Non-Romanticisation of Suicide in Nome Emeka Patrick’s Sylvia Plath Poem

by Carl Terver

Nome Emeka Patrick’s poem on depression, mediated with a Plathian metaphor, has a title that works as its abstract:

“Sylvia Plath as an Old Story Title for Learning to Fight Depression Where the Semiotics Simply Suggest That a Garden Illustrates Peace as a Foreshadow Rather Than as a Vivid Depiction of an Ancestral Society of Sad Mothers & Helpless Fathers.”

The weighty title is held together by the word “semiotics.” It means “Sylvia Plath” is a dominant metaphor of depression, which may end in suicide. And “garden” is a metaphor where depression recycles itself in the lives of many. The garden ironically illustrates that, one way or the other, the depressed will find their peace: by healing or the Plathian way, through surrender. Patrick begins an analysis of this semiotics, thus: “Tell it this way: depression is the 30cm nail driving into the walls.”

The imagery is harrowing: what are the walls? How long will it take a 30cm-long nail to drive into a wall? Why must it? No answer. But Patrick means for us to read that only the depressed knows.

So in the poem’s first half, up to the fifth line, Patrick is the student gradually coming in terms with this school. Yet he addresses his concerns to us by relaying his experience: “If you ever read about Plath, ever kept a lantern from dying / . . . ever kept / dressing the fires in your bones, then you must know about grief.” But for what is already a trite subject of contemporary Nigerian poetry—depression, that is—Patrick winds his way through it by presenting it in a language so unseen recently it appears he’s introducing the subject for the first time.

It is what beholds his readers and invites them into what Dylan Thomas said of poetry as the rhythmic, inevitable narrative, a movement from overclothed blindness to a naked vision. Patrick’s language brings this vision to light, revelatory in initial doses before it plunges into epiphany. If he experiences what his Maami once did in the garden of depression, he tells us this way: “. . . Maami once stood in this garden. Now, / I stand in her shadow like a sphinx in a crusade of an inferno.” This leaps from the poem to us in jarring clarity and disturbance: Patrick’s anxiety arrests us into participating in unravelling the poem.

Someone takes a “nook’s way to the sky” because they couldn’t wait for death; “failure is the arm swinging the pendulum across the face of every dream”; and he, Patrick shall “kowtow into” the absence of a cousin who once knelt in the garden of depression. (What happened to this cousin? Why his absence?) As Patrick reads—or as he describes in his poem, “Canterburries through”—“Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath, he remembers that his father grows in the garden, too. In an internal monologue, he asks himself, with the words borrowed from Plath: “Do I terrify?

We all terrify. Life is a garden of strife. Everyone comes and grooms their portion. But when grooming in this garden involves a semiotics of Sylvia Plath as an old story title for learning to fight depression, Patrick terrifies differently; this is his fear for his father. The weight is on him as he feels helpless living through his father’s tribulations. So he asks as an afterthought, “what fear sweeps this little life?”

But instead of finding peace by using a nook’s way like the earlier character in the poem, Patrick’s is to die a little, perhaps every day, as “dying a little” becomes the art to heal and avert any actual suicidal end to life.

The last two lines in the poem are telling and highlight a disturbing issue. This is the romanticisation of suicide by artists, which Plath has become a metaphor for. Is dying an art as Patrick says, referencing “Lady Lazarus” once again? Was it courage for Plath?—rest her soul. Is it courage for any of us? Dying is an art: Does suicide, somehow, seduce the creative mind? What is “honey disguised in holocaust”?—Patrick’s words. Let’s look at this:

Tainted black & bruised, a chorus lifts itself onto my mouth’s blade:
dy—dying is an art, so just like everything else I do it exceptionally well, yelz
yet even with honey disguised in holocaust, who, tell me, wants to die this young?

Is the contemplation of suicide—dying as art—a nod to Plath as a metaphor of a romance with death for depressed artists? Patrick’s confession hints at this in the expression “honey disguised in holocaust,” because after this, he replies, “who … wants to die this young?” There is an indication that peace, somehow, to some creatives fighting depression is sought this way, and that there’s a seduction in this manner of dying that accompanies it.

We have witnessed, painfully, among younger, struggling Nigerian writers, troubling parallels suggesting this. In 2019, a very poignant misfortune befell us. Prodigious 21-year-old poet Chukwuemeka Akachi made a short post on Facebook before his spiritual journey, choosing Jo Nketaih’s poem, “They said you came looking for me. I didn’t drown; I was the water,” as his departing note. Perhaps, like Patrick’s persona, what most young writers contemplating the noose have to do is contemplate dying young. It’s a cruel way of seeing, once again, how severe the mental illness depression is. “Sylvia Plath as an Old Story Title for Learning to Fight Depression . . .,” therefore, is Patrick’s meditation on the repeated stories of depression, and sadly, the suicides, by young artists.

Suicide is a sensitive, troubling subject to discuss and the language of its discourse demands measured introspection. But the rupture it creates in our imagination is chaotic. Camus made sense of it when he wrote that it is confession by its victim, their surrender when existence becomes a burden: “Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognised the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation and the uselessness of suffering.” Nome Emeka Patrick subjects this delicate subject in his poem, however, with a language that mediates a balance between purgation and aesthetic, not leaving the reader with sadness, but hope. The hope that all of us in this garden of life seek, to dress our depression and the fires in our bones■

Carl Terver is the founding editor of Afapinen. He is the author of the poetry chapbook For Girl at Rubicon.