Friday, March 9, 2012

Still Life

I haven't yet written about what might be the best new poem I've read in a long time--"Still Life with a Grain of Rice" from Alexander Long's dazzling collection Still Life (winner of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize 16). Here is an imagination set to turning objects and thoughts until they slowly transform and reveal themselves anew. Poems that take a good hard look at the world and their speaker. They remind me of some of Levis' finer work and Keats' odes, casting a mesmerizing focus through a"widening spell," particularly this poem which brings Chopin's "No. 3 in b major," the 16th-century painting The Fall of Icarus, Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts" about that painting, the horrors of 9/11, and the mundane normality of eating leftovers while watching TV all together in a swirl and vortex that is mesmerizing.


I used to like the way things went together:

Chopin and Auden; apocalypse and abyss;
Given and give in; disgust

And discussed. Chopin's

"No. 3 in B major," at the end,
For instance, how he reaches 

As far as he can across the piano
With both arms--as if hearing himself

For the first time--

Like Icarus, maybe.

I used to think I'd love
To plunge like that

And be done with it.

There must be something
In me that refuses

To die, I pray.

But, Auden's Icarus stares down
At the indifferent ploughman and all

His shares he needs to live on,
Which make his lord richer


If I were there, in that Brueghel,
I'd turn away too, from something

Amazing--a boy falling
Out of the sky--because I did,

In fact, do it.

Early September in a new millennium,
And I had nowhere to get to.

I wasn't in New York yet.

A gorgeous day:
The sun shone

On the television,
Through the high windows

Of my bedroom where
I confessed an important failure

To no one:

Don't look, don't care.

I was eating a bowl of rice
With teriyaki steak

For breakfast.

I licked the white fork clean
And wanted more

While someone fell out of the sky 
For real.

And then another.

I turned up Chopin and licked
A grain of rice I'll never

Write a poem on


All I've wanted since is to sail
Calmly on.

And I do,

Letting the dead down.
The Fall of Icarus, Pieter Brueghel (1558), oil, Museum of Fine Arts, Brussells
In "Still Life With a Grain of Rice" we see an image system at work. People falling from the burning World Trade Center (on the mediated layer of the television screen and onto the actual pavement below), Icarus plunged three-quarters into the sea, Chopin spreading wings and soaring deeply into the tunnel of piano, the speaker's former imagined plungings, not to mention the unmentioned grains of rice surely falling from his plastic fork as he witnesses one of the crueler spectacles of this young century (then decides to turn up the Chopin, look away, eat more).

Long's poems turn and turn with attention around their subjects, an attention that is at once inclusive and irresistible and self-indicting. They take nimble turns (with some incredible line breaks here) and are unflinching in their gaze. It's also the only poem I've ever encountered that addresses 9/11 in a way that feels honest and real. One man's coming to terms with his "important failure"--of being the insular and insulated modern self? Of being, on the individual level, the self-interested consuming force that the nation as a whole is, which in part brought about the tragedy? Of his own (in)ability to make that leap? I don't know what I think of that yet, but Long brings it into question, echoing Auden's language of "important failure." In any case, we are given a speaker who looks away from the terrifying to focus on the comforts of appetite: "I licked the white fork clean/And wanted more // While someone fell out of the sky/For real."

Images of the WTC "jumpers" still give me shivers, as they should.

I love the Brueghel painting and what Long (and Auden before him) sees in it. The ploughman keeps his head down. The shepherd gazes upward into his own daydreams, not the boy-refusing sky. The ship sails calmly on. Not out of apathy, as some might say in interpreting Auden's poem. But because there is work to do. And how many of us can be said to work for ourselves? Poor ploughman with "His shares he needs to live on,/ Which make his lord richer / Forever." Perhaps the larger point here is one of balancing the insane with sanity, how we must (of course, always) ignore a great deal of the horrors of reality in order to function. As I mentioned in my last post, sometimes we need to see the vivid brutality we participate in daily (see FoxConn factories in China and mineral mines in Congo that feed our mobile device habit). But maybe sometimes we need to look away, too.

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