States of Poetry 2017 - ACT | 'Still life' by Isi Unikowski

Still Life

As if all the world’s ravel, its bright course
of device were to stream through a pinhole in the side
of a box and emerge into a corridor of Delft tiles
on which tiny figures from childhood or a dream semaphore
at my self-portrait, ghostly pentimento in its dun
vestments, and the servant drying linen in the dunes;
the images unclear, inverted. Details
such as these meant something to us once, we’d
have recognised the tulips, citrus, overturned bouquet,
understood why a chalice struts on damask drapes.
Now language falters; out of my time I gape
at the mantel, a strand of dropped
cargo, the tendered quay
at which ships ready their serene freight;
ponder an hourglass, insects, the gap
that sets beyond reach the risqué
hare proffered to an abandoned lute
pewter languor of a herring on its plate
crimson fruit chased in lattice light.

Isi Unikowski

Traditional still life painting raises all sorts of questions about contemporary popular culture as a distinct space, with its own laws, language, and cultures that interact with, but are distinct from its social and economic foundations. I’m interested in how the signifiers and visual metaphors worked in traditional still life painting, in a way that was commonly understood and integrated with wider cultural settings. Do those mechanisms still apply today, or has ‘meaning’ become impoverished, capable only of being widely communicated in a debased and alienating form?