Striven, The Bright Treatise by Jeffrey Pethybridge (Noemi Press, 2013).
In Jeffrey Pethybridge’s debut collection of poems, Striven, The Bright Treatise, four seconds stretch to fill 194 pages, and then continue to stretch. These four seconds, tragically, mark the length of time it took Pethybridge’s brother, Tad, to fall to his death from the Golden Gate Bridge in an act of suicide that Pethybridge at once rails against, deconstructs, contextualizes, and attempts to inhabit. If difficulty is a tone, it is the tonic of this book, and we feel it in its every character as well as the spaces that divide them. “[from each material, a method],” Pethybridge states midway through the book in “The New Humors (2),” a poem that makes revealing anagrammatic use of the word “dopamine:”
But by this point we have begun to see the fallacy of any “method” for the conquering of such a loss and the guilt, anger, and pain it provokes; it has become a ghost as unwieldy and unpredictable as the mind itself.
I once heard the late poet Deborah Digges (who herself committed suicide in 2009) describe her own grief following her husband’s death as being “like an addiction.” This phrase seems a useful key to Striven, The Bright Treatise, in particular the two gorgeously obsessive visual poems included in the book. Perhaps the word “addiction” carries too negative a connotation to attach to the formidable formal mastery displayed in these two poems—one of which (the book’s title poem) creates a blueprint of the Golden Gate Bridge using phrases constructed solely from the letters of Pethybridge’s brother’s name, while the other (“The Sad Tally”) maps, letter by letter, the number and location of recorded suicides from the bridge.
But how else explain the desperately concentrated need to create a structure that speaks back to the death it invokes? That Pethybridge, in “Striven, The Bright Treatise,” manages to carve lines as clear and lovely in their imagery as “The red setting varied in shade as days/and events vary in depth. The rainy street/sat tired sentry the night he departed” from the structural strictures he has created for himself is both a triumph and a relief, though that does not mitigate the tragedy of the departure they record. It’s also noteworthy that, visually, these lines form part of the “chord” in the blue-print structure of the poem. Pethybridge has provided a section of Notes in which he explains that “the chord is a 32-inch wide beam, beyond the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge; it’s the outermost part of the bridge’s architecture, and is the place from which most jumpers jump.” Thus, we see the locus of “departed” in the word itself.
Despite the many moments in the book that evoke mourning in their language and intricate structure, Pethybridge is not content with mere elegy. In “Against Suicide,” the long poem that follows “Striven, The Bright Treatise,” the poet is scathingly direct as he rebukes a society he sees as tacitly complicit in the act of suicide, even as we condemn or (worse) refuse to acknowledge those who take their own lives. Moving from the “gorgeous Valkyries” of mythology, to tenets of Roman philosophy (Seneca’s famous counsel “…the road to freedom, you shall find it in every vein in/your body.”), to contemporary suicide bombers (“what would Seneca do thus clothed and armed,” Pethybridge asks), the poem presents a catalogue of hypocrisy and neglect. “Even beautiful Donne,” seems to excuse or accept suicide as natural (“That Selfe-homicide is not so naturally/Sinne, that it may never be otherwise”). We can feel the poet’s eyes darting madly through literature, history, and then out into contemporary anecdote—the girl who committed suicide with the “pawn/-shop gun” bought from “the clerk who pined…for her…as he tutored her in Seneca’s dead language.” Examples of a dangerous acquiescence to or celebration of the act seem to be everywhere, but worse are the many proofs of indifference or condemnation: “‘Suicide should be derived/
from Sus, a Sow…as it were a/Swinish part of a man to kill himself.’” Here Pethybridge is quoting Milton’s nephew, Edward Phillips, in his General Dictionary. He also notes the linguistic censure of the act: “Yet no grammar of motive or the Queen’s English easily permits the sentence I will/suicide—and not for nothing French grammar forbids, absolutely,/je suicide.”
The rage that fuels this prosecution makes it impossible to refute:
Charge not your willful suicide on God’s decree, says Church.
one spiritual by invading the prerogative of the Almighty;
These are the same Church and State, we are reminded, that think nothing of sending soldiers to their deaths on a regular basis, of course. And, in the final stanzas of the poem, The Golden Gate itself proves the most damning example of our societal hypocrisy, our “callous social policy” that values “aesthetics” over human life and prevents us from erecting a suicide barrier on the bridge.
Elsewhere in the book, in the poem “Aokighara,” Pethybridge speaks back to Dante, imagining the poet wandering in the “Sea of Trees” at the base of Mt Fuji, a forest known as a destination for suicides, and writing poems on the corpses he finds there (Are we invited to read self-reproach in this?). Émile Durkheim “The Father of Suicidology,” is introduced as another figure with which to argue—“a theory of anomie inside/voluntary death, a theory of moral/sickness inside suicide statistics”—or remonstrate—“out through the city of images he walked (an image like/everyone else).” And the myth of Ajax, re-examined, becomes a convincing modern-day parable of PTSD:
dress it up “bulwark of the Acheians”
they call you or “America’s finest
young men and women,” so what if after,
the shock of sun glare leaving the movie
house burns with your suddenly combat-pulse…
(The Sword of Ajax: A Report on Democracy and Soldier Suicides)
However, all of this well-reasoned argument, though engaging and enraging, is not the emotional heart of Pethybridge’s project. “The Book of Lamps, being a psalm book,” a 128-line poem dispersed in 8-line sections throughout the book, forms the immoveable core of mourning in the text, illuminating what, in the end, seems almost a willed disbelief in the loss its writer has suffered. In phrases that repeat, intertwine, and recombine, we hear the younger brother calling out to his elder brother—the “gargantuan” recognizable to all younger siblings—as though from their childhood bedroom or front porch. Once more, the elder is setting off on some as-yet-unfathomable adventure and the younger can only scramble to catch a glimpse of his retreating back “in rückenfigur” (from behind and in shadow).
The number 128 is deliberate, of course, referencing the number of light poles on the Golden Gate Bridge; a note informs us “these light poles were used to map locations from where a person jumped,” a practice that has now ceased “since an official count of suicides is no longer kept.” Thus, the poles stand as a symbol of double “effacement” (Pethybridge’s word): both of the brother, and of the act of suicide itself. Beyond the significance of this number and the poem’s division into sections, however, “The Book of Lamps” is quiet in its structure, allowing the imagining and reimaging of those final seconds before the fall to coalesce into simple plea: “the heart to bar the jump, there it is in the pause of second thoughts, see it/in rückenfigur.” Neither mastery of craft and form, nor dissection of social policy, philosophy, or myth will stay those fatal four seconds; Pethybridge knows this. But in these final lines, he gives his brother, himself, and us a moment to imagine that they could, as we hold our breath, “reckoning the limit-work of refusing/to jump.”