The Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize of $25,000, awarded annually for the most outstanding book of poems published in the United States by an American, is administered mutually by the Academy of American Poets and The Nation. In the past decade, winners have been Madeline DeFrees (2002), Fanny Howe (2001), David Ferry (2000), Wanda Coleman (1999), Mark Jarman (1998), Robert Pinsky (1997), Charles Wright (1996), Marilyn Hacker (1995), W.S. Merwin (1994), Thom Gunn (1993) and Adrienne Rich (1992). This year the award goes to Eamon Grennan for his Still Life with Waterfall (Graywolf). Jurors were Andrew Hudgins, Judith Ortiz Cofer and Robert Wrigley, who contributed the following essay. Other finalists for the award were Dance and Disappear, by Laura Kasischke (Massachusetts); Starting from Sleep, by Charles Martin (Overlook); The Lives of the Saints, by Suzanne Paola (Washington); Bellocq’s Ophelia, by Natasha Trethewey (Graywolf); and Skid, by Dean Young (Pittsburgh).
In the classic or traditional “still life,” that which is represented is, by definition, still. It is usually inanimate, even. Thus the still life will include not only the fruit and the cup, the knife and the cutting board, but the killed pheasants awaiting their dressing out. A wing from one of the birds may sprawl rigorously up and out, but the sensation the painting creates is not one of flight or even of the potential of flight, but of repose and of waiting. Waiting, that is, for the return, the participation, the full involvement of the human being the picture implies. What is often most beautiful about the still life is the feeling that one is brought to a regard far beyond one’s own sensory capabilities. You pause, in a way, and enter another human’s world. You “see” with the artist’s eye that sweat of heavy condensation on the goblet or the pear, and you enter into a stillness in your own life. Time stops. If you’re lucky, you can look up momentarily disoriented by all that has shot by you in that suspended moment. The blessing of the art is in the time we do not spend.
Such a suspension of time is what the lyric poet means to conjure. I am tempted to say “ignite,” for as much as anything else the lyric moment, that free time the painter and the poet offer us, is a kind of arc flash of recognition. We hardly need to elaborate on it; it is simply present and instantly as true as the world at hand. Or better yet, truer, clearer, held still for our taking in, our entering into. The figure of this sort of ignition is also one that the poet Eamon Grennan, in his marvelous book Still Life with Waterfall, recipient of the 2003 Lenore Marshall Poetry Award, is very fond of. Whether it is the future, with its “red eyes whispering,” or a “sun-splash of feathers/falling through the skylight,” what is illuminated is caught and held for a reader to savor. Grennan would have us know–no, would have us see, feel, hear, taste and smell–that the world, moment by ordinary or agonizing moment, lies chock-full with its own clarifications and rewards. That such rewards most often go unnoticed keeps the artists in business, so to speak, and if there is anything more likely to open us to the savor of life than poems like Grennan’s, I can’t imagine what it might be.
Still Life with Waterfall is Eamon Grennan’s sixth collection of poems, and its title suggests immediately the nature of this poet’s enterprise. How delightful and odd to find in the midst of such a production of repose as a “still life” the constant motion of a “waterfall.” In a sense this is the poet’s homage to painters (the book’s cover is a vividly colorful detail from Pierre Bonnard’s Sunset; two poems in the collection speak directly of Bonnard; another features an epigraph by him; still another poem speaks of Vermeer; and there is yet one more titled “Painter’s Diary”); however, the title also implies something of a linguistic trump. That is to say, Grennan proves that his still-life lyrics are indeed capable of movement, or at least that they can pluck from a world, or a life, in blinding motion, a slice clear enough to make us shudder with satisfaction. Sometimes it is the motion in that slice that electrifies.