One Long Elegiac Museum
Alexander Long:: Still Life:: White Pine Press
Long’s Still Life unfolds into one long elegiac museum of poetic, literary, historic, cultural, iconic, and musical significance and the surprise comes with his elegant treatment of subject matter. In “Still Life with Kafka Checking His Watch, Missing His Train,” the speaker situates us, as well as Kafka, in the everyday, in the instance, where
I wanted to start with an image of the sun
As you might have seen it, muted
By a thin sheet of ice on the windows,
The lovers inside spooning each other
On this cold morning, murmuring the harmonies
Inside solitude and honeysuckle and crepuscular
As you stroll down Altstadter Ring,
Past me waiting for the 7:40 train…
Probably as telling as any line in the book is in this poem, where the speaker identifies that “and when you pass by/I look through you, though I can’t entirely.” That seems to be the greater task in all of Long’s portraits. He treats his subjects carefully, allowing them their autonomy, their candid willingness to be witnessed as fallible and human.
Moreover, one of the most heartfelt and humble admissions that could be applied throughout the collection, comes in “Still Life with Lenny Bruce in Jail,” where because “This whole generation’s strung out,” (meaning, both Bruce’s as well as our own), the speaker watches the late Bruce inject heroin in his arm because “you don’t care, so I won’t too/As the cop down the hall watches me watch/You shoot up.” Such a line is important, not for the depiction of someone famous and controversial chasing the dragon, but because it illustrates that Long’s speaker is capable of being witnessed—just as we witness Bruce through his eyes, he is, and so are we, witnessed elsewhere. Just as with Long’s Kafka, we look at the subjects of Long’s still lives-in-motion, but we cannot see through him because he undercuts his speaker’s omniscience habitually, opting for the human, the tragically fucked up, and the carelessness-prone over the invisibly perfect.
The greatest chord of Still Life is the nature of who Long decides to write about here—to give motion and rightful admiration to individuals misunderstood, repressed, tortured, beaten, assassinated, self-destructed, and altogether beautiful. Malcolm X, Frederick Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln join the ranks of Paul Celan, Kafka, Hendrix, and Vallejo. This, undoubtedly, sings true of Long’s romanticism, but Long’s treatment of his subject matter is far from the romantic ideal. Like Long’s speaker, his portraits are fractured, broken, and imperfect. One merely recalls the trees in his “Still Life with Birch Trees in Minsk and a Portrait of Pushkin” that are beaten by the wind “into right angles” and may reside as emblematic for Pushkin as well as many others in the supporting cast of Long’s collection.
Doubly beautiful is how Long braids the personal narrative with the historical—or, rather, shared narratives of his subject matter in the hopes of re-authenticating them, while failing to elucidate the mysteries shrouding his own life. When looking at a poem, such as “Still Life with the Atlantic Ocean and Nina Simone as Soundtrack,” one wonders how we get from the observation, “Her grief was so violent she shook,” to an affirmation expressed so strikingly in the poet’s wonderful language:
All you need to do is believe
That, in this moment,
Stillness is the illusion that goes on and on,
That the Atlantic’s grief and Simone’s grief
Are parts of the same illusion that always fall
Into the design of a wave that refuses to break.
For our benefit, Long’s speaker does not rest on this illuminating mesh of wave with the tonal pangs of grief. It is a kind of braiding of narratives—shared, personal, actual, or invented—that weaves the self into the examination of the other:
Some illusion, like this salt air
That holds your parents now, long before they disappeared,
As far back as any beginning goes, further than 1972,
When a climax became your name;
The night your parents, after a bottle Pinot Noir
And a little Nina Simone on vinyl,
Did their best to destroy time
And ended up with you,
You beginning somewhere,
say Atlantic City,
With an ocean view and ocean sounds,
All that motion fluid, explosive, distinct,
Never slow enough.
In this example, the speaker likens his own conception as a mere result of his parents “wasting time,” yet, that is the ethos of this collection throughout: the happy accident, the beautiful drunken dance of a couple in love and honeymooning, or vacationing, in Atlantic City. The final couplet of this example, moreover, speaks to the grandest paradox throughout Still Life—nothing is still, even in death, on the page, or in history. Time is merely an impurity to a grander vision, a crack in the already imperfect lens that we share.