Diane Seuss’s fourth book of poems, “Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl,” is anything but still. This collection showcases a poet who is writing some of the most animated and complex poetry today. The book, which takes its title from Rembrandt’s 17th century painting, explores seeing and the speaker’s gaze on that particular painting (and other paintings). However, ultimately, the paintings become ways to refract the speaker’s life and experiences and an exploration of the dynamism of stillness. What’s most magical, though, is watching Seuss take things and experiences apart and attempt to re-tie the fragments together into new wholes.
The book begins with a poem titled “I Have Lived My Whole Life in a Painting Called ‘Paradise’ ”: “with the milkweeds splitting at the seams emancipating their seeds/that were once packed in their pods like the wings and hollow bones/of a damp bird held too tightly in a green hand.” The book ends with a poem, “I Climbed Out of the Painting Called ‘Paradise’ ” with the final lines of the poem referencing a father’s illness and early death:
...and the milkweeds, their mysterious
seam like the smile of Mona Lisa with milk on her lips, how they
opened and their seeds were carried on the wind like ships
made of feathers, and Father, wearing a back brace, who would
not be getting well and who could no longer work or play or lift me
into his arms, and I went running toward it, all of it. I wanted
my mother, and this is why I left Paradise.
The distance traveled between the first poem and the last is an unfathomable glittering distance, yet by the end of the book, the speaker (and the reader) realizes that running towards the past and leaving the past are ultimately the same thing.
“Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl” follows Seuss’s prior book, “Four-Legged Girl” (2015), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Both collections use something seen to expand the possibilities of language, the speaker’s own life and mind, the reader and our culture at large.
Seuss, a professor at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, divides “Still Life” into 13 sections, all brief. Each section begins with an image related to Rembrandt’s painting — the folded hands of the girl in the painting, a feather, a bowl of fruit, a dead peacock’s face with its open eyes. Some poems within each section riff off of these visual fragments. Only until the final section do we see Rembrandt’s full painting: The girl gazes longingly at two dead and contorted peacocks, one hanging upside down from a wall and another on its side, nearly upside down with blood pooling from its body. The book is a depiction of process versus product, an “improvisation,” as Seuss calls it, as readers are brought along with her process of deconstruction and reconstruction. By the end of the book, we see how a painting (and the speaker’s life) have become so much more because we have taken the painting (and life) apart and expanded each fragment.
Although Seuss writes in her poem, “Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl”: “Art, useless as tits on a boar,” her book proves otherwise — that art, in particular still life art, is anything but useless. It has allowed the poet to explore art, the speaker’s rural and poor landscape of childhood, the father’s death, class and the role of the female in a male-dominated society. One of the seminal sections of the book includes a poem called “Walmart Parking Lot” and explores the speaker’s childhood of riding a train to look at art by Rothko, O’Keefe and Warhol but having to return to the “smokestacks of/Gary shooting flames into a sky already clanging orange.” As Seuss says in an interview with Poets and Writers: “Our yearning... a yearning for art represented, seemed to be in direct conflict with our circumstances — rural poverty and low expectations and something akin to isolation.”
One of the most interesting aspects of Seuss’s poetry is how it showcases the speaker’s sparkling riffing mind. In an age where poetry can so easily be simplified into small one-dimensional sound bites to share on Instagram or Twitter, Seuss’s poems aspire to complicate, drawing connections between seemingly unrelated things, flowing in and out and back and away from their initial triggers. In “Still Life with Turkey,” for example, the poem begins as many typical ekphrastic poems (poems written off of or inspired by art) begin, by describing what the poet sees: “The turkey’s strung up by one pronged foot….” But how quickly the poem begins to riff about seeing: “My eyes/are in love with it as they are in love with all/dead things that cannot escape being looked at.” The poem quickly shifts to the poet’s father’s death:
It is there to be seen if I want to see it, as my
father was there in his black casket and could not
elude our gaze. I was a child so they asked
if I wanted to see him. “Do you want to see him?”
someone asked. Was it my mother? Grandmother?
Some poor woman was stuck with the job.
Here, the poet begins to explore the slipperiness not only of childhood memory but also memory in general, particularly related to a traumatic event such as a father’s death (which lingers like a ghost throughout this entire book). After five stanzas about the father’s death, the poem returns to the adult speaker’s thinking, and back to the turkey, but not before riffing on a naked man:
….Now I can’t get enough of seeing, as if I’m paying
a sort of penance for not seeing then, and so
this turkey, hanged, its small, raw-looking head,
which reminds me of the first fully naked man
I ever saw, when I was a candy striper
at a sort of nursing home…
The beauty of this writing is that it showcases how when a mind tries to understand, really tries, it reaches beyond to draw connections; sometimes those connections are more obvious, but many times, understanding requires stretching and a suspension of the obvious towards the unknown. Seuss allows for those stretch connections, as if understanding a life can only be meaningful and fully lived by allowing the mind to be free.
By the end of the book, everything is larger and more vibrant — the paintings, the speaker’s life, the reader and the world. This is the brilliance of Seuss — everything is animated and complicated by her mind, a mind that has a hunch that silence holds truth, as she writes in “It Seems at Times That Silence”:
…And that silence
is really not bereft of sound,
it’s only that a heavy stratum
of noise has been lifted up
to expose the resonances
Graywolf Press: 120 pp., $16 paper