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Retrospect & Representation: Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss

By Steven Felicelli.

Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl

Diane Seuss, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl (Graywolf, 2018)

The only paradise is a paradise lost. – Marcel Proust

Diane Seuss goes high and low from the get go with a Rembrandt title (Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl) and an Amy Winehouse epigraph (What kind of fuckery is this?). The latter figure reappearing as surrogate self-daughter of the narrator’s societal fringe past involving a junkie boyfriend who haunts the poet’s previous work. This is not ego-immersed confessional poetry, it is more conversant with what Rothko called the not-self (Silence Is So Accurate, Rothko Wrote). The collection is a meditation on painting (/Art) within and outside the frame depicted in a mnemonic museum (Our memories are local, acute, and unrelenting).

Seuss’ work is demonstrative of a life lived (rather than retroactively composed) and each poem balances the dual realities of being-in-the-world and Art’s age old pursuit of what is.

The rest of us prefer what lies below what is called art, / the source of art, the raw field and not the story of the field

And yet there’s no way of getting around the “story” for Seuss. Each poem (her oeuvre, in fact) is ineluctably narrative; whether it’s a Jackson Pollock coke splatter in a Walmart parking lot or a bildungsroman recollection of girlhood, these images and lyrics are all of a piece. They comprise an ekphrastic series, A Poet’s Progress through a turbulent, traumatic youth to the troubled retrospect of a never-quite-detached artist. Even the title painting is doled out in piecemeal illustrations, emphasising the breaks that both rupture and suture the continuity. Reimagining William Carlos Williams’ famous imagist poem,

…how wheel is separated from barrow rain from water white from chickens so that all constituent parts of what appear to be simple solid randomly arranged objects have been factored down to their prime numbers how nothing is casual nothing is uncomposed…

Williams being one of many poets preoccupied with the visual arts, Seuss writes in the tradition of the pre-Raphaelites, Elizabeth Bishop, Auden, Ashbery, et al., but her Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror is characteristically reflected by a “red mylar balloon tied to a mailbox”. Her language is elevated, unmistakably poetry, and yet grounded in the grisage realities of an unromanticised past.

Central in Seuss’ self-portrait as/in Art History is the concern for what enters the frame (Art) and what tends to escape it (Life).

…the little white lie / of the false black frame. 

There is a fascination with depiction and simultaneous refusal to be reduced thereto. The narrator wants-loves-revels-in Art (My eyes were hungry for paint), but cannot rest content with its lovely, bloodless beauty. What better remedy for this ambivalence than Rembrandt’s earthy appraisals of mortal flesh? Emblematic of her thematic thrust, the poet presents Pieter Aertsen’s Butcher’s Stall with the Flight into Egypt

a small rendering of the Holy Family / is relegated to the background // while the foreground is loaded with gaudy carnage  

The narrator’s “Holy Family” is what she fled (from a Painting Called Paradise) and has been flying back to throughout the volume—intimated in its valedictory lines. The premature death of her father and refusal to view the body has engendered a woman-girl’s obsession with the look of death. (Still Life = Nature morte.) The painted or reproduced image is a momentary death, but can, at its best, offer an unaccountable recrudescence. And therein lies the magic of this volume. The narrator’s past is so present in these poems, the images so embodied, the ghosts attendant (rather than visitant), that it cannot be reduced to nostalgia, melancholy, Art (useless as tits on a boar). It is the quintessential more than that makes a typescript/paint come alive, stay alive, and transforms the past into the ever present ache of being human and subject to time and space.

The delicate syntheses of past and present, art and life, subject and object (first person POV has the feel of omniscient third) are sustained throughout as our protagonist wanders in and out of frame. Her most personal moments are other-orientated; the most painted detail is veined and pulsing; even the ghosts seem preoccupied with their present condition.

These complex figures are all drawn in the distinctive lines of an accomplished artist. In Seuss’ previous volumes, Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open and Four-legged Girl, the line tends to unwind from the title itself (essentially Untitled à la Emily Dickinson), whereas each poem of Still Life is framed and labelled with a placard, which we read and then stand back from to appraise its image before strolling to the next piece in this imaginary museum. The lines occasionally loosen toward prose, even lapsing into paragraph (or newsprint column), as the narrative colours run together. The word-tones are more corporeal (Rembrandtesque) than Mannerist, the strokes more action than precision, as figurative, decorative language is resisted and even dismissed as a kind of sickly, degenerate mode of rendering the real. 

All trees are trees. / Death to modifiers.

And so what does the poet want from the painting? What does she want from the past? What does she want for or from the reader?

She wanted pie, not these beautiful birds. Not a small, dusky apple / from a basket of dusky apples. Reach in.  Choose a dusky apple.

The museum-goer’s aesthetic pleasure, coolly observing what Maurice Denis called a plain surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order, is not to be had herein. No arm’s length looking-at will do for the text at hand. The reader must engage,  

Reach in.

Steven Felicelli

Steven Felicelli is the author of two novels (Notes Toward a Monograph of the Moment/Six Gallery Press & White/Purgatorio Press), as well as reviews in/at The San Francisco Chronicle, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Collagist, Minor Literature(s) and Rain Taxi. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 24th, 2019.