The Suicide of Genius: Kurt Cobain, Shotguns and “The Cartographer’s Gambit”

October 16, 2011

Kurt Cobain (front) and Krist Novoselic (left)...

Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic by P.B. Rage

I like to listen to music when I’m making pizza. Loud music, usually cranked up as high as my computer’s external speakers will allow.

Last night, it was Nirvana’sNevermind,” which recently celebrated 20 years in the collective listening consciousness.

My 15-year-old son wandered into the kitchen while the last song (the hidden track), “Endless, Nameless,” filled the kitchen with sonic noise.

“What the heck is that?” he asked.

“Nirvana,” I answered, although I always thought that track sounded more like my old band Active Driveway than the rest of Nevermind.

“What’s so great about them?” he asked. I switched to the opening track, their breakthrough song “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

“Yeah, that is good,” he admitted. Then we talked about how Kurt Cobain committed suicide.


He wanted to know why he did it.  “Sometimes geniuses are so troubled they can’t cope with the pressures of life.”

Then I told him that a friend of mine, Peter Boyle, also killed himself with a shotgun five years before Cobain. Peter was an artist, too, deeply troubled — tortured even — and, like Cobain, addicted to heroin. Peter shot himself in the barn at his family’s farm; he was 37 years old. Cobain was 27. I won’t go into the significance of those ages, but you can read more here.

Peter was an amazing artist who worked in a very unusual medium: sugar. In fact, he wrote the book on blown and pulled sugar sculpting techniques, which came out the year before he died. His work had just been featured in a show, ”The Confectioner’s Art,” at the old American Craft Museum (November 1988-January 1989) in New York.

Peter tried to kill himself at least once before, that I knew about, while trying to quit heroin cold turkey. I intervened that time and suffered with him through a long night of his own personal Hell.

I wrote a poem about Peter and his suicide a some time later called “The Cartographer’s Gambit.” I changed the subject from a sugar sculptor to a cartographer; I’m not sure why, but it seemed to work.

Here is my poem, “The Cartographer’s Gambit”:


In the spindrift,

he outlines an island

for which there are no visas—

whose mapping is all too delectable,

whose charting is measured intensity.


Along these shores,

he conjures ochre bluffs, which resemble

well–turned ankles, the cleft of breast in a covescape,

and hillsides of amber light.

These are things he brought to life on paper, restless for rescue.


The uncharted territory

still gleaming in his eye—

a coastal mystery.

He lumbers, cools with the injection.

The seaboard nearly finished, dry land

his last frontier.


He reads Celine as open waters dry,

the cold spring chills him, he smokes a cigarette.

Deep within his blood, a fine line beckons—

with perfect geography.

Outside, the air is perfumed,

with a scent of powder.


Starlings prattle above him,

black, iridescent, oxymoronic:

a thousand triangles

of gun metal

fusing a jade sky.


Their opacity blinds him to reason.

Unable to move latitudinal or long,

he measures the scale of possibility,

sights his compass on true north and,

as the needle riddles the vein,

he dashes the coast with blue.


(In memoriam: Peter T. Boyle, 1952-1989)

–Scott Edward Anderson

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One Response to “The Suicide of Genius: Kurt Cobain, Shotguns and “The Cartographer’s Gambit””

  1. Kurt changed my life with his insightful and surreal music and lyrics. I only wished he could have stuck around to make more to listen to for future generations. I was compelled to compose a portrait of him In Memoriam recently on the anniversary of his death on my artist’s blog at Drop in and tell me your memories of his music and how it’s affected you.

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