Luther Hughes’ You Smell Like Outside: Not Winter Yet
“You Smell Like Outside” is Luther Hughes’ wonderful column for Frontier where he seeks to answer the question every month: can poetry help us with our real, day-to-day life? For October, he’s exploring the special language of suicides.
Not Winter Yet
I thought about killing myself last week. It wasn’t the first time. I’ve tried before. I don’t know why I didn’t try this time. I just didn’t. I was tired. I was lazy. I was listening to “Focus” by H.E.R. I wanted to go outside because it was raining. I wanted to feel the rain on my face, wake myself up. I knew I wasn’t dreaming, but I was dreaming.
The thing is, I forgot even though it was just last week. I forgot I wanted to kill myself. The thing is, I was reading these essays by Gabrielle Calvocoressi. God, they were wrenching. But they reminded me of how I felt, of how I wanted to stop feeling like that. I’ve never told anybody this. I’m trying to be myself, be more casual when I write these posts. Calvocoressi taught me that. It’s possible I’m borrowing her voice and if I am, I’m sorry for that. I’m still learning. I don’t think I’m comfortable enough to write this post, but I will try to sound more like myself.
A lot people teach me things with their writing. I’m grateful for that. I remember reading “Six Months After Contemplating Suicide,” by Erika Sánchez and thinking, same—
Some days you knelt on coins
in those yellow hours.
You lit a flame
to your shadow
scorpions with your naked fingers.
So touched by the sadness of hair
in a dirty sink.
The malevolent smell
When instead of swallowing a fistful
of white pills,
you decided to shower,
the palm trees
nodded in agreement
But I didn’t shower. I turned on my PS4 and played Final Fantasy XV. I killed daemons. I devoured a family size bag of Hot Cheetos. I read this poem again and it felt like I was reading it for the first time. The way Sánchez weaves in and out of figurative language is honest, for me, because that’s how I felt—both in and outside of reality. Last week, the hours were yellow. The hair in the sink was sad. In fact, everything was sad. How can I put this? When I walked into work, the bookshelves wept. The books turned their backs. The heater complained. I tried to work, but I couldn’t get anything right. I needed music. I played some even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to. I was told to turn it off. I needed something. I looked outside and I was calm until the rain was laughed at me, rolled around on the pavement. On the way home from work, I watched two black women argue at the bus stop. One, standing above the other who sat with her head bowed, said, “Get your ass up! Ain’t nobody got time for you to be feeling sad.” I looked at the trees.
I want to ask Sánchez if the trees did more than nod. I want to know what type of soap was used and if they sell them at the Fred Meyers down the street from my house.
I bought new soap after I read the poem. Lavender. A friend of mine once said lavender helps you relax. It didn’t, and it did. I went to sleep early. I thought of my ex-girlfriend from high school. I thought about that time we were in her home, alone, having just made out when she told me she tried cutting myself. Depression, she said. Now I want to find her on Facebook. But, that doesn’t seem healthy or fair or respectful.
I want to know if Sánchez read “Wanting to Die” by Anne Sexton. I know, I’m a little all over the place right now. But, the other night, I read this poem on my phone (again) while waiting for my bus to go home. Here’s the beginning:
Since you ask, most days I cannot remember.
I walk in my clothing, unmarked by that voyage.
Then the almost unnameable lust returns.
Even then I have nothing against my life.
I know well grass blades you mention,
the furniture you have placed under the sun.
But suicides have a special language.
Everyone experiences wanting to die differently, but I want to know how I, too, can’t remember most days. Disassociation?
About Sexton’s poem, like Sánchez’s, I love the mention of nature. Although, the acknowledgment of such is in this poem is different than in Sánchez’s. In this poem, the grass and the sun are disregarded as if saying, there aren’t enough. Which explains the next line, “But suicides have a special language.” One not of nature? That’s a possible read. The poem continues—
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.
Twice I have so simply declared myself,
have possessed the enemy, eaten the enemy,
have taken on his craft, his magic.
—and I think about this “enemy.” I admit, I’m not sure who he is. Death? Depression? Suicide? When a close friend of mine tells me she’s tired of living, I think of the enemy, but I don’t tell her, “Me too.” I’m the strong friend. I listen to everyone else and give advice. I ask her what makes her smile. I suggest drinking some water. I tell her I love her. I ask her how her night out was the night before. I ask if there were any cuties at the bar. There wasn’t.
I don’t want to keep dragging this post out about wanting to kill myself and not being able to follow through. I didn’t follow through on a couple things last week. I meant to call my dad. I was supposed to edit an essay. I was supposed to help my mom on the computer. I didn’t do anything. I never follow through.
Today is National Mental Health Awareness Day. I read “Instructions On Not Giving Up” by Ada Limón. Here are the last two sentences:
Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.
I cried when I read, “to the strange idea of continuous living despite / the mess of us, the hurt, the empty.” How beautiful, I thought, for nature to keep thriving even when dead or approaching death. Nevertheless, It’s simple, right? I’ve written about winter, about death, about nature’s perseverance. The trees around here are dead. It’s funny, really, because I often brag about Seattle being the Evergreen city. But today, dead trees. Earlier this year, I fell in love with the last lines of Robert Hayden’s “Ice Storm”—“And am I less to You, / my God, than they?”—because, I began asking the same questions. But something about Limón’s, “continuous living,” stirs something in me that I couldn’t shake. And God, the next lines, “Fine then, / I’ll take it, the tree seems to say.” It was then that I wanted to look to the trees and find a tree, any tree, that will shout this to the skies—“I’ll take it all.”
But the trees didn’t. None of them did. But I did. I sang “Focus” by H.E.R at the top of my lungs while sitting at the bus stop. I don’t know why I did. But I did. I did.
Luther Hughes is a Seattle native and author of Touched (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018). He is the Founding Editor in Chief of The Shade Journal and Executive Editor for The Offing. A Cave Canem fellow and a columnist for Frontier Poetry, his work has been published or is forthcoming in various journals including, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, TriQuartlery, Four Way Review, and others. Luther received his MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. You can follow him on Twitter @lutherxhughes. He thinks you are beautiful.