Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Still Life" — Dejah Léger

A friend of mine, Dejah Léger, won two poetry contests recently, and what is fascinating is that both poems sprang from the same initial concept.  A real photograph of her grandfather inspired a short story, which she reworked into two poems.  The poems, though, could not be more different.  First the short story became a haibun, a piece of short prose followed by a haiku that elaborates or comments on the prose; it then became a sonnet.
Still Life

In a chocolate box beneath my bed I found several pictures belonging to my grandfather. One photo was of him and his Waco biplane, with the name "Tin Goose" written in shiny paint along the side. He stood in a grassy Ohio field that stretched for miles, joining the wide sky like a seam in the distance. Grandfather leaned his elbow against the wing of the plane. Even when he was young he looked old. His face was long and his smile was brief. The army uniform he was wearing looked too large for his frame. If the photographer had only waited a second longer to take the photo, my grandfather's smile might have been broader, perhaps a little more gentle. As it was, his features seemed as vacant as the flat, glossy landscape surrounding him.

The photo was taken the day before grandfather was to be stationed, on a breathless afternoon with a low, late autumn sun that cast shadows behind his feet. The day grandfather's photo was taken a whisper could have been heard for miles. The very click of the shutter was as loud as a gun being cocked.

quiet Thanksgiving—
the family receives
a letter
 (This won an award from Contemporary Haibun Online)
Still Life

In the photo, grandfather is in a field
Standing beside his bi-plane, a still span
Of sickle-wheat against his boots, eyes peeled
Toward the horizon. Open cold-blown land
Frames his quiet face, the camera finding him
A moment from what might have been a smile.
His hands in his pockets, he casts a slim
shadow behind him like a black grassy isle.
It was the week before he went to war.
His uniform seemed like a shiny bruise
Against the plane. In only three months more
His family in Ohio would receive the news.
The silence in the photo is silence mocked.
The click of the shutter—as loud as a gun being cocked.
 (This won the Carlin Aden poetry contest, hosted by the Washington Poets Association)

Any poet so adept at such different forms is admirable, but it's also interesting to see what images and phrases persist between the forms, and which seem to spring naturally from the form itself.  I can't think of a better case study to examine the differing effects of particular forms—how an initial choice of rhyme and meter, with all of the associated historical and cultural implications—influences, constrains and emphasizes different feelings and attitudes.

Dejah Léger is, I must add, an accomplished lyricist and musician, as well.

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