Layers of Disappearance



Still Life
by Jay Hopler
McSweeney’s 2022, $18

by Zea Van Der Elsken, PIOnline Staff



Still Life in its entirety is a work of soul-shaking complexity. When Jay Hopler was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer and told he only had two years left to live, he chose to spend his time writing this book: a rare gift to our world in all its ways. The book seems to be both a representation of all the moving parts of the dying, as well as an antithesis to how we usually converse about death, namely a dying person. Hopler is admiringly unafraid to state the imminent as—at times framed as hilarious—fact. He does so both as a Poet, placing himself within the canon through actively responding to form and incredibly controlled rhyme, as well as simply a person trapped in the motions of what it means to disappear: messy, cynical, heartbroken, hopeful, pissed-off, regretful, and transcending. Hopler allowed for this book to be post-structural while speaking to the canonical: challenging poetry through poetry. It tweaks and manipulates the canon as a response to his coming to terms with the ungraspable. Still Life throughout, unfolds into an undermining of the melancholia of death. Though each individual poem in Still Life is worth an essay in and of itself, and this book has been discussed manifold by looking closely at Hopler’s craft, the progression and sequencing of the book is additionally what gives it its weight.

The book is divided into three sections that build upon one another with certainty and essentiality. The first section of the book is deeply and rightfully cynical. Many of these poems in the first section are exhausting to read, lack punctuation and move at times into a masterful nonsense. In “self-portrait on not looking,” for example, Hopler tumbles us into a desperate searching, breaths absent, that ends: “…i should have been this moon-gagged star-frightened night not the bowl of drizzle a little bit of rain nowhere to go.” Hopler continuously plays with the reader’s mind while suspending them mid-air, hung by associations. By denying the reader easy access, Hopler is able to invite us into the unbearableness of coming to terms with his death. Still Life stands as a form of remembrance, a continuous noticing of detail through a semi-loving cynicism. The recurring characters in this first section consist of the least-poetic of animals: a moth, seagulls, trout, rats and a fly—all embodying those limbs of death we push away, exterminate from vision and rather not pay too much attention to. One poem among many that captures this first section’s wit is “The Trauma Sutra” in which Hopler’s sense of humor and the precision of his language and lineation come together in harmony especially well. This poem features a fly as the subject of the poem, “praying” on an altar. Hopler describes in the last half of the poem:

You don’t pray like that unless
You’re trying to fill the hole
That just got punched through your gut.
Nothing fills that hole. You can make of it
W/ panes vinaceous a stained-glass oculus

Through which the spirit can be glimpsed,
Sometimes, in the summertime, at twilight,
When the sun honeys sidewise
& strikes that boss to red refraction.
Or, you can keep it open & let the spirit
Come & go as it likes.

In the last and brilliant poem of this section, “Honky-Tonk Sonnet, a duet w/ Johnny Cash,” Hopler skillfully compares himself to a rat. His derisive way of speaking holds both a sensitivity to his fate as well as powerful humor that jumps off the page, right in your face.

Though Hopler’s wit and humorous tone continue throughout the entirety of the book, the motions of his grappling with imminence show differently as Still Life continues into the second section. I would not be surprised, and have indeed spoken to fellow poets who feel this way, if one puts the book down halfway through the first section, thinking this isn’t for me. There seems to be somewhat of a protective layer over the first poems that might make some feel almost, well, unwelcome. This intended distance however, lays the foundation for what follows. By Hopler peeling away layers rather slowly than immediately—the most wondrous thing of this book is suddenly realized: we are in this pain with Hopler. This is not simply a story of death being told. Instead, the agony and sublimity of the many tumultuous phases of the discovery of his diagnosis are on the foreground: raw, new, and honest. When in Section Two the cynicism makes way for tenderness, the reality of the gut-wrenching sadness of this book sinks in much deeper than if we would have started on this more well-known plane of missing-ness and heartbreak that we know to be part of death.

This book collects pieces of Hopler’s eulogy for himself and his presence in the life of his loved ones, it seems to be a piece of him that we happen to be lucky enough to witness. In its second section, we shift towards what will remain. This book is becoming a collection of goodbyes as it progresses, a heartbreaking fantasy of what the world will look like without oneself. “love & the memory of it” builds an image of a call for remembrance as tender as can be, and ends with that direct tone we have come to know from the first section—this is how its last four lines unfold:

her light like a struck string fretting its zing against the pic-
nic tables

may that be the music you hear
when they unplug the ventilator

The effect this poem has on the reader is nothing short of breathtaking—leaving one to embody the gasp for air that last line suggests. Hopler was in possession of what seems like an infinite range to express the layers of grieving for one’s own disappearance. Where some poems feel like a punch in the stomach, others seem to whisper and softly question. “The Vacation Over” is a translation of Vivian Lamarque’s “A Vancanza Concluza” and reads in full:

The vacation over, see from the train
who remains on the beach playing, bathing in the waves;
their vacation isn’t over yet:
is this how it’s going to be
is this how it’s going to be
to leave this life?

This poem is the last piece in Section Two and leaves us suspended as we move into the final section. What must it mean, to write the last section of your last book? To know you will write your last poem on these pages? The absence of a clear answer is what makes this book feel so real. There is a perpetual hypothesizing in this section on how one can truly be remembered. The opening poem of Section Three, “Discarded Memoir Titles,” which consists of exactly those (and rhymed) is a brilliant example of the difficulty of naming an ending, the impossibility of finding the right words to describe one’s entire existence. One of the poems that follows shortly after, titled “student evaluation of instruction: obituary edition” contains this same question: how can one really know another? In this poem his name is repeatedly misspelled and followed by a student’s point-of-view surrealist pondering that is simultaneously accurate, hilarious, and deeply, deeply heartbreaking.

One of Hopler’s poems in this section that show his masterly skill in musical poetry is titled “Monster.” This poem reads as an absolutely musical, narrative-driven pleasure. Here are the last two stanzas:

Petroglyphed on nearby cliffs
Are legions of beings thronged w/ sticks
Ringing an enormous horned slug.
Anthropologists insist it’s a fierce old god
& file it under “metaphor”;
But it wasn’t a metaphor
That gored that scout troop

Going after rafting badges south
Of Red Creek, the lot of them turned inside-out.
It’s not a metaphor that stalks the rocks
Near Ox Point, its jaws cocked
For whatever comes to drink.
& everything comes to drink
Sooner or later.

When I got to the end of the poem and felt the weight of this monster become the beast of death itself, I had to put the book away for a second, crying. When I picked it back up to move on to the next poem, “meditation on folklore: a coda” and saw it started with “fuck bigfoot” I burst out laughing for the thousandth time—Jay Hopler you genius, you absolute wonder. Thank you for the gift of your brain to this world.

Still Life unfolds into a gathering of written evidence that encapsulates the process of trying not to lose oneself to the will of disease, while acknowledging the reality of its impossible truth. Hopler knew that the poetry would be what was left of him and used it as a vessel accordingly. As Katie Ford states when she describes his poems as inimitable, “No one writes like Hopler. And no one ever will.” Hopler himself leaves us with a poem at the end of the book cleverly titled “markers” that ends as such: “…or why not steal a toilet/& chisel it to one-up keats’s final whine:/here lies one whose name was writ in shit.” Though Hopler plays with and communicates through acknowledging the presence of the canon, this is not what gives this book its value. The truthful cynicism of this book and its gradual peeling away slowly reveals what’s underneath, it holds the most honest and openly conflicting manners of speaking about death, namely oneself disappearing. The final poem, titled “obituary” contains a piece of sheet music that per request of Hopler, was composed by Paul Rudy as an answer to the question of what he thought Hopler would be if he were a piece of music. If there is one thing that draws me to poetry it is its space for staying. When I read this poem, it is as if Hopler hands over his memory to every reader, as if the weight of his existence now lies within the poems. Not just the ones who’s “vacation isn’t over yet” survive him: his poetry—as embodiment of himself—does too. The music is followed by one final line:

he has been survived

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