response to the poem here.

Vijayakrishnan’s “Suicide Note” is an incomplete note. It is made up of a list of addressees: frog, cicadas, rain clouds, gardens, worms, grass, deer, curtains, noise, lights, glass trails, heart, hands, ink, bruises, rivers, summers, monsoons and thunderbolts. We never get to the body of the letter and therefore do not know what the persona wants to say to her addressees. And yet, much is revealed through reading the list.

The poem begins with descriptions of the sounds of nature: ‘To the frog at my doorstep that sang all night / To the cicadas that held unbroken vigil and would not sleep at dawn’ (L1-L2). It is as if at the moment of death, the persona’s sense of hearing is heightened and she becomes aware of the tapestry of sounds around her. The nature is not only perceived, but is also interconnected with the persona: the frog sings for her at her doorstep, the cicadas hold her vigil, the rain clouds wait for her before bursting (L3), the flowers bloom early for her (L4), and the glow worms give her light and warmth (L5-L6). This is her death, wake and funeral procession all in one; the natural elements and animals are the persona’s mourners. This ‘funeral’ reminds one of Emily Dickinson’s:

I FELT a funeral in my brain,
And mourners, to and fro,
Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
That sense was breaking through.

The second stanza of Vijayakrishnan’s poem continues with the revelation of the persona’s resting place: ‘drenched clumps of grass that smell of moth wings / and butterfly love’ (L7-L8). Has it been raining? Or does the wetness come from the persona’s own blood? ‘Moth wings’ suggests doomed lives; attracted to light, moths seek death. ‘Butterfly love’ reminds us of the Chinese legend of the star-crossed ‘butterfly lovers’ Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, whose spirits turn into butterflies after death. The hints as to the circumstances of the persona’s death get fleshed out further when she recalls the ‘golden deer that lingered just beyond / my window’ (L9-L10) and ‘the white curtains that danced for my pleasure’ (L11). The window is mentioned once more in the third stanza: ‘broken glass trails that will show the way to strangers’ (L15). Considering the title of the poem, the persona’s suicide is probably in some way related to this broken window. Perhaps she has jumped through it. But the precise way she has engineered her death is never explicitly mentioned, nor does it matter anyway, as she seems to feel no remorse or guilt. She says her goodbyes, referring to the fatal day as ‘this marvellous day’ (L12) that just passed. We know that ‘the golden deer’ is fromthe Ramayana. Rama goes to hunt the golden deer, leaving Sita alone, and Rawana kidnaps her. But what is the significance of the lingering golden deer in relation to the dying persona?

The persona also recalls her own bodily functions when she dedicates remembrances ‘to the quiet beating of my amazing heart / To my shaking hands’ (L16-L17). Just as she is highly aware of the animals, the persona is conscious of her own body as well. Her faintly beating heart and the shaking hands suggest that the body is about to come to an end. And there is also perhaps a sense of remove as if she is watching herself move towards death after having thrown herself from the window, just like the neighbours’ ‘last / ashen cigarettes’ (L13-L14). Here we must note that spent and snubbed cigarettes are almost always discarded with carelessness — our persona’s throwing her body is to some extent similar to such treatment. We are given more insight as to the persona’s life in the next lines, when she addresses ‘blue ink and black and bruises that may or may not heal’ (L18). Perhaps she was an author or a poet, which would explain the blue ink, but the bruises are somewhat inexplicable and add a twist in the story. Was she a victim of violence? And could that be a cause of her suicide? Or was she bruised from the fall after jumping through the window? And if she is really dying, how can it be questioned whether the bruises may heal?

After bidding farewell to her body, the narrator drifts away and remembers ‘rivers that will swell and continents that will shift’ (L19) as well as ‘summers and monsoons and climactic / thunderbolts that will strike at will’ (L20-L21). Thus the poem that began with the immediate surroundings zooms out to contain the larger pattern of life: rivers, continents, summers, monsoons, thunderbolts. These geographical and climatic features perhaps suggest the persona’s final struggle before death: swelling, shifting, moving wind and striking bolts – these are the opposite of calmness. We are reminded of Dylan Thomas’s plea to his father: ‘Do not go gentle into that good night‘. And the mention of ‘continents’ also reminds us of these lines from Wordsworth’s poem “Lucy“: ‘Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course / With rocks, and stones, and trees’. When finally death draws near, our persona’s goodbyes come to an end. The ending of the poem echoes its beginning, as the last attribution goes: ‘To cicadas that live for a day and to the frog at my doorstep / that sleeps now exhausted’ (L22-L23). The wake is over, the frog stops singing and the cicadas who held vigil are now silent.

Anuradha Vijayakrishnan was born in Cochin, India. She completed her Bachelor’s in Chemical Engineering from Calicut University, Kerala and her postgraduate studies in Management from XLRI, Jamshedpur. A trained Carnatic singer, she lives in India/UAE and pursues a full time corporate career while writing both fiction and poetry. Her work has appeared inMagma, Asia Literary Review, Mascara, Indian Literature and Nth Position. Her poem The epiphyte speaks from Magma 44 is due to feature in Magma‘s anthology that commemorates its fifteenth anniversary. In 2007, Vijayakrishnan’s novel Seeing the Girl was long listed for the Man Asian Literary prize.

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7 Responses to “A cup of fine tea: Anuradha Vijayakrishnan’s “Suicide Note””

  1. Bob Bradshaw Says:

    When I first read this poem I immediately shared it with a close friend.
    We both marvelled at the beauty of this poem, but we didn’t discuss it much. It was much like walking into a room and seeing a beautiful, stunning woman you’ve never met before. You just want to stand there, and enjoy the moment.

    There are few catalog poems that I enjoy. But the kinship that the narrator feels to nature is poignantly and beautifully expressed throughout the poem: through images addressed to frogs, cicadas, even thunderbolts.

    But the speaker doesn’t just share an affinity with nature; she shares it with the world in general, addressing curtains, the noisiness of the day, the cigarettes of neighbors…

    Because of her obvious love for the world, her ‘suicide’ is even sadder.

    Tammy’s analysis beautifully details the ‘vigil’ that she feels going on
    around her. Are the frogs singing for her, the cicadas holding ‘vigil’, the rains holding back for her? Whether we buy into this or not, the speaker’s heightened awareness of the beauty around her moves us. We are immediately drawn to a person so generous.

    So even though this poem is a ‘suicide note’, it is also a love note to her world.

    What convinces me most that this is a suicide note is this line: “To broken glass trails that will show the way to strangers…” The fact that the broken glass leads to ‘strangers’ suggests paramedics or doctors intervening to try and save her life. But it could also suggest morticians. Either way, we know from the poem’s title that this is a ‘suicide note’. This line just confirms it.

    The poet ties her death to the larger issue of death in the final stanza. To the changing and dying world that is always going on:

    To rivers that will swell and continents that will shift
    To summers and monsoons and climactic
    thunderbolts that will strike at will

    To cicadas that live for a day and to the frog at my doorstep
    that sleeps now exhausted

    The brevity of life, and the volatility of the world are captured beautifully here.

    The cataloging “To” technique that the poet employs somehow brings us closer to the images she is seeing and experiencing, and makes them more personal. It’s a Wow technique when handled this well.

    Also, the number of anapests in this poem moves this poem along quickly, helping to make it such an enjoyable read. It’s a luminous poem. One of the best poems that I have read this year. Bravo.

  2. Asian Cha Says:

    From Anuradha:

    Dear Tammy,

    Thank you so much for this wonderful gesture. It is amazing to me that you have read and re read so many meanings into that poem. This is a poem I particularly enjoyed, especally enjoyed laying it down layer over layer and giving it a prayer like rhythm. Have been going back to the questions you ask, am glad that you have left them as questions. It is true that it is an incomplete note, it would not have been fun other wise for me. And a suicide denotes incompleteness, doesn’t it?

    One thing that I found striking in your analysis is that you have alluded to death so many times, whereas while I wrote this, I kept death aside. The actual fact of dying felt so immaterial. The golden deer is of course from the Ramayana, but here its illusory connotations were formost. The deer might have been the dream of life, this life or the next; it might have been the fleeting beauty of all that could have been; it might have been the memory of guilt too.

    Must say that what you are doing with Cha is outstanding.

    Cheers

    Anuradha

  3. Yamabuki Says:

    Poetry is a lot like dreams. Why do we dream? Why do we read poetry? Why do we have a soul?

    Do you know why? Do you even know what dreams or poetry or the soul really are? We can speak of them, but words can never capture their true essence. The same is true of all mysteries, including the mystery of death.

    But let me try. Let me speak of a poem. A poem not about death, no. A poem that implies death, with its title, “suicide note”

    What an odd name for a poem. Who writes a suicide note? A potential suicide of course. But what if the writer is still alive? Is it still a suicide note? Even if the writer is determined to suicide at some time in the future, and writes the suicide note ahead of time so as to make sure that it says exactly what should be in the note, it’s still not a suicide note until the writer has killed him or herself.

    And what of this poem? This beautiful lyrical poem of sadness and even despair. How are we to judge it if we are not sure what it is?
    Or do we even need to judge it? Can we not just accept it for what it is?

    My initial thought was “this song of beauty can not be a suicide note.” But it is. It is a suicide note. Or at least it seems to be one. It works as a suicide note. It even feels like a suicide note. But for me something is wrong. Why does it not ring true?

    Still, I cannot dismiss this beautiful song of a poem. I have had to think on it, sleep on it, let go of it, walk away from it. And yet it won’t let me go, this suicide note that is both more and less than a suicide note. Here we have a poem titled “suicide note.” Yet the author, Anuradha Vijayakrishnan, lives on.

    Tammy, in her analysis of poems, sometimes speaks of the persona of the poem. What if it’s a persona that dies by suicide? We all have multiple personas. It’s not hard to see this if you stay with a person as they interact with different people. Take a parent of a family. If there are children, the parent will have a different persona with the children, than their persona with their partner. They will have a different persona with their parents, with their neighbors. On and on goes the list, on and on goes the list of personas.

    What if one of our personas decides to suicide? What if a persona writes a suicide note? What does a suicide note mean if the writer has not died? How do we know if a persona has died? How seriously do we take such a piece of writing if the author has not died?

    Without the answer to these questions, how do we know how we should feel about this poem? Anuradha Vijayakrishnan seems to be alive. She wrote a response to Tammy’s analysis. Did one of her personas die? The poem seems to indicate the possibility, but we don’t know. If this is just a pretense at suicide, with a pretend “suicide note”, how should we respond to it? How seriously should we take it?

    In the end it’s another mystery. Perhaps even the author of the poem does not know. It’s possible for a persona to be so walled off from the other parts of the psyche, that we might not even know if it died.

    And in the end, it’s mysterious. I have more questions than answers. I’m not even sure if the poem rings true as a suicide note. Perhaps this is like a Zen Koan that has no rational answer.

    Yamabuki

  4. Alex Says:

    Referred to by a friend, this is a beautiful poem I kept coming back to again and again…

    Loved the analysis, however I wonder whether the author really went into such painstaking depths as the reviewer did, obviously… Some of the lines that perplexed me:-

    To glow worms that gave me fire for as long
    as it was needed

    To the “drenched clumps of grass/ (lust?)” that smell of moth wings
    and butterfly love (again, ardor?)
    To the golden deer that lingered just beyond
    my window (deer may be viewed as symbol for infatuation/ false love as in Ramayana, demon king Ravana takes the guise of a deer to lure Sita)
    To the white curtains that danced for my pleasure (very, very romantic… Find it hard to imagine somebody on the verge of death, paying respects to dancing curtains…)
    To the leftover noisiness (again, could be interpreted as spent love) of this marvellous day
    To the shining lights of the neighbours and their last
    ashen cigarettes (can be attributed to late night partying, often an accompaniment to Indian weddings)

    Also, heightened awareness of the rhythmic “beating of heart”…and similar strong imageries…

    I believe suicide is always an act of desperation, so find it difficult to piece together some of the flirtatious and coy lines… They’re beautiful in itself but as a whole, they baffle me. One of the comments I read, seem to suggest that it’s a love poem addressed to nature, but then, how does one decide to take one’s own life at a point one’s totally still immersed in life’s beauties? Seems contradictory. That said, I’m sure there’s an explanation and I’d love to hear more from the author. I’m not literary reader per se, so some of my observations might be off base…

    Thanks!

  5. Shadowy figure Says:

    One thing baffles me: if it was a suicide, why the broken window? Wouldn’t she have opened it first?

  6. Stella Pierides Says:

    This poem puzzled and haunted me for the last few weeks: its exquisite, lyrical tone, its mysteries and the ways it brings nature alive through its lines. I see this has all been pointed out by the analysis as well as the comments, which provide a beautiful and multi-faceted context to the poem.

    I have nothing to add, except one question: where are the people? Where are the relationships with people? The nature described in the poem is giving, generous – but offering what is usually offered by humans: warmth is offered by glow worms, for instance; and as if to emphasize the point, only neighbours and strangers appear. So, for me, there is so much loneliness and sadness in the persona pouring out every time nature stands in for the human touch: friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, or even kind strangers. What could be more indicative of sadness, and indeed despair, than the need to use “broken glass trails that will show the way to strangers”?

    From this perspective, what if, in a well-encrypted way, we are led to ask: does the poem take the line of praising nature instead of criticizing fatal failings of the human heart?

  7. Phill Provance Says:

    I am coming to this a little late, but I am as intrigued by this poem as Cha’s other readers and wanted to pay it homage with a small comment too. Generally, I love how deft and innovative a technical performance it is and how clear, simple and poignant its images and language are. We are seeing so many things done well structurally, including the effect of leaving the full message out, “deep sixing” it all because we know somehow intrinsically what this speaker means to say in an emotional sense that is beyond what any clearly defined message (if it had been given) could convey. As a result it conveys the moment to the reader, brings the reader into the speaker’s experience, far better than most poems I’ve read; rather than explain the experience it puts us beside the persona, in the persona, and the impact is startling.

    Critically, I wanted to offer a few thoughts about the poem I think might be worthwhile. Foremost of these is I’d like to address other readers’ questions concerning whether the suicide finds its completion. I feel it must, and my reason for this interpretation is tied to line length and termination. Vijayakrishnan, I feel, has used a technique popular among American poets (including Whitman and Ginsberg) of terminating lines at the end of a breaths, rather than according to metrical score.

    This is a beautiful way of implying that death does occur because as we breath out these lines we are replicating the speaker’s death throes. As we would expect, the painful final breaths are shortened once in the first stanza with line 6, when we might expect the speaker has (in my interpretation) slit her wrists with a shard of glass from the window (more on why I think this is what happened below), then two more short breaths immediately afterwards in stanza ii, lines 2 & 4, as the body initially struggles against the shock of inevitable death, then another short breath in stanza iii as the body weakens but still struggles and the speaker has accepted death; then, a final short breath as the speaker expires in the final, (importantly) shortened, incomplete fourth stanza.

    As for why I feel this oblique means of suicide – breaking a window to slit one’s wrists – is an answer to the one of the poems many riddles, I can’t help wonder how one would jump from a window close enough to the ground for a deer to walk up to it. I can accept the deer’s spiritual symbolism, but not knowing the tradition it comes from, my interpretation as a Western reader is that it is a deer and walks to windows, rather than floats to them. The only way to kill oneself with a ground window, it occurs to me then, is to slash oneself with a shard of glass.

    This makes me wonder why the speaker chooses to use this means. Doesn’t the speaker have a knife, a razor blade? But I think the isolation from other people, the fill-in of nature for human closeness, provides a hint. It is a wide-spread practice in American psych wards to stretch wire mesh across the inner sides of windowsills to prevent patients from breaking the windows and using the glass to harm themselves. I can imagine this speaker being the patient of a less-outfitted institution, isolated from others as part of her treatment and using the only means she has to kill herself. The mention of the doorstep perhaps complicates this reading, but perhaps the doorstep is the doorstep of the building she is in. Perhaps this reading is a stretch, but I’d like to offer it up as a possibility.

    At any rate, I love this poem, am glad to see my own stand beside it as a nominee for the Pushcart and to see it have earned one of Cha’s Best of the Net nominations. I am frightened to see my own work go up against it in the former and certain of its success in the latter, truly.

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