still life with elegy, Valerie Coulton
above/ground press, 2021 $5.00
This is a pamphlet of two halves. The first (titled ‘still life’) is an eleven-poem sequence, centred around the poet’s mother; the second (titled ‘elegy’) is a sequence of thirteen poems about her father, who died in 2014.
The title ‘still life’ brings up (for me) a stack of visual images from galleries — richly-laden tables gleaming with silver and glass, fruit and fish, perhaps even a skull — but this isn’t Coulton’s primary usage. Her mother is still alive; it’s her ongoing life that is the foreground. The domestic details of food and cookery are there only in a supporting role. This is the stuff of phone-calls, the relaxed keeping-in-touch between daughter and mother.
In ‘elegy’, the poet remembers her father through photographs, and through objects associated with him —
he is expressing
a sequence of holidays
his cursive wish
ordering a rose
These intimate, personal memories commemorate his life, quietly, like a pencil sketch. There are remembered places but these are never named. Who needs to label personal images?
I note that the poems are connected in the overall pamphlet title by ‘with’ rather than the more immediately obvious ‘and’ (Still Life with Elegy). These are two equal sequences. Wouldn’t ‘and’ have shown that equality, that balance?
Yet Coulton has chosen to use ‘with’. This preposition summons visual memories — Cézanne’s ‘Still life with Jar, Cup, and Apples’ is an easy example of similar use — where the separateness of individual objects is brought together. They’re unified within the painting’s frame, inseparably part of the whole. They add to each other in ways that satisfy the eye, something we don’t immediately analyse when looking at the painting. It’s the overall composition that appeals.
Viewed from this angle, Coulton’s ‘elegy’ becomes part of the larger picture of her parents. For her they are interconnected and inseparable, despite death. The minutiae of her mother’s daily routines — library cards, cigarettes, cooking oil — are in the same mental frame as the objects her father left behind — ticket stubs, rubber bands, a wallet.
One small monosyllable (‘with’) says so much.
D A Prince