by Mark Doty
(Beacon Press) $20
In the extended essay Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, poet Mark Doty's sumptuous writing finds its artistic analogue in Dutch still life paintings of the late 1600s. Both lavish attention on the everyday objects often overlooked, calling us to new vision.
The style of still life was distilled to paintings smaller than a sheet of notebook paper, focused on small collections of everyday items caught in time's decay: Beert's shimmering oysters and Coorte's delicate asparagus rendered in painstaking detail. Doty's poetry finds similar resonance: Careful consideration of "A Green Crab's Shell" leads to something like a soul, and fog is a pervasive metaphor for language and other imprecisions. Doty's latest work is inspired by his love of these paintings. Still Life with Oysters and Lemons is a deft commixture of art history, memoir, ars poetica, and philosophy, using memories of peppermint candy, close readings of Cavafy, and accounts of an Amsterdam bathhouse to consider our relation to objects, to beauty, and to death.
A painting by Jan Davidsz de Heem at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art is Doty's entry point. Among its contents are "shimmery, barely solid bodies of oysters, shucked in order to allow their flesh to receive every ministration of light." But the most consideration is given to the strips of lemon peel with which artists displayed their virtuosity of texture and light. Starting with Bachelard on intimacy, Doty sees our tension between independence and attachment reflected in the lemons, "held to scrutiny's light, fixed in a moment of fierce attention." The fruit is common, part of an everyday tableau, but the painting elevates it to the center of attention, presented to us intricately and lovingly. "As if here our desire to be unique, unmistakable, and our desire to be of a piece were reconciled. Isn't that it, to be yourself and somehow, to belong? For a moment, held in balance." This is all within the book's first 10 pages. The intensity of ideas is varied with accounts of Doty's life, touchstone encounters with objects and their influence.
Works of visual art are a frequent muse for Doty, perhaps the best setting for his dense writing. Still Life is Doty's third book of prose, although his rich writing renders the distinction from his five books of poetry questionable. With its variety, Still Life serves well as a sampler of Doty's work. Much more on his childhood is found in Firebird, which also traces his aesthetic education and is named for the Stravinsky piece that sent a nine-year-old dancing around the classroom, the first time art possessed him. Many of the poems in Turtle, Swan, his first collection, draw on the same experiences, and the books work well together, providing two vantage points into the same space.
Fixation on beauty is risky, and Doty knows it. If the impact of paintings were restricted to museums, "if they elided death, the fact of our quick transits in time," the attention we give them would be suspect. But art has a much greater radius of power. In Firebird, Doty argues that beauty leads to clarity and credits art for saving his life. The still life paintings, he states, "fill me with the pleasure of being bound to the material, implicated, part of a community of attention-giving." What redeems this beauty-obsession is the breadth of its application: The Dutch painters began by portraying evidence of their society's prosperity, painting expansive banquets with vessels of silver and gold, but they evolved to smaller scales and simpler compositions, focusing on "the poetry of relation."
Doty, too, is an evangelist of beauty. Fortunately, like the Dutch painters whose fruit was shown rotted, the wine glasses half empty, his praise is coupled with a message of universality: He lauds the beauty of both Tiffany glass and drug addicts on the subway. Both he and this art he loves call us to a deeper, more appreciative vision of the entire world.
Mark Doty reads Fri March 23, 7:30 pm at the Museum of History & Industry, 2700 24th Ave E, free admission on a first-come, first-serve basis; call 386-4650 for more information.