Visiting Rattle Magazine’s website just now to submit some new poems, I found the homepage dedicated to the heartbreakingly beautiful poem by Alexandra Umlas, “Remembering You, Anthony Bourdain, at the Elementary School Talent Show.”
Written in tribute to celebrity chef (which does not begin to describe him) Anthony Bourdain, who took his life a couple days ago, the poem was just what I needed this morning, in the wake of the “issue of suicide” media response to Bourdain’s death. And it reminded me once again of how much more deeply and truly and reverently the language of poetry meets us at the moist and messy heart of life and loss. It was such a contrast –in fact an antidote– to the news media’s formulaic responses: responses which use language to aid and abet our collective, existential scramble-for-safety by quickly producing cheaply-made containers of “understanding” for our anxiety and confusion in the face of incomprehensible loss.
I was acutely aware of the latter yesterday, when –listening to NPR over the course of the afternoon– I noticed how much focus there was on “the issue of suicide” in response to Bourdain’s death, the producers and broadcasters first shaping “the issue” for us that way, and then responding predictably, unimaginatively and heart-numbingly (as is the news media’s purpose, however unconsciously for many of those involved) to our collective anxiety by delivering “the usual” to it: the usual psychology “experts” soberly and expert-ishly proferring some version of the standard trifeca of Explanations, Advice, and Call for More Mental Health Services…none of which may have had any pertinence at all to Bourdain’s own suicide, and all of which collectively fail to honor the gift of his life, however much longer we might think that life should have been.
Thought experiment: What if Bourdain actually knew perfectly well that he was deeply loved by, and important to many? And what if he knew his life had meaning and purpose? And what if those around him knew and persistently responded as well as anyone could to help him find relief for his suffering? And what if he did, in fact, receive the best that mental health treatment had to offer?
What if, that is, Bourdain’s suicide was not a result of a deficiency of love, of information, of vigilance, or of attitude, nor representative of a mental health services insufficiency? What if all of these resources were in fact present abundantly and in full for him (which I find more likely than not) and he still found his suffering to be too much to further bear?
What if no-one failed, including Bourdain himself?
After 25 years of practicing psychotherapy, I know how often this can in fact be true, and I believe that any truly seasoned “expert” knows it too. So why the bromides that suggest otherwise in the news media interviews?
But maybe the answer is that as “news,” that is not in fact “news we can use” as news, because that’s where poetry (and music, and stories, and all the arts) meet us instead: in that place where the heart is left to find a way to hold all that the mind cannot solve and decide away. And in doing so, it enlarges our hearts’ capacity for compassion, reverence, and joy.
As does Umlas’ poem, which, in the way it honors the life in the life of Anthony Bourdain, in turn honors the way the gifts of every life enlarge the one Life we all share together…
which is the heart of the matter.
You knew how to savor
an experience, how sitting with strangers
makes friends, that what we put in our mouths
matters—you pointed out the thread
spooled between us when we have a meal
together, the connection that takes place over
coffee or beer. This morning, after hearing
you were gone from this world, my daughter
danced on the stage, nervously taking a seat
at the table of the unknown.
(from “Remembering You, Anthony Bourdain, at the Elementary School Talent Show,” by Alexandra Umlas; for the full text, visit Rattle.com)
To see/hear my archived poem, “To Tinnitus” published in Rattle in 2011, click on the poem’s title