Still Life with the Atlantic Ocean
and Nina Simone as Soundtrack

Wave and gull lament the same soul
Because they share it, just like the rest of us.

They sing its loss,
And therefore claim its permanence

Before itís even born,

Especially in March, in Atlantic City,
When itís easier to walk the untouched sand, graying

While another spring closes in.

And you, too, might try to add a little to the song,

You might sing as loudly as you can
The chorus from Brelís ďNe Me Quitte PasĒ to no one,

Youíll spread your arms and clench your fists
Not unlike Nina Simone,

Who one night, on stage, actually broke
Down right before the end of the last verse:

Laisse-moi devenir
L'ombre de ton ombre
L'ombre de ta mainÖ.

Her grief was so violent she shook.

When the bass player tried to help her
Off stage, she broke his nose,

Not over some unresolved squabble about who
Got paid what, but over who he was notó

Her husband, who had filed for divorce that afternoon.

Those at the club who knew the song
Couldnít have caught the irony, the inevitable clash

Between memory and griefó
Which is not a clash at alló

Because they didnít know the story.

Nor is there anything ironic, now, to speak of.

All you hear is a still life trying to scratch its way
Out of a lament for itself,
what Simone could not sing

That night, from what the crowd expected
To hear, but didnít; or if they did,

Hummed it to themselves as they walked home,
Relieved, more than anything,

Not to be Ms. Simone.

The point of this story is that youíre alone,
That everything ends up pretty OK, a little

Memory inside the grief, a little silence inside
The dark, a little motion inside memory.

So you might feel the Atlantic
Throw its blue riff through your ribs,

So you try to finish the song,
Answering to no one,

So what?

You donít even have to sound good.

All you need to do is believe

That, in this moment,
Stillness is the illusion that goes on and on,

That the Atlanticís grief and Simoneís grief
Are parts of the same illusion that always falls

Into the design of a wave that refuses to break.

This is how itís always been, hasnít it?

Some illusion, like this salt air

That holds your parents now, long before they disappeared,

As far back as any beginning goes, further than 1972,
When a climax became your name;

The night your parents, after a bottle Pinot Noir
And a little Nina Simone on vinyl,

Did their best to destroy time
And ended up with you,

You beginning somewhere,
say Atlantic City,

With an ocean view and ocean sounds,
ocean rhythms,

All that motion fluid, explosive, distinct,
Never slow enough.

You have to live with that fact, just
Like everyone else,
sort of.

What lures you, anyone, back to stillness, finally,
Is a need to know some things

That couldnít be any less personal

Than a waterfall:

That recording of Simone, for example, her purring
On the phonographóher refusal to give in

To the stillness that finally overtook heró

When she actually did finish the song, years before
The breakup,
in the studio,

Her husband behind the soundproof glass, staring,
In awe of her,

Saying something like take a break,
Or keep that oneÖor how do you do


It mustíve seemed important to her,

To know what he said,
and why she never asked


Alexander Long's first two books are Vigil (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2006) and Light Here, Light There (C & R Press, 2009). With Christopher Buckley, he is co-editor of A Condition of the Spirit: the Life & Work of Larry Levis (Eastern Washington UP, 2004). His work has appeared or is forthcoming in AGNI, The American Poetry Review, American Writers (Charles Scribnerís Sons), Blackbird, Callaloo, The Journal, Pleiades, Quarterly West, The Southern Review, Third Coast, and Valparaiso Poetry Review among others. An assistant professor of English at John Jay College, CUNY, Long also plays bass and writes songs with the band Redhead Betty Takeout, and is currently at work on a biography of Larry Levis. He can be found online at (

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761