Still Life

Books piled by the bed
every night I try but am often
too tired to read
rules, requirements, rhymes.
Newborn phrases struggle
with aborted sentences.
Books piled by the bed, the wall,
on the floor, the table,
in the kitchen, on bookshelves.
My house is overflowing
with books and pencils and papers—
pages filled with scrawled lines of my life—
real, unreal, surreal but mine still.
Pens running dry,
pencils erased raw
and pages worn thin in
books piled by the bed.


Valentine Pierce
from her book Geometry of the Heart
Used by permission of the poet.


For an Art Class

Lesson for Valentine Pierce’s “Still Life”
By Nancy Jaynes

I’d begin by asking students “What are the visual images in this poem?”
Students could pair up to list some of the poem’s visuals.

After student pairs share their lists, I’d point out that the opening and closing lines of the poem are the same. I’d ask students what that might indicate to the reader.

I’d also ask students to look for activity in the poem. As they re-read the poem, I’d ask, “Is there much movement or activity in the poem? What’s happening in this scene? Is anything going on?”

I’d ask someone to read the title, then ask, “What is a still life? In what way is this poem a “Still Life? How could this title be a play on words? How does using that title add to the meaning of the poem or its mood?”

As an activity, I would ask students to create two still life works of a chosen scene or image. (I would be careful to find mood pieces, not images showing activity, but still life scenes with distinct moods.) Students create a word list to describe the still life. Students share their word lists and images, and we discuss the mood of the piece. What is it about the scene that creates a mood? What is it about your words that affect the mood?” Then I’d ask, “Do you think that talking about the mood could help you as you draw a still life?” After this, students sketch the scene using drawing pencils or graphite, or charcoal.

For a Science Class

Lesson Plan for Valentine Pierce’s “Still Life”
by Cassie Sieple

“Still Life” provides a view into the home of the speaker. Books and writing are necessary for some people to thrive.

Discuss the ecological concept of habitat (a place where an organism or a biological population normally lives or occurs containing all of the components needed for survival: food, water, shelter, and space).

Have students free write or journal about their own personal habitat, both things they literally and figuratively could not live without.

Then, ask students to circle ten interesting words in their free write and use these to write a poem.

For fun, students could find a few good words from their science textbook to add to the poem.

Variation: Have students write a descriptive poem about habitat from the perspective of a specific species.

For an English Class

Lesson for Valentine Pierce’s “Still Life”
By Nancy Jaynes

I would ask students to read the poem silently, then read along as class members read it aloud.

Look at poem structure:
I would ask students to pay attention to the differences in the way readers might have changed things up in their read-alouds. I’d asked them what it is about poetry that allows some variation in the sound of the poem. I’d point out how the line breaks can change meaning. I’d ask volunteers to read aloud some other examples of ways this poem could be read differently if the line breaks were changed.
Next, I’d ask students to describe the mood of the poem.
Another read aloud to listen for dominant sounds: How does the presence of abundant sibilants create a (sleepy) atmosphere?
How does the circular ending contribute to the sense of fatigue in the poem?
What specific words add to its mood? Students could work with a partner to create a list of words that contribute to the mood of the poem. Ask each pair of students to read aloud the list. Compile a class list on the board. What mood is evoked by these words? I’d ask students how the mood might affect what tone of voice they would use in reading the poem.

Look at associations such as “running dry,” “erased raw,” “struggle,” “too tired,” “Scrawled lines of my life,” “worn thin.” We would look at juxtapositions of opposites or at least odd pairings: rules and requirements with rhyme (think: “no rhyme or reason”); newborn, aborted; real, unreal, and surreal. We’d discuss shades of meaning.

Finally, in what way is this poem a “Still Life?” How could this be a play on words? What is a still life? How does using that title add to the meaning of the poem or its mood?

Lesson Plan for Valentine Pierce’s “Still Life”
by Cassie Sieple

Secondary English

Read the poem out loud to students. Have them read it again to themselves. Brainstorm as a class, listing the literary devices at work in this poem (such as: hyperbole, repetition, alliteration, enjambment, personification, rhyme). Discuss what impact those devices have on the reader. Then, consider what books mean to the speaker in this poem. Why do books (and writing) seem to have positive and negative connotations in the poem?

Have students write one of two poems inspired by “Still Life.” Encourage students to experiment with literary devices that emphasize their perspective.

Option 1: Think about a time when you had something difficult to do or when something was weighing on your mind. In situations like that, you might daydream as you look around your workspace (your room, the living room, the classroom, the library). Transport yourself to a moment like this and write a poem about where your mind wanders when you feel like you should be doing something else.

Option 2: The speaker in this poem seems unable to escape books. Think of something similar in your life. Is there something that you see or think about or do every day? This may be something you enjoy or resent, or a combination of both. Write a poem emphasizing your feelings toward that presence in your life.

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