Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks
and a Girl by Diane Seuss
Graywolf Press, 2018; 108pp
Reviewed by Kelly Lucero
Diane Seuss is the author of Four-Legged Girl, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Wolf Lake, and White Gown Blown Open, which won the Juniper Prize. In her latest poetry collection, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, Seuss deliberates life, death, and the self through her use of ekphrasis and discussions of various art forms. Seuss breathes new life to familiar paintings by making the work accessible to an audience who is alienated in the art world—those who frequent Walmart parking lots and listen to Amy Winehouse.
Death is one of the themes that is prevalent throughout the entire collection. In her ekphrastic poems, Seuss portrays animals in their death—for example, a turkey strung up by one foot, and of course, two dead peacocks. She weaves the death of the animals with the death of people, presumably searching to understand death. For example, in “Still Life with Turkey,” the speaker discusses the dead turkey then shifts to a discussion of her father, stating, “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.” This shift allows the speaker to discuss the difficult death of her father through the lens of the turkey, which seems to make it an easier discussion.
Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl is framed with the use of ekphrasis. Seuss opens the collection with “I Have Lived My Whole Life in a Painting Called Paradise,” which portrays life and all of its bad parts as beautiful. This leads the reader to believe that the purpose of the book is to juxtapose the beauty of life with the bad. While Seuss does provide this parallel for her reader, it is not the purpose of the book. From the closing poem, “I Climbed Out of the Painting Called Paradise,” in which the speaker leaves Paradise to be with her mother, the reader learns that the book is refuting the idea of paradise. The speaker chooses to live without “beauty” if it means she has love.
The heart of Seuss’s collection comes in the middle of her book, when she abandons the use of ekphrasis and instead creates her own art. She writes, “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.” Seuss’s collection then becomes a book for those who are often overlooked. Seuss creates characters with an intimacy that they become real people, a depiction of people apart from the elite. Moreover, the speaker deliberates the self throughout the poems, creating “self-portraits” through musicians, such as Freddy Mercury and Amy Winehouse. This creates a nostalgia that is unique to Seuss’s poems, which she refers to as, “nostalgic, / for a past that never happened.” Because of this nostalgia, there is a sense of longing in Seuss’s work that leaves the reader wanting more.
Through her diction and form, Diane Seuss creates work that is full of life. Her poetry feels lived in and gritty. Because she tailors her work to the “washed-up,” it is easy to relate to her work. Further, it is impossible to step away from Seuss’s poetry without feeling the inspiration to write. Her passion comes across through her work and it is infectious.