Note: Jay Hopler passed away on June 15, 2022. This letter was completed in the week prior.
I find it difficult to begin writing about this book for the same reason that I find myself compelled to write about it in the first place—namely, because you’re dying of an advanced cancer. Typically, it seems to me that there are a few different ways to talk about a dying poet. One can glow about the writer in near-hagiographic terms, as though the approach of death somehow deprived the poet and the poems of their capacity to withstand (or their desire to invite) critical attention. Or one can practically ignore that he’s dying altogether, outside of mumbling somewhere near the introduction about the occasion for the book—and the reviewer, having discharged his duty to provide the context in which the collection was written, can at last move past all the uncomfortable business and focus on what’s really important in the end: the poems, by God. Or perhaps one might choose, as Louise Glück does in her generous though discomfiting blurb for this collection, to suggest that the poet’s cancer, in addition to its “great cost,” also offers an opportunity, specifically for art—which, considering the facts, is not wholly untrue (how many masterpieces have been animated by anticipatory grief?) but still feels perverse to say. There’s a bright side to all of this, such a suggestion seems intent to convince us, and that bright side is . . . this book; “death is the mother of beauty,” and all that. But none of those approaches seem sufficient or honest. They seem to shy away from or embellish the reality in which this book was composed, a reality which belongs to you and which feels like an intrusion for me to comment on. I’m unclear on how much you imagined or desired your illness, or your life, to be a part of his book’s discussion.
I spend my days working as a hospital chaplain, where I walk into all manner of rooms asking patients the most absurd and personal of questions, such as: “How do you imagine you want to die?” I remember the first time I asked this of someone, scared less of the answer than of introducing, explicitly, the idea of death into the conversation. And of course the man I asked didn’t answer my question, not really. He said, “I still believe I have a lot of time left.” No one tells you anything they don’t want you to know, after all. On the other hand, this means that each response is an invitation—whether it’s to deepen the conversation, change course, or leave altogether. I think of the interview you gave with The Poetry Magazine Podcast this March where you shared your doctor’s prognosis that you had two years to live, five years ago in 2017. You recounted how you thought, in that moment, “I’ve got twenty-four months to write a book from beginning to end.” And I consider the acknowledgments to this book where you thank your doctors for keeping you alive long enough to complete this project. Indications, all, that life is consubstantial—a word perhaps too specific for the blurry boundaries it denotes—with the poetry. As I say, each utterance is an invitation. Thus I begin, wondering what the forty-three poems of Still Life invite us to know.
From the book’s first poem, “Upon Learning that I Am the 51st Most-Famous Person from Puerto Rico,” the reader is inaugurated into your self-deprecating, darkly comic irony. “On a dripping, storm-lit, island afternoon / In 1970, my parents had an accident: Me,” you sneer, until the next and final line transitions into a different ironic mode—that of the dramatic, the tragic: “There were no survivors.” Already the poems assume their pervasive stance of belatedness. Already the book anticipates your posthumous existence. The ambivalence here between opening and closing, astonishment and resignation doesn’t seek resolution as much as it seeks form, which it finds in this wicked little tercet the shape of a well-made joke. Much like the epigraph you chose for this collection from George Bernard Shaw—“Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh”—the poem encapsulates the general attitude of Still Life: knowing, funny, and somewhat distant even in its sadness. But for all the delight, all the welcome wildness which your wit creates, I still find myself frustrated by this posture. There’s something reflexively defensive, something a little too eager to show that you’re in on the joke—at least in your art:
no man convinced he was going to die
on an island would on an island live
unless he wanted to die
on that island & i did
talk about an end rhyme
but my life’s a poem my death’s
been writing for a long time
& death abhors a well-wrought urn
Ha ha; and ouch. I wonder how much fun you had, at your own expense, with that insidious end rhyme of “live” and “did.” My instinct is to read “i did” as “i died,” as though you primed the reader to mishear and lengthen the vowel due to the internal rhyming between “die,” “island,” and “i.” I envy the subtlety of form, the improvisational quality that these lines claim. Such gestures elicit a feeling I can only identify in myself as joy: linguistic slippages which conduct grief, the subject of this collection, from silence into a music reminiscent of jazz (another art form whose depth relies on irony). But despite the virtuosity, despite the impressive writerly flourishes, there’s an emotional haziness that I can’t see through. A sardonic anger? Yes. Sadness? Yes. Resignation? Apparently. Yet all the emotions suggested here, though sharp, are nevertheless armored behind a particular tone of voice—the knee-jerk “I guess the joke’s on me!” irony of this collection which leaves me feeling like much of the writing has been blunted into what James Merrill called “the vaguely resonant.” That is, until the final stanza of this poem:
my father was a sack
of ash my mother kept
on a windowsill for years after he passed
it didn’t seem to cause him much distress
i left him on the island
when i left
Though I still find here the same deflections you make earlier—“it didn’t seem to cause him much distress”—the introduction of the specific (the speaker’s father’s ashes) transports your well-wrought urn, initially a self-referential metaphor for poetry, into a denser reality. Pathos and sarcasm in this stanza balance one another in an uneasy tension—the same tension that balances life and art. It seems providential, then, to note how the pressure of both your life and your art exerts itself in these lines: can it be a coincidence that your second book, The Abridged History of Rainfall, largely an elegy for your father, is evoked in this self-elegy?
In art, much like in life, we are who we are. I distrust narratives of artist transformation, an all-encompassing transformation, that is. Most writers, once they work out their mature style, refine, extend, expand, or contract that style, but a reader can usually recognize the old essential voice threading itself throughout a writer’s oeuvre. This is how I account for the continuity between your books, the characteristic crankiness, the playfulness of the language, the alternating registers of ebullience and melancholy which all remain consistent between Green Squall, your first book, which won the Yale Younger Poets Series in 2006; The Abridged History of Rainfall in 2016; and now Still Life. I think of my friend, a palliative care physician who often tells me, “We die the way we live,” which he says not to induce fatalistic despair, but to point out there’s some vital aspect to a person even the approach of oblivion can’t erase. And as I’ve read these poems, the moments that seem most durable, that contain the kind of writing that no one but you could make, are the ones in which you see the world with such precision that you change it. Take, for instance, “still life w/ wet gems”:
lightnings bang their jaggeds on the cloud-glower
the cloud-glower is a broken necklace spilling its wet gems
or the poem “the seawall”: “the swallows swirl like coffee grounds at the bottom of the sky’s blue cup”; or “war comes to the island”:
look at that battleship made of clouds the thunderheads are the
conning towers the wisps of blue & gray are the waves
a squadron of pelicans lifts from the runway of seaplane basin &
peels off in the direction of the ship’s darkling hull
when they ram it they disappear w/o a sound their bodies
do not fall from the sky
These violent, surprising visual juxtapositions also populate your earlier writing; though these lines, which possess an unpunctuated, hurried urgency, are unburdened by your earlier tendency (especially in your longer poems) to occasionally overwhelm the images with every possible iteration of your perception. No—the intensities of Still Life are more abbreviated, more discrete spots in time. The vision of these poems reminds me, at their best, of Gerard Manley Hopkins: their breathless passions and pacing, their tonal extremities, their lush textures. And much like Hopkins, there’s a formal dynamism which at once resists life’s contingencies and participates in their unfolding. Thus you can disavow yourself of art’s immortality—“L’Avventura was too long for me. / What do I want w/ eternity?”—while, in the last line of the collection, in a poem titled “obituary,” imagine the persistence of Jay Hopler, in some form: “he has been survived” (left notably unspecified, unpunctuated, in the passive voice). What, after all, survives of us? No grasping for answers, here—even if these poems themselves (implicitly) hope to be remembered. This is the irony of Negative Capability, which is the achievement of Still Life: to end not in anguish, but in curiosity. What else can I feel but humility and admiration for these poems, which grieve and celebrate a life with so much care?
In admiration and gratitude,