Wanting to Die

by Anne Gray Harvey

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 678

The poem opens as the speaker addresses an unnamed someone as “you” and nonchalantly responds to their question with an off-hand “since you asked.” Her casual acquiescence to the unnamed interlocutor’s line of questioning belies the heavy subject matter to follow. The nature of the question is initially ambiguous, but as the stanza progresses, readers realize that the unnamed “you” have asked after the speaker’s perverse yearning for death.

She begins by explaining that, some days, she cannot remember how or why she wishes to die; sometimes, her desire for death abates, if only briefly. On such days, things fall into place; she walks around, is comfortable in her clothes, and feels untouched by the world. Her mind feels free of that “voyage,” and the urge that often feels so overwhelming leaves her. That is, she says, until, unbidden, “the almost unnamable lust returns.” By “lust” she seems to refer to the desire for death and the rest it may bring. She is quick to claim that it is not as if she has anything against life; indeed, she understands the things that bring others joy, such as “the grass blades” and “furniture” her companion mentions, likely in defense of life’s beauty.

Perhaps such things have value to others, to her companion, even. To those versed in the language of suicide, such scenes of beauty read differently than they do to those unversed. They speak in a code of pragmatism like carpenters: their lot is not to ask “why build” but “which tools.” Relying on the carpenter metaphor, the speaker explains to her companion that the yearning for death alters how one looks at life; it is a language spoken only by its adherents and is inexplicable to all else.

She establishes herself as part of this shared set of speakers, claiming that she has “declared” herself twice now, meaning that she has made two such attempts on her life. Through such acts, she has found rest; she has felt her body go still, felt it become warm and “drooling.” Describing the physicality of such attempts, she argues that people who consider or act on suicidal impulses have betrayed their bodies and compares them to stillborn babies. The speaker suggests that, just as these babies, those who feel drawn to death are born dead. They are born with the seeds of their later actions inside of them. In short, they are stillborns in spirit who have yet to die. Too, those who have made attempts on their life have felt, however briefly, the euphoria of death; it is “a drug so sweet” they can never shake, and it consumes them. 

The speaker presents Death as a woman and describes how she waits for her. Rather than an ominous form to be feared, this patient figure is kind and gentle—her deadly touch is a release rather than a curse, “delicately” removing the speaker from life, that “bad prison.” Their inevitable union shall be born of a chance encounter, a fleeting flash of irrational rage, or an innocuous trigger. As the speaker describes, suicide often intersects with the mundane motions of life, for those driven by the impulse for death might take their lives even when it seems they are in the throes of living. They might take their lives while they are angry, when the moon is full, in the middle of a meal, halfway through a book, having left something unsaid, or even with the phone off its hook. There is little sense to it; the urge to die strikes when it will.

In the end, as the speaker describes the finality and abruptness of the act of “leaving,” she presents a collection of tasks left half-finished, abandoned forever. Among her list, she adds “the love, whatever it was, an infection.” Perhaps she refers to the infecting force that has overpowered her senses, that love of death that drives her to take her life. Perhaps, too, she refers to the love she experiences in life and the poisoning effects of her lust for death.

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