A tribute to Jay Hopler by one of his many readers (Alison Turner)

Tuesday, June 29, 2022

I received a short piece of commentary on Jay Hopler’s poetry recently and wanted to share it with my readers as a follow-up to the notice I posted last week about his death.

As an introduction to Alison Turner’s piece, however, I would also like to call your attention to POETRY DAILY, which today posted a poem by Jay Hopler, “Obituary.”


It’s as great a self-portrait as I have ever read in so few words. If only Whitman (or Dickinson or Yeats) had more often let a similar sense of humor into the interstices of their poems!


On Jay Hopler’s Still Life
Alison Turner

At the relatively young age of 46, Jay Hopler discovered he had a cancer that would kill him, likely within two years. As he recounted to Srikanth Reddy in a podcast for Poetry magazine, while the doctor was telling him what he was in for, he looked out the window at a beautiful late afternoon in Utah and began to writing a poem in his head. No time to lose. The result of the effort that began that afternoon is Still Life, a collection in which he confronts the bleak reality of his own imminent extinction with rage and grief and jokes, and the dazzling language his readers have come to expect from his first two books, Green Squall, winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, and The Abridged History of Rainfall, a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry.

Elegy is one of the oldest poetic forms, and mortality one of the oldest concerns of our species. Still Life is a self elegy— weird, Hopler said, to be writing it, having recently written an elegy for his father in The Abridged History of Rainfall. Here is a sampling of his takes on his own death.

In a poem after Cesar Vallejo

i will die in the desert on a sunny day
b/c i was born in the islands
on a rainy one

. . .

it will be a Friday b/c today friday stoned & alone I drove
into the west desert & grieved
my own passing & never so much as today do I feel
in the middle of a 2-lane road
empty for 1,000 years in both
(“poem after poem by cesar vallejo w/ a nod to donald justice”)

In a poem for his wife, the poet Kimberly Johnson
it was she that lit the world just then
& not that ember of a sun
her light like a struck string fretting its zing against the pic
nic tables

may that be the music you hear
when they unplug the ventilator

(“love & the memory of it”)

There is rage in these poems (“fuck bigfoot my every star/on real monsters shines/i haunt
my own /damned house in a body sewn/together by doctors”). There is dark comedy (the poem entitled “student evaluation of instruction: obituary edition”).

The formal problem presented by such harrowing subject matter is how to manifest the vitality of a healthy mind in a dying body, to enact both sides of the contradiction. In The Abridged History of Rainfall, Hopler began to use traditional forms and also invented his own forms, a practice he continues in this collection. One of the poets he has cited as an influence on his art is John Berryman, and in an interview with Viviane Eng in The PEN Ten, he said he’d like to have a conversation with Berryman about syntax. Hopler relishes syntactical play, seeing what syntax can do to freshen the page. He uses rhyme, he uses repetition. Wallace Stevens used repetition in his late poems to convey a sense of stasis, the frozen landscape of impending death; Hopler uses it to sing. From the beginning in Green Squall, Hopler’s poems draw tremendous energy from their sound patterns – rhymes, echoes, rhythms. From their music. In fact, Hopler told Reddy that he sees punctuation as musical notation. Significantly, his collection ends with a piece of music composed for him by Paul Rudy. As he states in his notes, “I asked him what he thought I would be if I were a piece of music. This music was his answer.” And under the music, a line of words: “he has been survived” — with no period.

But don’t read Still Life first. Begin at the beginning with Green Squall, poems coming to life in a Florida garden of unremitting fertility in which the young poet is beset with solitude— worries and questions about the meaning of his life. Exuberance, despair, hope, hilarity—it’s all there. (Listen to the title— Green Squall.) The questioning deepens in The Abridged History of Rainfall as he faces grief and the uncertainty of the world upon the loss of a parent.

From my window, I can see the house
Where Galileo invented the telescope.

I wonder what he was thinking
That night, that night he first searched
Heaven. I wonder what it was

He was trying not to see.

(“O, The Sadness Immaculate”)

A still life in painting is called by the French, nature morte—dead nature. A still life “resides in absolute stillness” says the poet Mark Doty. Not Hopler’s Still Life. Life being led through one’s art, in the expectation of imminent death, is still life. And it will break your heart.

Still Life (McSweeny’s Poetry Series, 2022)
The Abridged History of Rainfall (McSweeny’s Poetry Series, 2016)
Green Squall (Yale University Press, 2006)


Alison Turner’s debut collection, The Second Split Between, was the winner of the 2021 Catamaran Poetry Prize for West Coast Poets, as judged by Dorianne Laux.

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