The biblical story of Job’s suffering is a darkly comical puppet show that swiftly opens into a transcendent poem of anguish, awe, and surrender. When God boasts of Job’s goodness, the Accusing Angel replies his piety is a performance of faith born of wealth and comfort. Rising to the challenge, this all-too-human God gives the Accuser leave to take every gift: oxen, camels, sons, daughters. Job’s body bursts with boils; organs swell and throb; cracked skin crawls with maggots.
Obvious philosophical questions arise: If God is good—if I am good—why do I suffer? Why does God allow the Holocaust? Poverty? Cancers in the bowel, the brain, the liver?
Alicia Ostriker reminds us these are the wrong questions, and The Book of Job is a Zen Koan meant to crack our reasoning minds open, compelling us to consider a multitude of other questions: How do we respond to the grief of others? Why wait for God’s mercy? What is our human responsibility for justice, empathy, generosity, compassion?
We deserve nothing: neither the blessings nor misfortunes that befall us.
Job does not tenderly teach—he assaults us—he cracks us open with a hymn of decreation that undoes Genesis:
God damn the day I was born
and the night that forced me from the womb.
On that day—let there be darkness;
let it never have been created;
let it sink into the void. . . .
On that night—let no child be born . . .
I believe Kurt Cobain’s music and poetry resonate for the same reasons Job’s cries penetrate space and travel through time to crack us open even now because we are still wondering why we are born into lives of suffering, the grief of the body, the loss of all we love, the infinite mystery of mortality.
Cobain’s suffering was both extreme and ordinary. Diagnosed as hyperactive and given Ritalin at age seven, he was often awake and jittery till 4 a.m. when, in desperation, his mother would give him sedatives to sleep. Addiction framed and determined his life even as a child.
After his parents’ traumatic divorce, he scrawled these words on the wall of his bedroom:
I hate Mom,
I hate Dad,
Dad hates Mom,
Mom hates Dad,
It simply makes you want to be sad.
Then he drew a picture of a brain, his own exposed brain, with a huge question mark over it.
In 1993, the year before his death, he said: “Every night I’d go to bed bawling my head off. I used to try to make my head explode by holding my breath, thinking if I blew up my head, they’d be sorry.”
His vision of decreation and his means of pursuing it were already perfectly formed.
Load up on guns, bring your friends
It’s fun to lose and to pretend
The suffering only intensified—and again I think of Job, blistered flesh, flared kidneys:
I have called the grave my father;
the worm my mother, my sister . . .
For most of his life, Kurt Cobain suffered chronic pain, an undiagnosed stomach ailment that often made it impossible to eat or drink—he endured fits of vomiting so intense he’d be left heaving air. Only heroin touched this pain. Physical grief sparked with spiritual anguish. Who among us would not cry out for decreation?
It is no surprise Samuel Beckett, that genius of undoing, would be a source of inspiration for Cobain, that through his work, Beckett would become a trusted companion.
“Unfortunately I am afraid, as always, of going on. For to go on means going from here, means finding me, losing me, vanishing and beginning again, a stranger first, then little by little the same as always, in another place, where I shall say I have always been, of which I shall know nothing, being incapable of seeing, moving, thinking, speaking, but of which little by little, in spite of these handicaps, I shall begin to know something, just enough for it to turn out to be the same place as always, the same which seems made for me and does not want me, which I seem to want and do not want, take your choice, which spews me out or swallows me up, I’ll never know, which is perhaps merely the inside of my distant skull where once I wandered, now am fixed, lost for tininess, or straining against the walls, with my head, my hands, my feet, my back, and ever murmuring my old stories, my old story, as if it were the first time.”
As I hope you can hear, the prose of Samuel Beckett works on the body in a way that parallels the full-tilt sonic reverberation of Kurt Cobain’s music: If I cannot touch you with compassion, if I cannot move you to mercy, you will share this grief; you will inhabit this body.
Cobain loved to sleep and once said he’d like to be in a permanent coma and awakened only to be wheeled on stage. As Beckett says, “It’s a lot to ask of a creature. it’s a lot to ask, that he should first behave as if he were not, then as if he were, before being admitted to that peace where he neither is, nor is not . . . ”
Cobain, like Job, wanted to be unborn, to be back in the womb, undeveloping—he wanted to extinguish the fire, the burning of the mind, the searing of the senses, to blow out the flame, to enter Nirvana.
Oh well, whatever, never mind . . .
I don’t need to tell you that physical pain, broken bones, bleeding stomachs amplify and confirm our existential suffering. The catastrophic threats of AIDS, Ebola, nuclear annihilation must have converged with the relentless pain in Kurt Cobain’s skull and belly. He speaks to, rails against, and finally finds a way to escape the affliction of his frail body. His poetry does not approach the eloquence of Job or the dazzling dance of Beckett. No, he speaks from a place far more primal—I hate Mom; I hate Dad—Kurt Cobain is still that wailing child. His voice, his poetry, his music pierce us because he touches that place where we are all holding our breath, hoping our heads explode, hoping to make them sorry.
[ [ [Courtney Love had read about the “Viral Apocalypse” in The New Yorker, and the two meant to flee with Frances Bean as soon as the first signs (blood running from people’s eyes and nipples) appeared in America.] ] ]
If Cobain hadn’t been embraced and celebrated by millions, blessed and cursed by extravagant fame, I think he might easily have ended up on the street, a starving, homeless junkie living in the Jungle under a freeway in Seattle. And so, I want to close with another hymn of decreation, another return to the womb, the cry of a homeless boy in my story “Bodies of Water”—a piece I composed after immersion in Cobain’s music, after my own near death from a prolonged, undiagnosed, utterly transformative illness.
The boy in my story does live in the Jungle under the freeway, but tonight he is safe from torrential rain and bone-breaking cold, hiding, slurping raw eggs and drinking Goldschläger in an elegant house in West Seattle.
[ [ [ Goldschläger is Schnapps swirling with tiny 24-karat flakes! Imagine how restorative that is! ] ] ]
Like Cobain, he is full of hurt and desire lit by rage, and his thoughts—like Cobain’s music—have such force and velocity, the terrified, un-blessed woman trapped in her own house believe she hears him.
From “Bodies of Water” in First, Body:
The house erupts. . . . His voice is exploding glass, a tree limb torn.
He says, I had a mother once, stupid as you are now.
I have names, things people call me, words my mother gave me—my father’s name, as if she always planned to throw me out.
Boys call me one thing.
But in my mind I say these names: Ice, Mud, River.
I have enemies: the kid who owned this jacket, the rain tonight, my own memory.
Don’t touch me when I’m sleeping.
I hate fingers in my hair, fat women, the smell of baby powder.
I have a knife inside a secret pocket.
Surprise me and I’ll kill you.
I need gloves, a blanket, a hole to hide me.
I don’t like birds. They scare me. All that noise. Their hunger. They remind me that I’m hungry.
I don’t like dogs. They make me bark. They make me want to bite them.
I killed a cat once. Not on purpose. But later I wasn’t sorry. It startled me, my hands around it, the way it twitched, the way it stopped twitching.
Mostly I hate pigeons, rats with wings—and squirrels, rats with bushy tails.
When I’m alone, I hate the sound in my own veins, the way it fills the room, like God whispering.
I love the dark, the sewer, the closet—all the places I’m invisible.
I love the water when it’s deep and wants to drown me.
I love broken glass, jagged edges, warm blood thick as pudding.
I love the bridge when it’s cold and I’m almost jumping. . . .
Am I really here?
I am if you believe it.
I love the way I scare you, the way my heart becomes your heart, the way our pulse surges.
Additional Note: The Book of Job
The poem cracks us open in multiple directions, compelling us to consider not only why we suffer, but also why are we so blessed—with life, with trees, with birds and clouds and mountains—God keeps reminding us, All that I am is yours to share—stars, rain, mud, lightning—but it does not belong to you; you are no better than these beings, these forms—no less transient—your lives, your place, your purpose no less mysterious—if you think the human mind can conceive all God is, you are deeply deluded. You are infinitesimally insignificant and absolutely essential.
No wonder Job becomes mute—as we become silent and begin to ask: in light, in the darkness of all that is impenetrable, what other questions might The Book of Job inspire us to ask ourselves?
Selections from this essay were delivered as part of a panel presentation The Literary Legacy of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain at the AWP Convention in Seattle, 2014.
Beckett, Samuel. The Unnamable. London: Faber and Faber, 2010.
Mitchell, Stephen (translator). The Book of Job. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.
Thon, Melanie Rae. “Bodies of Water.” First Body. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Wright, Stephen. “The Big No.” Esquire. July 1994: 55 – 63.