In 2010, RopeWalk Press released Max, a dark, surreal chapbook of
poems by late, young poet Joshua Vinzant. A graduate of the MFA
Program at Southern Illinois University – Carbondale in 2005, Vinzant
took his own life on July 20, 2007, leaving behind his wife, Jen Talbot,
their two children, and a significant body of work that mentor and friend,
award-winning poet and Professor Rodney Jones felt compelled to bring
to a larger audience.
“Josh…was a shy and a naturally sensitive man who usually thought too little of himself to act in his own best interests when he was alive,” says Jones. “He lacked confidence. He was one of those students who I didn’t criticize as much as I encouraged because he was already so hard on himself.”
More than a year before his suicide, he’d written me about plans to finish his book and send it to first book contests contests, but the letters also chronicled some serious bouts with drinking, his struggles finding work as a carpenter, and the resulting problems with the family. “Mind you,” says Jones, “this was all put lightly, as Josh always put everything.”
When Jones learned of Vinzant’s death, he contacted Talbot with his hopes of putting a collection together of his work. Talbot provided him with an array of computer files for the collection Vinzant had alluded to developing in his letter to Jones entitled, Max and the Life of Big Machines. Merging these files with Vinzant’s graduate thesis, Jones approached Ron Mitchell, Cofounder and Editor of RopeWalk Press with 42 pages of manuscript.
From there, Mitchell honed the collection down to a chapbook-length work that that maintained the spirit of Vinzant’s world and works that emerged from it. The last touch was retitling the manuscript to Max, a nod to Vinzant’s minimalist approach and to the personae he created for himself in the collection.
The result is an ominous collection of poems. Permeated with psychological pain and dysfunction, Max is as stark a volume as is its subject-matter, and it’s clear from page one that Max is a sluggish, infinitely sad personae of Vinzant himself, navigating this strange landscape in which, quoting from “The Teenage Death Cantata,” “the dangerous autumn / blooms open with large machines / / …[and] the cheerleaders / kick… death to death.”
Shaped less by story than by the cryptic, constantly circling images and characters of the underworld Max is charged with surviving, Max reads much like an elegy to the once Edenic American Midwest where Vinzant was raised and where his doppelganger wanders haunted by apparitions of his ancestors and other similarly mysterious characters like The Girl with Xs for Eyes, The Green Night, and the Moon who passes judgment “behind his big, dark desk.”
Almost everything is malevolently personified in Max’s world. The “Green Night” “feeds on…blood, corn, headlights, and paranoia” (3). Satellites “chirp away in digital cadence” (9). And the sun itself asks Max to kill himself.
The “big machines” dropped from the title figure largely in the book as symbols of the silos, trains, and combines that have allowed for the transition of the American planes into the producer of nearly a quarter of the world’s food supply and, perhaps as a result, into the culture of machismo and self-destruction among the men who make it run. Cornfields and death are synonymous in this derelict realm that Max cannot escape. Take “Prologue,” the collections opening poem for example:
Some characters come back in
from the Green Night like the low brown
of the slow gray trains and sunken
salvage yards of Omaha.
Corn, caskets & Max. (1)
“Cornscape,” the collection’s final work, is equally foreboding:
Max holds the bones of a small child
in his mouth. Rattle, rattle, rattle him to sleep.
The bare white room. The grain bins
lean in to listen from the Green Night
of dark corn. (17)
One particularly unusual aspect of Max is that the majority of the poems are in a strange form of omniscient 1st person. Like a God eyeing Max and his dilapidated state of existence, many of the poems are in the voice of Vinzant himself attempting to confront his alter ego or, disturbingly, to antagonize him with observations of just how derelict his existence has become. When Max is given the opportunity to speak, it’s via the telegram, a form in which Max’s self expression is keyed down to the barest parts while the form itself demands he be silent:
I was born here Leslie Ann. STOP. I do not know where I am. STOP. This is where I can remember the beginning happening. STOP. My head has always bothered me.
STOP. I am here. STOP. I am trying to say something. STOP.
Ending with a lengthy, sectionalized poem, “Epilogue: Max and the Life of Big Machines,” the fifth and final section of which “East Grand River Valley, Summer 1860” describes a photograph of one of Vinzant’s ancestors who brought his family to the once American Midwest that was once fruitful but is now a soul-consuming wasteland:
in his sweat, Max.
See him there
standing in the hand-hewn barn
the skinny man
mourning the gray stillborn son
the laughing daughter to tetanus
beside the slow brown river
under the ridgeline blue
under the Sun
where we fold our bodies into the faceless unforgiving
No doubt many will read Max as a lengthy suicide note. On April 12, 2007, three months prior to his suicide, he posted “Max on Tuesday” on his blog, In the Pirate Corn, which he had only just started in order to chronicle the writing of his manuscript. The poem opens “The Sun once said ‘Max, commit suicide.’ / It spun once on its thin silver tether, / stood up and winked then died.”
The 11th of 20 poems in the book, “Max on Tuesday” sits at the very center of the book. But this is poetry not non-fiction. And as Jones is known for saying in his workshops, the myth that Contemporary American poetry is based in fact is just that, myth.
None of Vinzant’s friends family, or colleagues saw his suicide coming. True, Vinzant was a known alcoholic who struggled with his pastt, but he was also known for his sense of humor and for dedication to family.
Talbot’s best memories of Vinzant are of simple, domestic life: making dinner together and talking on the deck after the kids, Avery and Silas (their newborn) went to bed. He and Avery enjoyed hiking together and often built things in the garage. On one particular occasion, a rocket they constructed ended up on the neighbor’s roof. And Vinzant was particularly fond of teaching Silas how to care for the numerous plants he kept around their apartment.
He loved fishing and often threw parties for his colleagues in the MFA Program. Barb Eidlin, Vinzant’s former colleague at SIUC, recalls being alarmed by the statement “Let me do the worst thing I can think of” but “unable to connect it to any of his behavior…”
Another colleague and friend, Chad Parmenter, echoes Eidlin’s sentiment. “I was shocked to learn about Josh’s death… It didn’t resonate with anything that I knew of him. While his poems had explored dark places, they also had the redemptive and ultimately uplifting qualities of musical language and a sense of play that, for me, turned those dark places lighter.”
Jones agrees. “Josh was a great Missouri country boy…[with a] desire to write, I believe, surreal poetry of a sort and while he was here he discovered his own unique way of doing things; the discovery of this character max….an alter ego…a figment of his vision of himself…a mask that allows one to be more fully and vibrantly a self in the world.”
While Jones was aware Vinzant’s postgraduate school life was full of struggles, he was encouraged that he was continuing to work on his manuscript.
But there was much Jones and Vinzant’s colleagues and friends didn’t know.
Living in Vinzant’s hometown of Maryville, MO, Talbot was teaching English at Northwest Missouri State University while Vinzant was struggling to turn a profit as a home contractor.
“Josh thought it would be good to be around his family, with the baby and all, but it turns out that Maryville is a great place to give up on life,” says Talbot.
“It’s thick with alcoholism, methamphetamine, religion gone sour, and the delusion and denial that come with them. Self-destructive behavior was not just condoned but practically mandated, especially for men.”
Within just a few months of moving back home, Vinzant’s father was committed to a nursing home due to alcohol-induced brain damage. His father a mere 60 years of age, Vinzant feared this was to be his fate as well. He checked himself into rehab and made some early, brief strides toward recovery in late 2006 but started drinking again when the anti-depressants he was prescribed made it all but impossible for Vinzant to function.
By Christmas, Vinzant was drinking whiskey at 9 am and spent many evenings with his family at the American Legion. In late January 2007, he received a DUI driving home from the Legion and lost his license. Running his business became all but impossible, and Vinzant fell deeper into depression.
That June, Talbot and Vinzant’s landlady sold the house they were renting, and they had to be out by July. Ironically, they’d just signed a lease in Indiana where Talbot was slated to attend the pHD Program at Purdue, but they couldn’t move in until August. With Vinzant unable to leave the state of Missouri until his sentencing in July, Talbot was forced to move the family in with her parents in Illinois early that month, leaving Vinzant on his own.
When he received his sentencing of 30 days in jail and probation on Tuesday, July 17, he was living in the country with his mother and stepfather. He sounded “upbeat” when he spoke with Talbot on the phone that Thursday, giving her a pep talk about her upcoming teaching assignments at Purdue and making plans to move to Indiana in October.
The next day he was dead.
While it’s impossible to know exactly what Vinzant was going through, he, like many who commit suicide, seems to have felt he was doing more harm than good to his family and to himself. It also seems that the poetry he was writing was less an act of escape than a harsh, unforgiving mirror of self-declared failings.
That said, it would be a mistake to read Max as anything but a work of superb art. Likewise, Max should not be read as an artifact of a poet’s mental illness and resulting desire to die but as a body of poetry assembled by a community of those who knew and cared for Vinzant with the goal of sharing his vision with the world.
But Max isn’t the only thing Vinzant left behind, Talbot tells us.
A month or so after he died, she was sorting through some of their belonging, and found Silas’ baby book. She hadn’t written anything in it – “the curse of the second baby,” she says – but Vinzant had gone through and written about their lives, her pregnancy, Silas’ birth, and how much he loved them.
“I have no idea when he did that,” says Talbot. “Nor do I know if he did it because he knew. But I’m grateful for it.”