Sundress Reads: Review of still life

A cover of a book, showing a black and white photo of a house with overlaid yellow circles near the top. The title, "still life," is written on the yellow circles. The author's name, Kimberly Ann Priest, is written beneath.

Kimberly Ann Priest’s still life (PANK, 2020) is a collection of 21 poems whose titles each begin with “my pedophile,” followed by various characterizing details of the subject, such as “my pedophile is obsessed with details” and “my pedophile experiences superficial pleasure.” The juxtaposition of these two words highlights the theme of violent ownership explored throughout this text—the ownership the abuser enacts on the speaker, and the ways in which the speaker’s childhood trauma continues to affect her adult life.

In focusing each of these poems on the cause of the speaker’s trauma through her eyes, the text feels tightly controlled, letting us focus on one image of the pedophile, followed by another, and another, and another. This collection functions as a still life—just as the title suggests—and the last poem, “my pedophile loves like still life,” cements this: snapshots of a life frozen in time, and thus paradoxically making it impossible for them to be forgotten. These poems serve to both stop time and demand its steady progression, as the events from the speaker’s past continue to permeate her present and future: “if it is ambivalence / … how its eyes make a horror of laughter / its simpering witnesses texting themselves clean” (“my pedophile dates all my future partners”).

If the most traditional way to represent trauma in writing is by creating fragments that portray a convoluted and interrupted sense of time, Priest pushes this concept even further, asserting that trauma doesn’t just interrupt time, but completely redefines it, just as the pedophile is shown reshaping the face of a clock through actions that read as injurious yet gentle. still life echoes other documentations of trauma, such as Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House and Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, in its witnessing of how trauma warps memory and distorts time. Through these poems, we see growth stilted in the image of a raisin as “not a proper grape,” growth obscenely depicted yet punished in the image of folded towels “overextending the limits of their allowable girth,” and growth as something abandoned as an afterthought, in the image of a pried-open and picked over piece of frosted cake “neglected / discarded with the trash”. Childhood and the past are depicted as a source of terror through such objects as hollow, Barbie-like dolls whose value is measured by their ability to be posed (“my pedophile prefers my childhood”).

Priest inverts stereotypical sexual language and images throughout her poems, such as a person stepping out of a shower and the suggestion of a glass of wine, illustrating the thin line that exists between sex and violence. Priest does this most noticeably in relation to food: “if it is factual / it is a raisin desiccating in his belly” (“my pedophile has a discerning palette”) or “and if she is nude the eggs are undercooked / … the way he sets the knife at the edge of the plate after preening yellow yolk from its teeth and never talks about porn or nudity or sex yet I feel photographed” (“my pedophile produces a cinematic frame”). The lushness of the language draws us to its words, while the violence bubbling into the scene turns our insides sour. Like how we are viewing all of this through the speaker’s eyes, these poems force us to reckon with our own complicity in such voyeuristic violence as readers.

What is so powerful about still life is that it reclaims the horror inflicted on the speaker in the most subtle, quiet way, straddling the line between survivor narrative and victim narrative. By muddying the progression of time and the portrayal of characteristics (actions are shown as violent and gentle), we understand that there is no point at which the trauma of the speaker’s childhood is simply “stopped” or “conquered.” The speaker’s pedophile is a multifaceted character with so much depth that we, as readers, aren’t quite sure what to make of him. Except—and this is one of the many strengths of this book—despite being shown as a complicated human with problems of his own, the horror and violence of his actions—both shown and implied—are neither lessened nor dismissed. The speaker shows us the terror of her reality by portraying her abuser as a fully-fledged person, someone with depth and texture, who nonetheless does terrible things.

Priest’s forthcoming book, Slaughter the One Bird, will be published by Sundress Publication this year, and her most recent book, Parrot Flower, was released earlier this year by Glass Poetry Press. Her chapbook White Goat Black Sheep was released by Finishing Line Press in 2018. She describes her writing as carefully observing the intersections of gender violence, narrative identities, embodiment, trauma, and environmental issues as well as survival, wildness, joy, and grief. still life is a moving and masterful addition to her work.

still life is available at PANK

“A white woman in a motorized wheelchair in the middle of an empty street. She has bright pink hair and is wearing a grey shirt with the words "This Body is Worthy" written across the front.”

Hannah Soyer is a queer disabled writer born and living in the Midwest. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in CosmopolitanAbout Place JournalEvocations ReviewThe Rumpus, Entropy, Mikrokosmos Journal, Brain Mill Press, Disability Visibility ProjectRooted in Rights, Sinister Wisdom, and Peach Mag. She is the founder of This Body is Worthy, a project aimed at celebrating bodies outside of mainstream societal ideals, and Words of Reclamation, a space for disabled writers.

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