Framing in Diane Seuss’s Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl:
Part Scavenger Hunt, Part Photography Project
review, photos, and classroom exercise by Jen Town
There was a moment in the year 1502, so the story goes, that the eye of a dead rabbit reflected the real window of Albrecht Dürer, who, with his watercolors and genius and passion for detail, painted that eye with the window in it. It then became art, and, then, art again: the painted eye with the painted window in Diane Seuss’s “Young Hare” that connects the artist to the poem’s speaker. “Why does the window feel so intimate in the hare’s unreadable eye?” the speaker asks, and the answer is that the window in the eye represents a straddling between worlds, between then and now, between artist and viewer, between life and art.
In Seuss’s Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, there’s a permeability between the world of the paintings being described and the world of the poems. In “Girl in a Picture Frame,” the subject of a painting is on the precipice of leaving it. Her hand is on the frame. Her gaze is on the viewer, who in the world of the poem is the speaker, but is also us, the reader. Her gaze is a challenge. The frame around her is trompe l’oeil, a little lie. The speaker of these poems is “hungry for paint.” The reader/viewer/speaker is invited to “reach in. Choose a dusky apple.” When reading, the word “impasto” comes to mind—thick layers of perception, blurred boundaries between who is looking, who is seeing, and who is being seen.
Even poems that are not overtly ekphrastic, that focus on the perils of working class life, play with perception. In “I Look at My Face in a Red Mylar Balloon Tied to a Mailbox,” the balloon operates much like the mirror in Parmigiano’s Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror. It reflects both speaker and environment, but distorts them. Everything reflected in the balloon is red, including the speaker’s mouth, “bloody as if recently beaten.” When the wind blows the balloon, the perception changes; the speaker becomes all “wounded mouth” that can “swallow the town.”
How subjects are framed or not framed and what exists beyond these borders are central themes of the collection. To explore this, I embarked on a photography project using the technique of TTVF (Through the Viewfinder). I cut a square out of paper and used it to frame the world around me. I paired the photos with phrases from Seuss poems that illustrate the tension between reality and art.
I started by making a list of images I was hoping to capture that I felt evoked the collection. This included, like some kind of perverse grocery list, “the eye of a taxidermied animal, preferably a rabbit” and “paradise” and “girl with gaze.” I edited the photos down to eight that felt particularly Seussian to me and chose phrases from a four-page list I had compiled while reading the book.
This process could be used as a classroom exercise even for books not so clearly rooted in the visual art world. For example, a prompt might ask students to use a class text as a lens with which to go out and take eight photos that are representative of themes x, y, and z. Students might then be asked to articulate in writing how their images are illustrative of those themes.
Part scavenger hunt and part art project, I spent several hours walking around town with images and phrases from Seuss’s book in my head. Well, actually, I spent days with her words in my head, and I looked through those words at the world around me, and those words altered what I saw. I saw a paradise full of needles, barbs. A strange, darkly humorous, deadly, lush place where girls stared or escaped or lived in the red room of a cherry. I heard noise but underneath that, silence, “the last one, turning / round on its stem like an apple.”
Jen Town's poetry has appeared in Mid-American Review, Cimarron Review, Epoch, Third Coast, Crab Orchard Review, and others. She earned her MFA in Poetry from The Ohio State University in 2008. Her first book, The Light of What Comes After, won the 2017 May Sarton Poetry Prize from Bauhan Publishing. Jen lives with her wife, Carrie, in Columbus, Ohio. You can find her online at jentown.com.