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Planets on Tables: Poetry, Still Life, and the Turning World by Bonnie Costello (review)

From: William Carlos Williams Review
Volume 29, Number 2, Fall 2009
pp. 200-202 | 10.1353/wcw.2009.0023

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It is easy to forget that the stream-lined style of modern painting that would come to be known as Precisionism—overwhelming the French in 1924, perhaps most famously, with Gerald Murphy's eighteen-foot-high ode to transatlanticism, Boatdeck—also revolutionized that humblest of genres, the still life. See, for example, Murphy's Razor (1924), not so much a homely scene of domestic objects (safety razor, fountain pen, a box of matches) as it is an advertisement, a billboard, a story of modern efficiencies and inhuman scale: the fountain pen alone measures nearly three-feet in length. If the painting celebrates the shocking transformation convulsing even the ephemera of life, however, it does so not without some pause: the formal arrangement slyly evokes the skull-and-crossbones motif, potentially mourning the passing of a messy, personal, interior space, and warning of a time when such outsized abstractions could flatten a world.

In Planets on Tables: Poetry, Still Life, and the Turning World, Bonnie Costello picks up the tale of still life explored through lyric poetry in the shadow of the Great Depression and World War II, leading it deftly through the Cold War and into our own time. Her title, derived from a late Wallace Stevens poem, articulates the study's dominant interest in questions of scale in the work of Stevens, Williams, Bishop, Wilbur, and the curious boxes of Joseph Cornell. When history entered the home, as Murphy clearly illustrated, why did some artists and poets turn to the miniature, the local, the still life? Challenging readings of the lyric and still life as escapist retreats from the demands of history, Costello asks: "[C]ould these sensuous arts of the private, the everyday, the domestic, provide a medium by which individuals might encounter historical realities that were otherwise too distant, too vast, too mediated, too dangerous, or too impersonal to feel and comprehend?" (viii). Such encounters engage, rather than retreat from history; they resist the absolute prioritizing of the public realm, insisting on a space to imagine alternatives on a human scale. The still life in these works, Costello reminds us, are "porous environments," full of windows and sunlight, entrances and exits, "tying these artists to the world of ominous and disturbing circumstances even as they confirm an amenable, personal, aesthetic space" (18).

As a defense of the lyric and still life, Planets on Tables is eloquent and forward-looking about poetry's role in the world. Starting with Stevens's post-war correction of his earlier ambition to place a jar in Tennessee, the study concludes with readings of recent work by Robert Pinsky, Lucie Brock-Broido, and the artist Abelardo Morell. Such scope forgives the fact that more orientation to the still life genre pre-1930 would have helped round out the study for students of modernism. Of course, such scholarship is by now voluminous, dating back in Williams studies at least to Bram Djikstra's 1969 The Hieroglyphics of a New Speech.

Modernists will benefit from Costello's close reading of Stevens's introduction to Williams's Collected Poems, 1921-1931, which puts the two writers in productive dialogue with one another. Costello here frames an intriguing question only implicit in Stevens's often backhanded sounding praise of Williams as the hero of the real: "Are Williams's still lifes themselves a little like Trojan horses, bringing violence and heroic narrative into the domestic lyric?" (52). Whereas the still life affords Stevens a shelter through which the imagination can meet the world on more intimate terms, its "deliberate assembly and disarray" (49) in Williams is a means of contending with the variety of forces containing, constricting, and constructing the individual. How both poets uniquely internalize violence, while fiercely distinguishing between poetry and politics, leads to fresh readings of Stevens's Parts of a World and of a scattering of Williams's poems, including "Between Walls," the complex and often overlooked "Simplex Sigilum Veri: A Catalogue," and "Burning the Christmas Greens," in which the debris of old ceremonies gives way to new forms in a time of war, part of the calculus of Williams's inside-out still lifes. Costello ranges over a wide sample of...

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