Unframed: Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss
Within stillness there is movement, just as within silence there is noise. These opposing forces have the power to reveal one another, to reveal not only how they oppose one another but how they conjoin. The poet is in many ways a vehicle of awareness, but also, when we dig deeper, the conjurer of motion and noise, perhaps this is why poets, like Diane Seuss, are fascinated by stillness and silence. Seuss considers stillness and silence, allows for their implications, and then denies them by conjuring rich variegated poems overflowing with aural delights and stunning movement. Like a master still life painter Diane Seuss’ eye digs well beyond the surface to the essence of her subject, allowing for it to breathe restlessly before us. Seuss’ asks her reader to consider the ordinary, a town perhaps in middle America and see the possibilities of paradise writhing beneath it, see “roads curving back / on themselves like snakes and crossing each other like crucifixes.”
Diane Seuss’ intention with her forth collection Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl is implicit in the title; the still life she is interested in is atypical because it includes a figure—a girl. The girl’s steady gaze upon a gruesome, or perhaps, luscious scene alters the viewer’s engagement with the dead peacocks because we want to know what the girl is thinking and feeling. Seuss in many ways embodies this girl, the speaker in her opening poem, “I Have Lived My Whole Life in a Painting Called Paradise” physically climbs into a painting, and in the closing poem of the collection she climbs back out of this painting “Called Paradise,” note the choice of the word called.” The quizzical nature of the girl’s gaze in Rembrandt’s still-life allows for uncertainty which in turn stimulates the imagination, the painting also speaks to the duality inherent in these poems between life and death, stillness and motion, viewer and that which is viewed. Furthermore, it is the girl’s gaze which reanimates the dead peacocks, birds that are celebrated for their visual splendor as well as the numerous eyes that stare out from their tail feathers.
It appears Seuss has chosen this particular still-life to orient her collection around because she is interested in intersections—the place where the framed and the unframed meet, where artifice and life conjoin, where the I and the we confront one another, and where the dead and the living cross. These thematics resonate throughout the collection as the speaker moves from the singular to the collective, as well as from the personal to the persona.
From Bruegel to Van Gogh, Seuss draws inspiration from many artists and paintings besides the Rembrandt her title references. Seuss conjures these works into the modern era by personalizing the paintings, the way John Ashbery once did in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” Beneath the intensity of her gaze the paintings come alive:
The turkey’s strung up by one pronged foot,
the cord binding it below the stiff trinity
of toes, each with its cold bent claw. My eyes
are in love with it as they are in love with all
dead things that cannot escape being looked at.
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…
By bringing the father into the frame, the lifeless form of the turkey within the original painting is activated, here we get a sense of the poet’s hauntings, of the memories these still lifes bring to the surface for her; this one, evoking the corpse of the dead father is particularly traumatic. Surface itself becomes an illusion. Seuss’ poems reveal there are infinite depths available to the viewer. In this poem, as well as in others, the morality of the arrangement itself it called into question, the act of being invited to look on such horrors is interrogated as well as our own relationship with death. The speaker in the poem chooses not to look at the body of the father though without knowing her own reasons for this, and so the speaker feels as if they are “paying / a sort of penance for not seeing then,” she tells us, “Now I can’t get enough of seeing.”
The trinity of the turkey’s toes trembles with spiritual connotations, but also invokes the relationship between the artist, the focal point being viewed, and the translation of this relationship into poetry. The turkey, the two peacocks, a dead hare, a bowl of plums, some wormy apples, all of these things are given a new-life within these poems. In Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl poetry is an agent of resurrection and reanimation.
The turkey becomes symbolic of not only the father’s spirit but death itself as the poem concludes:
…But the turkey, I am in love with it,
its saggy neck folds, the rippling variegated
feathers, the crook of its unbound foot,
and the glorious wings, archangelic, spread
as if it could take flight, but down,
downward, into the earth.
Seuss’ poems throughout the collection, but particularly the poems relating to still lifes, are rich in detail, the kind of astounding and disturbing detail found in the Dutch still life tradition known as vanitas, through which the certainty of death is explored in relation to the grandeur of life. Mark Doty in his book of non-fiction Still Life with Oysters and Lemon writes, “That there can never be too much of reality; that the attempt to draw nearer to it—which will fail—will not fail entirely, as it will not give us the fact of lemons and oysters but this, which is its own fact, its own brave assay towards what is” and he goes on to say, “when we describe the world we come closer to saying what we are.” Diane Seuss comes very close to revealing her own humanity, our humanity, and the humanity of the people from towns like the one she grew up in within her own brave assay towards what is.
Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl is a book of deep thinking but also experience. Seuss adopts the long line often associated with the elegy, as well as the seventeen syllable line “Ginsberg called an American Sentence” to meticulously paint her own still life, one where Medusa can “move into a rusted out potato-chip-delivery-van / between the gasoline storage tanks and the river” where she keeps “a clump / of snakes in a green steamer trunk.” Seuss’ tone in turns can be sarcastic and irreverent or sorrowful and grief-stricken, her reference points span from Albrecht Durer to Amy Winehouse. And in the end, her still life is a feat of the imagination; it is ordinary, chimerical, and sublime.
Publication Date: May 1st, 2018
Brunch: This week I went to the fruit market and just loaded up on veggies and fruit, this bunch of beautiful radishes made me particularly excited, I like to eat them in salads of course but also as fresh chips for guacamole and I like to fry them up too or bake them and have them with pastas and pizzas. Next I plan on roasting up these beets for a goat cheese and beet salad, but for now I just wanted to celebrate the beauty of fresh vegetables and fruit. The flowers, one of which is an anemone, are from my favorite flower shop in Chicago called FLEUR which is in Logan Square.
*All Fork and Page reviews are by Anita Olivia Koester