blackbirdonline journalFall 2022  Vol. 21  No. 2
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Review | Still Life by Jay Hopler
McSweeney’s Publishing, 2022

spacer Still Life (McSweeney’s Publishing, 2022)

When Jay Hopler’s new (and potentially last) collection of poems arrived in the mail a few days ago, I was afraid to open it and start reading. Not for fear of its contents but because I didn’t want the book to end. Instead, I wanted to hold onto the book—to cherish and possess it—for as long as possible. Few books have this effect on me, and when they do it’s usually because they are ones written by poets whose work I have followed throughout my writing life and whose new work I anxiously anticipate. Those poets with whom I have established a personal—perhaps one-sided—kinship.

Readers will find the title of Hopler’s new collection, Still Life, salient and apt. Hopler’s poems are painterly, his images carefully rendered on the page with acute attention to detail and accompanied by a precision and invention of language that is quite simply stunning. Take, for example, these lines from “The Church Gardens: A Walk”:

Hummingbirds in blue blurs whir
Necklaced around the nectar feeder,
Each creature gleaming, bright,
A piece of polished apatite
Through whose facets sunlight
Shatters into flashing gaslight
Shards that fall into the larkspur
& blaze up, igniting every flower.

In a 2016 interview, Hopler revealed that some of the skies in his second collection, The Abridged History of Rainfall, were renditions of Jacob van Ruisdael’s paintings, which explains, in part, the painterly nature of his poems. Given the larger context of Hopler’s terminal cancer diagnosis, however, Still Life carries a more haunting (and ironic) connotation. Still life, thus, becomes an effort to slow down time—to capture the moment and freeze (immortalize) it—but also still life as a depiction or a portrait of a life. In this instance, a singular one: Hopler’s.

Hopler’s work has always been marked by self-deprecating humor—a lamentation of a tortured existence and a resentment for having been born at all—and this characteristic pinnacles in Still Life. The book opens with a three-line poem titled “Upon Learning that I Am the 51st Most-Famous Person from Puerto Rico”:

On a dripping, storm-lit, island afternoon
In 1970, my parents had an accident: Me.
There were no survivors.

Characteristic of Hopler’s work, humor is levied against self-loathing and existential dread. The familiar metaphor of life as accidental is stretched in the final line into a car wreck, of which there were no survivors. A hauntedness settles into even this brief opening poem, however, with the context of the book’s primary subject and the wider background provided by Hopler’s previous collection: the death of his father. With this knowledge, the final line loses any potential melodrama. Facing his own imminent death and the realization that his father has already passed on (a later poem reveals the speaker’s mother in a state of mental decline), there will, in fact, soon be no survivors.

A deft balance of comedy and tragedy weaves throughout Still Life. In “Meditation on My Cancer,” a third of the twelve-line poem is dedicated to how the toilets in a certain park “Are metal & ring like bells / When you piss in them.” The allusion that Hopler establishes is solidified in the second quatrain:

Ring like rang no bell
On the day I was born.
Ring like no bell will
On the day I die.

The final couplet completes the trope: “In the piss-tolled bowl, / A little billow of blood.” The allusion is to Donne’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”; however, the homage goes beyond mere image and is evident in meter: Donne applies a five-beat, broken iambic pentameter in his sonnet as well.

Similar to the book’s opening poem, adroit humor renders the final line of “Meditation on My Cancer” and its image that much more shocking and resonant. Hopler doesn’t sacrifice any of the poem’s music or energy, allowing alliteration, assonance, and consonance to carry the poem to a striking close. The abab rhyme scheme and the meter contribute to the poem’s comic effect and lighten the otherwise heavy tone. Furthermore, by implementing a broken iambic pentameter, Hopler creates a clipped and shortened line suggestive of a life cut short. The reality of the speaker’s illness and his mortality is zeroed in on the image of blood-laced urine. Earlier in the poem, death was merely an abstraction exaggerated by the tolling of the bells. Now, the reality of the speaker’s illness is grounded by the poem’s only concrete image: the urinal and its contents. (This gravity balanced by levity is foreshadowed in the book’s epigraph, from George Bernard Shaw: “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.”)

The allusions to Donne continue in “the canonization”:

no man convinced he was going to die
on an island would on an island live
unless he wanted to die
on that island & i did

talk about an end rhyme
but my life’s a poem my death’s
been writing for a long time

& death abhors a well-wrought urn
i’m done

The poem wrestles with the Western canon and the idea of poetic legacy. Hopler rejects Donne’s assertion that “no man is an island,” if only because of his speaker’s perceived isolation. Moreover, the allusion to Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” invites the reader to consider Hopler’s own future urn. Again, the music is relentless, the cadences, meter, and inverted syntax reminiscent of John Berryman or Donald Justice, two poets to whom Hopler has in the past paid homage. The unpunctuated lines are new for Hopler and create a sense of urgency. Contradictorily, to me at least, the unpunctuated lines also force a slower reading to unpack syntax after the immediate propulsion has subsided. These two forces work against one another to mimic the urgency of the writing—Hopler’s awareness of time running out and the need to produce poetry is juxtaposed against his desire to slow down time to stall the inevitable.

Throughout Still Life, Hopler relentlessly reminds us—by reminding himself—of our mortality and our fragile existence. In “Parade,” for instance, a Fourth of July parade transforms into a funeral cortège with the observation that participating in the festivities is “a hearse // On loan from Bethlehem / & Sons Funeral Home.” As spectator, the speaker in desperation begs the foliage to “Wave, wave, / You rainy lilies! You mist-slick lindens, / Lift your dripping limbs and wave!” It’s an urgency reserved for the doomed, someone grasping at the last vestiges of earthly beauty and pleasure. Later, however, “A Sousa blast, flat- / Brassed & blatted, startles from the lilies / Not a bunting but a rat. A wet rat.” The linguistic play at work here relies on the double meaning of “bunting”—a species of bird and those festive flags found at patriotic parades—and the closing image suggests that what is desired—a bird, symbolic of freedom—isn’t delivered. Instead, the speaker is presented with a rat, a lowly rodent.

The image is a precursor to the poem that closes Chapter One (Hopler interestingly titles the book’s sections “Chapter One,” “Chapter Two,” and “Chapter Three,” which suggests something more novel in scope like a memoir, a length worthy of depicting a life): “Honky-Tonk Sonnet.” The poem’s subtitle is “a duet w/ Johnny Cash,” but I can’t help but think, too, of Berryman’s Dream Songs (many of Hopler’s poems, in fact, follow Berryman’s use of eighteen lines comprised of three sestets). The sonnet contains humorous and intelligent lines like “I’m missing more organs / Than a looted church. / Even my dog’s been repossessed!” and satirizes the absurdity of country songs, opening with “Before cancer, I was a country. / Now—, I’m a fucking country / Song: job gone, house gone” before concluding

Know what I got left?
2 years. The lifespan
Of an average rat. My wife’s therapist
Tells me I can use this time to find
Out who I really am. Lord help me Jesus,
I’ve wasted it, so / help me Jesus,
I know what I am: squeak.

The closing line feels more like a punchline, and it would be hilarious if it wasn’t so brutal and tortured. There’s a terrible desperation in the Johnny Cash song’s supplication, and “Honky-Tonk Sonnet” immediately follows “The Trauma Sutra,” a poem that includes “an altar sloppy w/ offerings.”

Much of Chapter Two is dedicated to Hopler’s wife, the poet Kimberly Johnson, and the poem “love & the memory of it”—a nod to Bishop’s “life and the memory of it”—is one of the most striking. A sonnet, the octet resides in memory as a reprieve from the dread of daily life “w/ all its viruses & murder hornets.” The sestet begins “it was she that lit the world just then / & not the ember of a sun / her light like a struck string fretting its zing against the pic- / nic tables” before the couplet closes “may that be the music you hear / when they unplug the ventilator.” Given the poem’s earlier mention of viruses, it’s not far off to associate “ventilator” with COVID-19. Still, the ventilator might be closer to Hopler’s reality than any of ours and the closing image is bittersweet and devastating.

Despite death’s looming presence, some poems in Still Life are downright hilarious. Take “markers,” for instance, the book’s penultimate poem:

marble slate granite what’s the difference
cross two sticks & lash them w/ a bit of twine
nail a slip of plywood to an old pick

handle or why not steal a toilet
& chisel it to one-up keats’s final whine:
here lies one whose name was writ in shit

The last line reference Keats’s epitaph: “Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ in Water.” There’s a defiance here, a defiance in the face of death but also a disregard for the poet’s craving of immortality through the written word. This disregard, moreover, helps further the irony of the book’s title.

The book closes with “obituary,” and it’s interesting to read this poem in the tradition of self-obituaries. What’s striking in this poem—and the entirety of Still Life—is that death for Hopler isn’t an abstraction or some distant hypothetical. It’s rare to live so close to the certainty of one’s own untimely death and even rarer to document it with such lyric exactitude and ferocity.

Throughout this review, I have tried to avoid—and failed—using the word “haunting” because of its trite suggestions. I failed because these poems—and the rest of Hopler’s work—do and will continue to haunt me. Hopler is one of the great poets of our time, a master of form, irony, the sonnet, and capable of crafting some of the most musical and precise lines I have ever read.

I have a terrible memory and, perhaps odd for a poet, cannot recite much verse. One passage, however, that has always stuck with me is from Hopler’s first collection, Green Squall:

Being born is a shame—

But it’s not so bad as journeys go.

Despite his directive to “burn these verses [and] . . . in the smoke / let death upon my life / & life’s work choke,” Jay Hopler’s poems will not soon be forgotten.  

Jay Hopler (1970–2022) is the author of Still Life (McSweeney’s Publishing, 2022), The Abridged History of Rainfall (McSweeney’s Publishing, 2016), and Green Squall (Yale University Press, 2006). He has been awarded a National “Best Books” Award from USA Book News and has been a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award in Poetry.

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