84 men in the UK take their own lives every week. These numbers are similar all over the world. For instance, according to a Lancet report, in 2016, India accounts for 37 percent of all suicides reported globally for women and 26 percent for men. Check any country and percentages are on the rise. Of course, the linkages between suicide and economic and environmental considerations need to be explored further. Simply attributing it to mental illness is simplistic and incorrect.
With a title being derived from the number of men taking their life every week, Eighty Four is a new anthology of poetry on the subject of male suicide, as well as sub-themes of mental health, vulnerability, grief, and hope. Published by Verve Poetry Press in the UK, and edited by Helen Calcutt, this anthology features male and female voices sharing their experiences of suicide, mental health, or grief – from those who have been on the brink of suicide, to those who have lost a loved one. From the baby in the bath who knows their father is gone to the woman whose father haunts her through the window, the anthology tackles the experience and impact of male suicide from those left behind, those affected by loss, and those who have contended with suicidal thoughts themselves. Of course, also to be kept in mind is that male mental health often is disregarded as patriarchy and gendered roles drive men to express less of their emotional states.
The poems in the book were collected in collaboration with a UK suicide prevention organisation CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably). The editor of the book, Helen Calcutt, a poet, critic and lecturer in Creative Writing was driven to this project as her own brother Mathew died by suicide at the age of 40. In Calcutt’s Introduction, she asks about male vulnerability and whether society will ever stop being this callous, this ignorant. From the police to the GP, there is a desire to brush the topic of suicide under the carpet and move on. “Male dead. Domestic tragedy. Tick the box. Move on.”
The poems in this book are beautiful. Some from well known poets and some are unknown to me and to the poetry scene. With humour, with honesty and with bravery, a lot of these voices let you into their worlds to see the fragility of the human condition, how trauma and grief affect different people differently and how there cannot be a one size fits all approach to dealing with life. Suicide, criminalised under colonial laws for so long, scares us because we want to think we are immortal. And society continues to expect men, in particular, to be superheroes, to “be a man”, hold down a job, not show pain. It is time to start seeing how oppressive the world has become. It is time to change. It is time to hope.
Below are three poems which really touched me. They speak a universal truth and this book deserves to be read, shared, and reflected upon.
My father’s brother would come to stay
at the end of the year.
He would leave the wife at home with the kids
—said something to do with the costs of the flights
but I heard his wife had no time for the North
and his Northerness.
He would sit at the piano which belonged
to his father – still with us then
and play for himself.
We would leave him to his piece
filling our home with winter light
grateful for such unexpected grace.
One Sunday morning,
he threw himself from the roof
of a city centre car park
near his house in London.
On the day of his funeral
I asked his wife why
there was no piano in their home.
She said there was no room.
I understood at once
that he had never really lived there.
my sister says
we tell the children its a glass of water
that’s always almost full to the lip
any extra overwhelms it
there is a bucket under the bathroom light
to catch the dripping rain trouble
seeps through your skin nightly the glass fills
until it topples and we try to gather
up the spreading water in our hands
An Improper Kindness
Leave rehab. Come sit on my knee
like you did when you were my
much littler brother so I can tell you
of a place where the bricks of our childhood
home still stand, the kitchen smelling sweet
of pumpkin pie and whipped cream.
Our first pups and geese gather there,
it takes away the pain in teeth and brain,
stays blue-skied and cloudless.
When someone speaks it makes sense
and they smile: nothing is confusing.
Everyone is kind and there are no expectations.
You don’t have to be a man.
I know I shouldn’t be telling you now,
should only speak of this place
when you’re old and rightfully dying.
Now, I should say:
you must soldier on, start again
with new medicine, new job, new girl,
new family, new home.
But you are so tired and the light
of the halcyon place is getting brighter
and warmer, coming just into reach,
and so I tell you to go, open the door:
84 is available here.
Jhilmil Breckenridge is a poet and activist. She has recently co-edited a mental health anthology, Side Effects of Living, recently released through Women Unlimited and Speaking Tiger in India.