Still Life—Writing Room, 2011-2019

Alexandria Peary

Tack holes and nail holes, shiny strips of tape, dents, scuff marks, small stains, black smudge at the edge of a wall where cats rub their scent glands, cob webs in little drifts, water stain on ceiling above the pink wall, unidentifiable stains in dingy carpet below the pink. I’ve stared into this pink for thousands of practice hours.

[Lists are shelves across a page.]

The Benjamin Moore Classic Color sample packet from Home Depot shows a range of pink—pink powderpuff, newborn baby, pink paradise, pink polka dot, Tucson coral, picante, piñata, pale pink satin, blushing brilliance, pink canopy, paradise peach, coral reef, fan coral, soft shell, Bermuda pink, phoenix sand, orchid pink, rose blush, rosetta, sharon rose, pink moiré, precocious, conch shell, crazy for you, farmer’s market, nautilus shell, rosebud, forever young, cameo rose, daylily and—closer to the purples—rose lace, pink panther, cotton candy, unspoken love, Tara, hummingbird, princess, prom dress, rose rococo, petunia pink, engagement, Palermo rose, tippy toes, hearts delight, secret garden, pink buff, cinco de mayo, marry me, fantasy pink, Brighton rock candy, venetian rose, badlands, sailor’s delight, minstrel heart, smashing pink, all-a-blaze, bird of paradise, habanero pepper, sweet 16, confetti, potpourri, Milano red, yours truly, bed of roses, heartbeat, Florida pink, may flowers, bubble path, gypsy rose, ballet slippers, cat’s meow, romance, pretty in pink, cactus flower, powder blush, misted rose, pink ribbon, secret rendezvous, Bermuda breeze, island sunset, pink ladies, razzle dazzle, pink dynasty, rose garden, wild heart, peppermint, misty rose, countryside pink, Melrose pink, rose mist, primrose petals, baby’s mittens, hidden sanctuary, peace and happiness.

The closest match between the paint swatches and the walls of my study is cat’s meow, but if I say Pepto Bismol pink, you’ll really see it. This pink says girl but not baby girl. It’s the pink in card stock that comes in office shades of yellow, pink, blue, and mint green. The room I write in at age forty nine is the exact shade and probably the same paint brand as the room I began writing in at fourteen.

If I listen closely, I hear the gallon paint can opened with the claw end of a hammer, smell the fumes, see a wooden stirrer like an enormous tongue compressor blending the paint and then lie across a sheet of newspaper. I send my avatar ahead, a tiny figure small as a byline who moves like a scuba diver through the pink. It might be hard to breath while swimming through that color, though not deadly, not like drowning in a vat of paint, more the chalky smell-taste associated with a sick day on the couch. Pink would definitely put up resistance like how the drapery of femininity holds you back. Pink makes it harder though not impossible to move ahead, this color of a pronoun. If I could give a name to this shade of pink, it would be pronoun pink or write now.

This pink is the backdrop for the tacked and taped-up postcards, photos, quotes and notes, Post-its, letters, and clippings on the wall over the desk. The pink is behind this paragraph. It’s the margin around this sentence. (Versus baby blue male, your position as secret victim of blue men, their blue use of you as a pawn in a system, how they rig the systems of blue, their throwing you under the blue bus blue.)


The bands of your looking hold up this scene, maybe assisted by the tape of and. [The commas are hand painted.]


Post-it notes on the wall behind laptop: We are empty because we are empty of independent existence; 2:06 pm 12/28/2017; smiley face and RELAX!;“If I think I must write one book, all the problems of how this book should be and how it should not be block me and keep me from going forward.” (Italo Calvino).


In 1903, Francis Whiting Halsey published Women Authors of Our Day in Their Homes to showcase how authorship had become a legitimate income source for women. It was a few years after the hyper masculine still-life of William Harnett and John Peto. These two male artists tricked the eye with arrangements of men’s possessions on faux backdrops—flaking green paint on a door, rusting nail, hinges, dusty shelves, furniture with holes from missing handles, peeled-off signage or half of an advertisement—in paintings called “A Bachelor’s Drawer” and “Faithful Colt.” They painted piles of books, musical instruments, horseshoes or pistols—or bulletin boards with playing cards, ticket stubs, nudie postcards, paper money, sheet music, newspaper clippings, etchings of Abe Lincoln, playing cards, and correspondence held in place by tight bands and straps. When Halsey interviewed female authors in their homes and studies, he was surrounded by bric-a-brac, collections of paperweights or rosaries, landscape paintings, knickknacks of cats, pictures of children. He reported on their summer homes, cottages in Maine and second houses in India, and rhapsodized that one woman’s study was “amid the waterfalls and mountain solitudes in this bit of Switzerland in America.” Of Margaret Deland, a fiction writer in Boston, MASS, “Mrs. Deland’s home is as individual as her work or herself and conveys the charm of associations garnered from the home she has made real in her books.” Concerning Mrs. Craigie, “A dainty desk is conspicuous, covered with all sorts of pretty appliances and ornaments. It is a literary workshop of ease and comfort, with no suggestion that the Muses ever act as slave-drivers over the charming occupant.” During an interview, Louise Chandler Moulton deflects, “I am the laziest author alive” because she writes out of interest, not for money, and doesn’t maintain a daily discipline, though twelve books are attributed to her. Another author, “the most womanly women in the field of literature today,” wrote in a suite in New York City’s Windsor Hotel before it was mysteriously destroyed by a “great calamity” that “swept that hotel off the earth.”


Post-it notes on desk surface: Sophia/vaccine?; repot plant; get bloodwork done; register for NEATE; “Hunting is not the Heads on the Wall.”

List of people tacked or taped on wall: Clarice Lispector in Bern in 1946 or 1947; Jesus; the terracotta youth in the “The Diver”; Anthony Bourdain; John Ashbery in New York Times obit; George Saunders on poster for his reading at Boston University; my daughters (wallet-sized school photos from two years ago); Buddha.


My avatar reaches the first pink room, a boxy space on the ground floor of a raised ranch with a window looking onto the leach field, blueberry bushes, and dwarf fruit trees. The overhead light fixture rattled whenever a family member walked across the kitchen. I still write close to kitchen sounds. Microwave, water boiling in the electric kettle, dishware—these sounds travel horizontally, from beyond the wall shared by the kitchen and my study.

Between that pink room and this pink room are a stack of other rooms, none pink, none baby blue, places I’ve spent my hours in, writing through my twenties, my thirties, forties. Rooms like a stack of Post-it notes.


Seasonal details: a space heater if it’s fall/winter, a tiny desk fan for the dog days of summer, and the weeks in between with neither appliance in the room.

My desk is from Target and is missing its handles. This office chair I’ve sat in for fifteen years was given to me by an ex-boyfriend when he moved to California. I was sitting in this chair when my water broke for my second baby: an occurrence that literally happened a few seconds after I had finished a long project and wrote in my journal, “So I wonder what will happen next?” I’ve sat in this chair, the vinyl scarred by cats, more than any other chair in my life.

A long, low shelf with piles of articles, drafts, file folders, resources, research from my last book, still not removed from the study but by the time I finish this sentence, it’s gone, put in recycling or in storage in a plastic bin in our barn, or returned to the library.

On nearby bookshelves: a Coca Cola bottle thermometer from my parents’ convenience store (1976-1997), two wooden Buddha statues, rusty door hinge from Tuscany, lava from Pompeii and Mt. Etna, dead cell phone, box of pine incense, a red Turkish bowl, photo of footsteps in snow when the tom cat came back home after a two day blizzard, wind-up monkey that crashes cymbals, small statue of a skeleton (cotton ball for hair) posed at a desk with a typewriter, ink and pen.


A vanitas veritas, these two arrangements are to the left of the laptop: The Middle Length Discourses with two small-sized Post-it notes; The Long Discourses of the Buddha (no Post-its), these are horizontal as though on a book shelf; then a stack of books laid vertically: Against Express- (rest of title covered up by a holiday card); I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women; The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector; Walter Benjamin’s The Arcade Project, its spine has a yellow small Post-it with a poetry press deadline; three small purple Post-its with other book contests; Tender Buttons; followed by ITALO CALVINO If on a winter’s night a traveler; italo calvino Cosmicomics (a gift on my wedding day from a fellow writer I haven’t heard from since); Fakes; Benabou’s Why I Haven’t Written Any of My Books which is nearly covered by a row of four differently colored Post-its with four different open reading periods for poetry presses which in turn completely cover an issue of the Cimarron Review, except for the word ISSUE on the far left, Volume 43; the Colorado Review Fall/Winter 2016; Denver Quarterly; HE BD OM ER OS: A Novel by Giorgio de Chirico; The Writer and Psychoanalysis; Murakami’s Vintage Classic The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle topped by The Crisis of Infinite Worlds / Dana Ward / Futurepoem, Two Novels by Robbe-Grillet, and Meridian, Winter 2018, above which is a postcard of a cloud by Roy Lichtenstein.


People like to visit the studies and studios of famous dead writers and artists. Tourists feel a thrill to be standing in front of a cordoned-off desk or easel, the same spot as famous so-and-so, the moth-eaten jacket, the dead pen. It’s a fascination scholars belittle as romanticism, as a worship of the author figure at the expense of those who can’t afford the privacy of a closed door. But painters who have made their studios the subject of their work have known for a long time that talking about their work space is a form of love. It gives credit to the few square feet of space that made everything worthwhile possible. It’s a portrait of the grungy first place and the hardworking first moment alongside the more polished productions.


A stubby Ikea pencil. A jar from Italy that originally held capers but now holds Le Pen pens.


The once beige shag carpet is so stained it looks like a car air filter needing to be replaced. The closet door has fallen off its track and leans in. Much of the short sale house is in its original condition, the paint so thin on the upstairs bathroom walls, never touched up, it’s like an undercoat to the invisible. It’s like the ghost of paint.

The room I write in is on the first floor. I’ll probably be over the age of fifty by the time we renovate the room—I’ll finally have my first non-shabby writing space thirty eight or so years after I started to write. With furniture that isn’t from Goodwill. Over the past eight years, my husband has renovated one room after the next, such that my study and the upstairs bathroom are the only rooms that represent the house in its original state. The wall color suggests a little girl’s bedroom—this pink is not a color for when an elderly mother-in-law moves in or for a TV room—though the room has a sliding glass door leading to the back deck, not a little girl bedroom detail.


On a sentence that’s functioning as a shelf lumpy with candle wax:

In Picturing a Nation: Art and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century America (Yale University Press 1994), David Lubin states that “At the level of iconography” trompe l’oeil painting “eschewed the impersonal commodity and the femininized commodity realm from what appeared to be a world of objects that were personal and manly… Like Barnum’s customers who got to be tricked and at the same time see through the trickery, trompe l’oeil viewers got to feel masculinely superior to the female commodity realm and yet at the same time enjoy acts of gazing and visually possessing.” (295)


Michael sits with headphones in the living room reading the Sunday newspaper. I am embarrassed to say how long it took me to stop asking to be included in the orbit of male artists. The betrayals, barbs, arrogance; a look exchanged at a bar between two male painters who are up to no good; the poems sent after the election with female genitalia on a tree branch; the putting-in-your-place, disinterest and dismissal of accomplishment; the radio silence with news of accomplishment when it’s mine, email dropping off for months. Here I am in a marriage to a non-writer where I have my own space, donated by a man who has given up his own. Poor guy doesn’t have a-room-of-his own. His sacrifice of this room for my study is one of the main kindnesses in our marriage.


A stack of writing rooms:

I have worked in this room for eight years, since the summer of 2011.

Before that, it was a narrow room, more like a passageway (2004-2010). The walls were a faint lilac. Our second baby slept in her crib in this room and before her, our first daughter, and a few decades earlier, my brother-in-law, since that apartment was my husband’s childhood home.

Before that, I wrote in a miniscule room (2000-2003) in an apartment in New Hampshire. The room barely fitted a filing cabinet, a futon with a red cover, a book case, and a writing desk.

Before that, I wrote in Baton Rouge in an immense apartment (1999-2000) furnished only with a desk, chair, kitchen table, and mattress on the floor. The furniture was lent to me by the landlord who handed me a Super Bowl ring slipped from his finger.

Before that, the rooms I rented in graduate school with sloppily painted walls and college dorm rooms with durable, institutional mattresses. In that first dorm room, the white spires of the pink canopy bed are visible, where I wrote my first poem in 1983, a poem about my brother.


# of old writing journals. I used to be afraid of my journals. When I write, the journals stand behind me, filling four feet of a book shelf. I used to associate them with failure, though I have come to appreciate the long term of prewriting, distance from readers. Currently, the shelves hold 42 Dollar Store variety composition notebooks; 22 sketch pads; 40 notebooks, some steno, some college-ruled; and 6 cloth bound journals. I dust all of them every Saturday. The most recent notebook is dated August 14, 2019. The oldest notebook begins, “Jan. 1 to Jan. 2 1980. Today is the first day of 1980. My father helped us bury Tiger. For Tiger got killed. I am wearing my new head brace to bed. I have to get used to it.”

# of books and in which genre. Currently, this room contains 881 books, poetry as the predominant volume (John Ashbery the most representative poet followed by Laura Mullen), with books on mindfulness and Buddhism in second place, closely followed by books on rhetoric. I do not include literary journals or glossy magazines in this tally. The oldest book in the collection, my first purchase, is a copy of John Ashbery’s Selected Poems, published by Viking Penguin in 1985. It is not the oldest chronologically—that would be one of the nineteenth-century textbooks I’ve collected to my immediate right on a slim shelf near the glass slider to the deck, G. P. Quackenbos’ Course of Composition and Rhetoric: A Series of Practice Lessons, published in New York in 1854, with the owner’s inscription, Ellen D. Shuly, Given on Nov. 5th,1856 . The most recent purchase is Rachel Cusk’s Kudos. Cross that out: during the revision of this essay, the most recent purchase is Richard Ford’s Rock Springs. Cross that out: it’s Diane Williams, Collected Stories.


The piece of paper I just peeled from the pink wall over the desk said, “Map of Manuscript,” roman numerals setting out scenes, three Post-Its on the side with after thoughts, one Post-it entirely faded, the words no longer visible. We are empty because we are empty of independent existence.


This copy of Ashbery’s Selected Poems lacks a cover, is held together by a dingy rubber band, and a yellow Post-it juts from its side. The first page functions as a cover and is stained with ink and coffee. The back cover has an edge of grime from where the spine has been exposed, like the concrete of an overpass. The mottled pastel cover design gives the book the appearance of age spots. I could easily replace my copy with a better looking one because the 1985 edition is available secondhand for as little as $5 on Amazon. Selected Poems was the first poetry book I bought, at a franchise called Mr. Paperback, a cross between a bookstore and greeting card shop, in a strip mall with a Fashion Bug, a health food store, and a hobby shop with a miniature train rolling all seasons through a Christmas landscape. The book merchandise at Mr. Paperback was sparse, and this Ashbery was arranged cover-out. I’d wandered to the skimpy literature section as my mother shopped. I am not sure what possessed me to buy with my allowance the book so completely different from anything taught in junior high school. It sat unread for years, and even then, I reacted to it by rejecting my classmates’ adoration of Ashbery, until another student typed out “‘How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher…’” like someone making a mixed tape for a crush. In 2019, Ashbery’s obituary is tacked above a shrine with a 1960’s sky blue Smith Corona manual typewriter and Mexican day of the dead skull. This altar stands three feet to the right of the desk.


A visitor to my study might amaze, “you’ve read all these books?” It’s the kind of question family members might ask—the people who supported my higher education but did not have the chance to attend themselves. The assumption is that if you bought all these books, you must have read them or at least have concrete plans to read them. Books are just bands of color along the walls. It’s not uncommon for me to read a book more than a decade after its purchase. I might purchase a novel in a used bookstore in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, in 1997 but only begin reading it in 2019. What lets me pick up a book kept around unread for so long? It’s almost like a memory that only now can be handled. Think of those books as painted-on, tricks of the eye, because they have not been read.



Alexandria Peary serves as the Poet Laureate of New Hampshire and is a recent recipient of an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship. She is the author of six books, including Control Bird Alt Delete (University of Iowa Press 2014); Prolific Moment: Theory and Practice of Mindfulness for Writing (Routledge 2018); and The Water Draft (Spuyten Duyvil 2019). Her writing has appeared in the Yale Review, North American Review, web Conjunctions, Boston Review, Hotel Amerika, Volt, Denver Quarterly, Diode, New American Writing, Gettysburg Review, Cimarron Review, Spoon River Review, and Barrow Street. Her 2019 TEDx talk, "How Mindfulness Can Transform the Way You Write" is available on YouTube.