Still Life


The sixteenth post in The Education of a Writer (TEW) series. 

Last time we met I ended the post with a mention about being lost. Not knowing who I was after falling hard. And since then I’ve struggled on how to write the next chapter. How to capture that alienation.

Two weeks later and I think I might have done it. You tell me.

Still Life

Strange, the photographs of me that get copied
the most are the ones when I was too young

and too stupid … before I ever even
wrote a thing … and the most popular photo

of all is where I’m wearing a powdered
beehive, a scarlet polo. It is early

autumn in southern Alabama, the
yellow light from the setting sun roasts in

between the pines, and thousands of flies rotate
around my head. I look like the Horsehead

Nebula, that dark cloud of gas over
fifteen-hundred light years away, a cradle

of low-mass stars, completely empty
of mythological content … but loaded

with vulgar objects like a pocket watch,
onions, nine dead peacocks, tulips, a

dragonfly, an assortment of pipes, and burly
maids hustling in a seventeenth century

Flemish kitchen … abandoned, like a burned-
out Tudor Coupe on a bootlegger’s trail.

I wondered where it all came  from. Nothing.
But what is nothing? Nothing is what I

did before I wrote, yet somehow that part
of me is more mythic than the me today

due to a photograph in which I have
nothing in common with except that I

am still nothing. See, I lost that feeling
long ago of being the darling of

God. I paid a heavy toll for my
arrogance. For each word I wrote there was

another that wanted to be written,
but each word buried me one degree deeper

into obscurity until I was
no longer in the realm of language. Nothing

made sense. Abandoned, I kept writing
in the dark, wishing I could see my hands

and the pale ribbon of words cascading
down that hole. And it was from that hole I

heard a voice. It was Volmar, my bald
secretary, beckoning me to climb down.

He showed me the pocket watch, the peacocks,
the pipes, that moment in Alabama.

He then raised his hands. I had a decision
to make: I could return to my desk and

keep writing or I could become my younger
self again, the nothing I never knew. The

nothing I never will be. I chose neither.
So Volmar shut me up in that hole.

I worked in the warehouse. He taught me to play
the clavichord, preserve plants with blotters,

read a celestial map. Five months later
I saw the “The Half-Baked Narrative of McQueen’s

Greatest Show,” and grieved … I was told to write
the vision down, but refused. I was afraid

because of doubt, human opinion, and
the wealth of words.  From that time on I kept

all visions to myself. Then I was laid
low by a scourge, and fell into bed. Absolutely

nothing mattered. Volmar tended me, held
my head as I drank from a glass. On the fourth day

he stood at the foot of my bed and said
I should’ve written down what I saw. I

pretended not to hear him, but he repeated
it. I said, “I do not know what you are

talking about.” Volmar handed me a
ribbon — it was my book — but I turned it

over trying to make sense of what
I wrote, and I nearly destroyed that little

book, tearing it apart, in storm and
disorder, certain it wasn’t me who

thought and wrote and edited something like
that. I eyed it like a drunk, perplexed, trying

to figure out who would’ve done such a thing.
I screamed and shook my fist, “Who in their right

mind would’ve written it like this?” I threw
my face into my hands and sobbed. From the

foot of the bed Volmar watched me, and he
would call out to me and I would call out

to him. He was nearly inaudible
among my fever. But then he said, “You

must write it,” and a sense of calm fell on
me. That night I slept like I’d never slept

before. A day later I rolled out
of bed, walked past that autumn day in Alabama,

the row of peacocks, the pipes, and climbed out
of the hole, and settled in my chair to

write what I saw. The nothing I never
knew. The nothing that existed. After

days and months, still frightened of the dark, wishing
that one of those words would take, finally,

the undefined turned into the defined
in the most auspicious of ways. It was

the word “abandoned.” Another word stuck, and
so on. The mounting words brightened the room

until a window opened, and regarding
it wide enough, I crawled through. Walking, I

marvelled at the white fields bending beneath
the wind, the cattle, the hollow sound of

the woods beyond, the hills. I felt as if
I’d just woken up. I ran into Volmar, straw

hat on his head. He handed me a
ribbon. It was white and cold. I wondered if

all ribbons were white and cold. I read. It
was about me — a perfectly awful

portrait. Page after page the book went on.
It knew. Were all portraits this strange? Volmar

smirked, picked up his basket and walked away.

An album of photographs sits on a

ladder bookshelf in the corner
of the library. That is all that is left

of them: the grandparents and great uncles
and fathers whom I lost in the last eleven

years to cancer and car accidents and
head trauma and plummets from spires … their

fame all but abandoned. Not that they care.

Sitting with my son, a young boy with a
wool cap in his hands, on our driveway

overlooking the dry lawn, tulip beds
beneath the house windows, I taught him the rules

of rugby and the height of the largest
crater on Mars and the life of Jesus.

And beneath the mature beech, Marvin and
Vince (pipe in his mouth) clapped as a ring of children

danced to the little song sung by my daughter
and her friend from Alabama, the one

with corduroy cut-offs and small voice that
consumes the sadness in your heart. My wife,

nothing on her mind but the moment, stooped
to take photographs as the afternoon

grew stronger. It was a scene you might see
in a book.

Next up: “How to Outsmart Obsolesence.”

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Image source: Lee Chang Ming


  1. says

    Kierkegaard said his biggest fear (I think it was Kierkegaard … someone said it; maybe plenty of people said it) his biggest fear was knowing that after his death the critics and scholars were going to be interpreting his work and trying to make it say things he didn’t intend at all …

    So, I’ll save you that meandering molly-wog into deep philosophical speculation and just say, “Good work, my friend. I love the free verse. You give me the courage to keep writing poetry.”

    Thank you, Demian. Keep writing.

    • says

      I don’t worry about that so much because I doubt what I write will last long enough for people to interpret it after I am gone. If so, I am humbled. And that I’ve encouraged you is a fabulous treat. Thank you for commenting and encouraging me. 😉

  2. says

    I’m not one to read poetry, honestly. I’m too impatient, and I admit that freely. However, I was lured here by Don, so I’m blaming him (and you might thank him!).

    I read to the end and loved the free verse, as Don coined it. I thought all of it was quiet intriguing and very profound. It was like getting to know you, kind of. I say “kind of” because, a lot of the imagery was likely something only you and those very close to you would understand. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed it!

    I may even

    • says

      Shannon, that is a great compliment, thank you for following Don’s lead and getting in. I totally understand poetry is not everyone’s thing, so to hear you stayed until the end means a lot.

  3. says

    Great piece, Demian. The thing that I got from this which rang true for me is that it’s easy to engulf yourself in writing. You’d think that’s how you get better, but really, LIVING life is how you get better at writing. If your days are spent huddling over a desk, the writing tends to suffer… For me, anyways:) Thanks, man!

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