Weekend Poem: Still Life by Carl Dennis

I first heard of Carl Dennis when his book, ‘Practical Gods‘ won the Pulitzer in 2002. Embarrassing thing to admit as, when I started to read his works, I realized how much I had been missing out on. This is not a poet given to excesses of emotion or language. And, I must admit that there are times when I prefer those poems – the ones that hit you right in the solar plexus with a brick – and wake up your deadened senses. Then, there are times when I want the low-pitched, intimate sort of poem, which is more like a close friend or family member musing while you both look out at a large Grand Canyon-like vista.

Dennis’ poems are that quiet, private sort, but filled with momentous truths. This poem, actually, to me, is representative of his style – where he takes the ordinary, everyday things and makes us look at them with fresh eyes. And, that is one of the joys of reading and appreciating poetry, don’t you think? Because, so much of our life is about doing this, that and the other and we lose the wonder and the appreciation for the parts that make up our whole.

Of his plain-speaking, conversational style, which has often been remarked upon in reviews and interviews, Dennis has said this:

It’s not as if I had been tempted by all other kinds of writing and resisted them. This comes very naturally to me. I believe that poetry should sound like natural speech. When you hear a poem you should feel that someone is standing behind the lines, talking to an individual, offering a script that something might want to enter.

Carl Dennis Interview / buffalo.edu

In this poem, Dennis brings the essential qualities of inanimate and taken-for-granted daily objects to life in a way that inspires us to both appreciate their transient beauty and consider how to live, like them, in the moment and without wishing for more. Because this very moment, and our place and connection to everything within it, will not come again.

He starts with that – calling our attention to the importance of this moment, this now. It’s a powerful start because it immediately stops us in our tracks as we wonder – the moment for what?

From there, he gives us a beautiful word picture of a still life that is found, likely, in many art classes and galleries – a vase of flowers on a table, with a bowl of oranges and a book lying nearby. But, Dennis asks us to praise the loyalty of these objects, which aren’t trying to leave for somewhere nicer, more peaceful. That they are still and perfect, staying exactly where they are, no matter what goes on around them. Unlike, of course, many of us human beings, who are often wishing we could be elsewhere, anywhere but where we happen to be at the moment. I often think this malady of our race has become worse with the proliferation of social media. Not that I’m a Luddite, I hasten to add. I find social media to be greatly beneficial in staying in touch with many friends that would be difficult if we relied on just letters and email. But, that relatively newly-coined acronym, “FOMO” (fear of missing out) keeps getting worse as those friends post status updates of their vacations, their nights out or just their trip to the mall. Beyond over-sharing, this kind of regular onslaught causes many to start wanting and wishing for what they perceive as more exciting, fun and interesting lives of others.

Or, as Dennis goes on to describe, some of us might be chasing our personal vision of an ideal existence – a heaven on earth or above or even within ourselves. And, we continue to muse on and build on that mental vision in idle moments, rather than stopping to consider the real world vision and world around us. Till that fictional heaven that exists mostly in our minds is so overpowering that it makes us practically blind and impervious to the here and now.

In sharp contrast, the still life objects that Dennis has given us – they are rock-steady, solidly-rooted to their present positions, even as time passes by. He goes on to remind us of the transient nature of all things. This is the Zen part, if you accept it as such. These flowers, the book at first reading, the sunlight of this day – all of these, once gone, will never come back. We may have new flowers, the book may still remain and the sun will, of course, rise again tomorrow. But, these particular flowers and this particular experience of the book and this particular day – they will all be part of our past. And, if, busy as we are, we have not fully experienced or appreciated them, that chance to do so will be gone with them. It’s not as if we don’t know this intellectually, right? Of course, we know that time ebbs and flows and the past cannot be relived or re-experienced. But, how often does that cause us to stop and really appreciate what we have in the moment?

Dennis tells us, in the next few lines, that the people who live in this house are outside enjoying the last bit of sunlight before night falls. And, he reminds us again about the “being-there-ness” of  those objects on the table by telling us that, when those people return indoors, they will be lucky because those objects will still remain exactly as they have been – so that they can, if they so choose, take some time to appreciate them. That, even with the night coming on, these faithful objects, so rooted in the here and now, haven’t gone off anywhere, haven’t wanted to out of any fear or desire. Here, I believe that Dennis alludes to yet another reason that we humans tend to rush about or wish and work for our worlds and lives to be different. The night, whether the more tangible one that comes at the end of every day or the metaphorical one that refers to the end of days, is always somewhere within our awareness. And, the fear or not getting what we desire most before that night is upon us takes over, making us the very opposite of those still life objects – making us restless and going all over the place.

Here’s what this lovely, gentle poem says to me every time I read it: Let’s be still and silent for some time with the world around us. Let’s appreciate all the things that we take for granted. Our own existence is just as transitory as those objects. And that’s really OK. What matters (in more ways than we can ever hope to grasp fully) is the sumptuous experience of the here and now, not the (re)imagined past or the wished-for future.

Still Life

Now’s a good time, before the night comes on,
To praise the loyalty of the vase of flowers
Gracing the parlor table, and the bowl of oranges,
And the book with freckled pages resting on the tablecloth.
To remark how these items aren’t conspiring
To pack their bags and move to a place
Where stillness appears to more advantage.
No plan for a heaven above, beyond, or within,
Whose ever-blooming bushes are rustling
In a sea breeze at this very moment.
These things are focusing all their attention
On holding fast as time washes around them.
The flowers in the vase won’t come again.
The page of the book beside it, the edge turned down,
Will never be read again for the first time.
The light from the window’s angled.
The sun’s moving on. That’s why the people
Who live in the house are missing.
They’re all outside enjoying the light that’s left them.
Lucky for them to find when they return
These silent things just as they were.
Night’s coming on and they haven’t been frightened off.
They haven’t once dreamed of going anywhere.

Carl Dennis – Ranking the Wishes

– Carl Dennis, from his collection, Ranking the Wishes