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  • Paul Guest

catapult: the deaths of poets

Years ago, when I was an undergraduate taking my first poetry workshops, writing bad poems and nursing agonizing crushes on girls I had classes with—I remember one who had the distracting habit of applying lotion during lectures—I would take seminars in the morning and afternoon, reading Homer and Hawthorne and Faulkner, then waiting around on campus for my evening workshop. The library was kind of an awful space—in the years since, it’s been renovated and would now be unrecognizable to me, I think, because back then it was damp and dank and stank of mold and old books, that smell of organic compounds breaking down and seeping into the air. I soon found the portion of one shelf that held a scant few issues of literary journals, and it’s difficult to describe my feelings, then, about them: how I dreamed of one day writing something, anything, worth appearing in just one. I would, each week, scan the issues, as if something new might pop up, appear, but time moved no faster then. I’d move on, past the couches besides old computer terminals my nerd friends and I would sometimes gather round to search for scraps of information about the Star Wars prequels (it doesn’t matter, my opinion on them, but because I have this little bit of space, I’ll weigh in: they were awful), and find my way back to the biography section.

I have been interested in the lives of authors since before I wrote poems: since I checked out a volume on Tolkien in high school and wrote a report on him. Then I began reading about poets, how they lived, who they loved, how they died. I think it was an anthology bio on Frank O’Hara that began my fascination with the deaths of poets: on Fire Island. Where else should a poet die but a place so named, run over by a dune buggy? A dune buggy. Violence that was nearly surreal. I think I was able to imagine with too much clarity moments like that because of the harm that I had inflicted upon my own body as a child. It was a ten speed bike, a steep hill, and a weedy ditch that nearly ended me, in a town called Chickamauga, and not Fire Island, but all the same I could see his crumpled body and feel how the sand in the wind stung and still was hot, hear the water move and slosh in the distance. I imagined that it was night and there were careful fires being tended; paging through those books, I could imagine another life. Hart Crane drowned, lost at sea, having jumped over the side of a steamer returning from Mexico. Robert Lowell, whose Life Studies was and still is important to me, died simply in the backseat of a cab in New York. I think he was departing LaGuardia Airport, and that seemed right. I would scan these books as the day outside the library turned to evening.

One night, alarmingly foggy, I left the building to make my way to class, and at the bottom of the hill a wolf emerged. I stopped my wheelchair and saw the leash around its neck and the owner jogging behind it. I thought, that would not have been such a bad way to go. I think tonight of John Berryman who, as a boy, saw his father sit down on the porch with a shotgun, place the barrel in his mouth, and pull the trigger. I think of Berryman his whole life struggling with mental illness and alcoholism and fake Anglo-accents he affected and how he spent much of his adult life with a broken arm in a sling, the sad result of often falling, which had to be self-harm, of course. I think of the bridge in Minneapolis that he stepped off of that is now a gruesome tourist attraction, and how he dropped down towards the Mississippi but missed and landed instead on concrete. I think of regret, when, as a teacher a few years ago, workshop was winding down and talk turned to this morbid trivia I carry around in my head. Laughing a little morosely, I recounted some of these stories. One student got up politely and left and never returned, and I learned then that she had just lost someone. I didn’t know, and years later I feel a guilt that has never quite lifted. I sent an email of apology. This piece is apology. I am sorry.


Paul Guest has published three collections of poetry: The Resurrection of the Body and the Ruin of the World (winner of the 2002 New Issues Poetry Prize), Notes for My Body Double (winner of the 2006 Prairie Schooner Book Prize), and My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2008). His poems have appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. His memoir, One More Theory About Happiness (Ecco), was selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Program. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award. Read the entire CATAPULT series here.


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