As a teenager visiting Spain, I encountered a series of still-life paintings that astonished me. Instead of the usual perfect fruits laid out in state on starched tablecloths or gilded plates, galaxies of mold damaged these fruits, the tablecloths had been scorched in the act of ironing them, and the plates were cracked. I stood before the paintings for an hour or more, dazzled and disturbed by their photo-realistic evocations of mortality, reaching out as if to cup a sagging peach in a palm that had not yet considered how time could shrivel it too.
I revisited that moment when I read “Decadence,” a poem in Travis Champ’s collection, Fragments of a Silent Film, where he addresses the ruined works of art in his possession, everything from children’s scribbles to paintings dragged out of storage in an attic for an estate sale: “For countless seasons I’ve held/residency in a museum/of decay and dispossession–/splintered frames/and warped matting/accentuate the sordid/canvases of my collection.”
Still-life paintings and poetry share a preference for the small, the brief, and the fleeting, instants of both beauty and pain that would have escaped otherwise. Things that take up so little space—fruits, napkins—and so little time—dawn light, a meal—can so easily be dismissed. The skeptical or merely practical person might ask, who cares about an apricot waiting in a bowl, going from ripe to overripe to rotten, neglected except for fruit flies and ants? Who cares about a friendship deepened or ruined by a single word or glance? That still-life painting taught me, not just that artists care about those quicksilver flickers in the time-stream, but that art traps such elusiveness long enough for us to consider it, to learn from it, and to be transformed by it.
This power to preserve flashes of light and shadow is a power Travis Champ wields to illuminating and devastating effect.
The museum of wounded art he describes in “Decadence” could represent his own work, and sometimes even himself. In his extended prose-poem As A Ghost Through A City of Millions, he describes himself on a long visit to Mexico City, wandering and dispossessed like the paintings he rescues: “Eyes of the shoe shine men light up when they notice my feet: a new pair of black boots that have yet to be broken in. Sleek, but a shade too narrow. Jagged untrimmed toenails slash and aggravate the skin as I shuffle through the busy Alameda. […] I am young and vain and content to hobble around handsomely. Fending off the advances of men with wooden boxes and brushes. Browsing every sidewalk vendor’s display for a pair of nail clippers” (page 5). What a striking evocation of the twin vanity and pain of youth! Haven’t we all hobbled around, if not in fashionable but uncomfortable shoes, in something else—tight pants, headgear that gives the wearer a headache, or coveted but itchy fabrics?
Mr. Champ does not have to travel all the way to Mexico to find quiet pain, stoically borne, to honor. In “Laneda,” a poem in his collection Old Nehalem Road, he uncovers the sadness beneath the façade of hectic vacation pleasure that drives tourists to coastal towns: “Heavy hearts lead/back to the ocean” (page 13). Local youths wear evidence of their lonely couplings home in “Old Nehalem Road”: “A fragrant bouquet/of smoke and green grass/stains will remain/on the whites/we wore that evening” (page 8).
Handsomely printed and bound in limited editions by Abandon and Nestucca Spit Presses, Mr. Champ’s work looks like jewels, but the words draw readers into the fire, and the flaws, at the heart of those jewels—at the heart of ourselves, at the heart of the world.