The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: This poem wrestles with the problems of moving on in quite a unique way, using the metaphor of a scalpel removing pronouns to describe the difficulty of coping with a relationship ending. How did this image develop?
Christina Stoddard: “Still Life with Pronoun and Scalpel” is a breakup poem, but I wanted to approach it from a very specific angle. After the end of a long-term relationship, once you do eventually try dating again, you find yourself in an awkward situation: all the stories of things you’ve done and places you’ve been—the things that help someone you’ve just met get to know you—are littered with your ex’s name. Because he or she was part of those experiences. You can’t just wave your hand and make that former lover disappear…or can you?
It struck me that a kind of self-inflicted surgery would be required, one that might even border on butchery. Which is why the title and opening line use language suggestive of both. Earlier drafts of the poem actually featured more instances of the scalpel and used other surgical imagery. But the poem started to feel tonally flat, so I rewrote it and reined it in. That gave me the version here.
RR: The suggestion of narrator unreliability at the end of the poem is jolting. How does the reliability of the narrator relate to your view of storytelling as a poet? What does this unreliability suggest about the nature of language?
CS: In this poem, I am definitely playing with the aphorism that sometimes you have to lie in order to tell the truth. Students of creative writing are often taught this idea in the form of Emily Dickinson’s infamous line “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Taking that further into the unreliability of a narrator or of language itself, I will say that I don’t think the facts behind the invention of a story matter so much, as long as the story rings emotionally true.
I suspect the speaker in the poem knows she’s an unreliable narrator. In taking the events of the past and hammering them into the shape of the story she wants to tell publicly about herself, the speaker is well aware of how artificial that is, and how in some ways what she’s doing makes her a liar.
RR: “Still Life with Pronoun and Scalpel” opens, “With this blade, I must trim you / from the meat of my stories.” How is this metaphorical removal something that must be done by the speaker? Can you speak to the intersection of grief and this idea of removal?
CS: I think the two extreme reactions to grief are to burn everything or to save everything that reminds you of the loss. The speaker’s answer to this problem is to engage in a deliberate removal, to recast the years the lovers spent together and find a way to hold onto her own history without including the lover anywhere in what she keeps of that time. This all happens in her head, of course, and it’s motivated less by spite or vengeance than by self-preservation. And it’s sad, it’s messy, and even though the speaker says “Let me believe / it can be clean,” the reader knows that’s going to be impossible.
RR: It is inherent in the nature of a still life to capture something that is static. Can you speak to how this static nature of a still life works metaphorically to represent a relationship?
CS: A still life is static, yes, but also fabricated. A still life is staged. So too is the speaker’s process of deciding what her pronouns are going to be. She’s sifting through her memories and deciding how to play them in public. I think we all do this to some degree. Anyone with an online dating profile or even a Twitter account is curating how they’re seen by strangers.
On the page I don’t talk about the relationship itself very much, or what went wrong between them. By the poem’s first line the relationship has already ended, so calling it a still life speaks to the role played by time and the idea that what we present to an audience is often designed to elicit a specific reaction from that audience. In the poem, the speaker thinks she can chop up time (her own past) to suit her needs, despite the damage that might do. The speaker is doing this for the benefit of a potential new lover, as either an evasion tactic or a kindness; it’s up to the reader to decide which. In visual art, a still life is also able to take moments and suspend them outside of time, usually at the height of their perfection.
Historically speaking, though, still lifes were supposed to remind the viewer of death—a memento mori. That bowl of fruit is going to rot; those flowers will wither by morning. Back in the Renaissance, still lifes would typically feature human skulls and were considered funerary art. I don’t think a reader has to know any of that to understand the poem, but those things are operating in the background.
RR: Which authors have had the most influence on your work?
CS: Philip Levine’s books got me into poetry in the first place. Traci Brimhall, Kendra DeColo, Claudia Emerson, T.J. Jarrett, Keetje Kuipers, Paul Guest, and Phillip B. Williams are some of the writers whose work has taught me how to weave a story, say the things I’m afraid to say, and risk everything. All of those poets go for broke.