Dawn Diez Willis, Still Life with Judas and Lightning

Publisher: Airlie Press

2013, 71 pages, paperback, $15

A collection of portraits: men and women’s lives fluttering, for a moment, between the pages of a book. Dawn Diez Willis’s Still Life with Judas and Lightning presents a sequence of characters with beauty and song and a great measure of quiet observation. It’s like walking through a museum and finding the gold-framed faces are more than skin-colored paint and eyelashes—each possesses a pulsing spirit hidden just behind the canvas.

In each poem Willis paints for us the beautiful and joyful moments of her characters’ lives—but only as she reveals their hidden sorrows. In “Lacy Learning Eve,” Willis describes a young girl who has just learned that Eve was taken from Adam’s rib. She compares Lacy to that rib, so young and hidden and waiting to bloom. In fact, Willis sees that hidden, secret potential as well as the secret sorrows of each of her characters, the un-named spirit lying just under the skin.

The sheer innovation of the collection’s language is alluring. In “Lacy Learning Eve,” Willis imagines Eve’s body curled inside Adam’s breast: “Near Eve’s ear, Adam’s liver / sang its pond of songs.” His liver. A pond. Singing. Willis’s poems themselves are like songs, voicing and naming the hidden and obscure. 

In “Young Couple Marries in July,” the bride and groom dance on the lawn and

between them, beneath white froth,
beneath pretty girl-fat and viscera,
a spoonful of baby sat at the center.

Even as Willis describes the physical scene of the wedding, the flies and “gleaming foil,” she also begins to name the unknown and unspoken: the small pulsing life cradled between husband and wife as they sway to the music. That child, hidden and quiet, gives a name and shape to the intimate joy of bride and groom.

Willis’s work, in this collection, is largely to name the unnamed. She names the quiet, secret things like the baby beneath the wedding dress, or Eve, hidden in Adam’s body, or the sorrows of lost loves. But Willis also gives names and shapes to the empty holes and spaces in her character’s lives. In “Collection,” Willis describes a man recently released from prison; as he climbs into his sister’s car, the sister

lights his cigarette from hers,
and they breathe the gray privacy of smoke,
hold the silence between them, gathering its shapely seconds.

The word “shapely” gives a body to the silence in the same way that the baby gave a body to the bride and groom’s joy. As this ex-convict and his sister share a smoke, the years of separation between them weigh heavily; it is this abstract weight of space, time, and experience Willis names when she describes the “shapely” seconds.

As the sequence progresses the reader is introduced to character after character, and soon all of the characters join together. The description of each character is just one small portrait in a collection of portraits that together make up a whole. Many of the characters are orphaned children and childless mothers. Some of her characters are surrounded by death: Lazarus notices “the foul / stewed taste of his own tongue” when he comes back to life, and little Socorra swims with the spirit of her sister in the pond behind their grandmother’s house. Some characters “hold [a] newborn swaddled in cotton.” And in many of her poems, birth and death are closely juxtaposed: in “Adam’s Third Son” Willis describes the birth of Seth, a child born to Eve shortly after the murder of Abel by his brother Cain.

These poems are reminiscent of Keats’ negative capability—birth and death, salvation and despair are juxtaposed, taken together and swallowed whole. No attempt has been made to sort out the complexities of these pairings or unravel the mystery. Birth and death are accepted simultaneously. Willis’s characters live in a corporal world that gives names to the silences and sorrows that lie in the middle ground, that unnamable space between life and death.

—Laura Drell