Poem of the Week | July 21, 2014

This week we feature a poem by Diane Seuss from our brand-new summer issue, 37.2. Seuss’s most recent book, Four-Legged Girl, is forthcoming in 2015 from Graywolf Press. Her previous collection, Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open, won the Juniper Prize for Poetry and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2010. A poem that originally appeared in Blackbird received a Pushcart Prize in 2013, and a poem published in The Missouri Review will be included in The Best American Poetry 2014, selected by guest editor Terrance Hayes. Seuss is Writer in Residence at Kalamazoo College.
 
Author’s note:

This poem is one in a series that arose out of my interest in still life painting, and specifically in writing my way into the intersection between Rembrandt’s tableau and the rural, working class Michigan town where I was raised. I placed some strict limitations upon myself: 14 lines, 17 syllables per line (what Allen Ginsberg called “American Sentences”), and no “I.” The rest came through witnessing the painting itself, allowing myself to be drawn into it in the way the girl’s gaze is drawn into the room from her perch outside the window. It seemed to me that she was hungry, that she came out of the night wanting to transgress upon something sweet and opulent. What she got instead was the useless beauty of two dead peacocks whose bones she must roast for their marrow. The final line of the poem—“Art, useless as tits on a boar”—surprised me. It’s my mother’s voice, and an aphorism she often applied to superfluities. Of course, art isn’t superfluous, nor are peacocks, even dead ones. But if a girl comes out of the night seeking pie, only pie will do. What I discovered about still lives is that they are not still, or their stillness draws out our projections like a poultice lures the poison. This still life became, for me, a diorama about unmet hunger, class rage, and (you guessed it) death.

 

Still-Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl (after Rembrandt)

 

She comes out of the dark seeking pie, but instead finds two dead peacocks.
One is strung up by its feet. The other lies on its side in a pool
of its own blood. The girl is burdened with curly bangs. A too-small cap.
She wanted pie, not these beautiful birds. Not a small, dusky apple
from a basket of dusky apples. Reach in. Choose a dusky apple.
She sleepwalked to this window, her body led by its hunger for pie.
Instead this dead beauty, gratuitous. Scalloped green feathers. Gold breast.
Iridescent-eyed plumage, supine on the table. Two gaudy crowns.
She rests her elbows on the stone windowsill. Why not pluck a feather?
Why lean against the gold house of the rich and stare at the bird’s dead eye?
The girl must pull the heavy bird into the night and run off with it.
Build a fire on the riverbank. Tear away the beautiful feathers.
Suck scorched tough dark meat off of hollow bones. Look at her, ready to reach.
She’d hoped for pie. Meringue beaded gold. Art, useless as tits on a boar.

 

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