A sharp cracking cold day, the air of the Upper East Side full of rising plumes of smoke from furnaces and steaming laundries, exhaust from the tailpipes of idling taxis, flapping banners, gangs of pigeons. Here on the museum steps a flock suddenly chooses to take flight. I have a backache, I’m weary, and it couldn’t matter less, for this whole scene – the crowd and hustle on the museum steps, which seem alive all day with commerce and hurry, with gatherings and departures – is suffused for me with a warmth, because I have fallen in love with a painting.
So begins Mark Doty’s latest book of nonfiction, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, new from Beacon Press. Not exactly an essay (too long), not exactly a memoir (not long enough), the book is an extended meditation on painting, the nature of representation, memory and life.
Like Doty’s poems, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon is characterized by his exquisite eye for detail. “We are all moving, just now, in the light that has come toward me through a canvas the dize of a school notebook; we are all walking in the light of a wedge of lemon, four oysters, a half-glass of wine, a cluster of green grapes with a few curling leaves still attached to their stem.” Later he describes each element more: the way the lemon curl peels in the glass, the “[s]himmery, barely solid bodies of oysters, shucked in order to allow their flesh to receive every ministration of light.”
Still life paintings seem simple, but make profound assertions, he says. “That there can never be too much of reality; that the attempt to draw nearer to it-which will fail-will not fail entirely, as it will give us not the fact of lemons and oysters but this, which is its own fact, its own brave assay towards what is.”
Dutch paintings, particularly Jan Davidsz de Heem’s “Still Life with Oysters and Lemon,” receive here the focus of Doty’s lens. So, too, do the wealth of objects he remembers emerging from his grandmother’s purse in the 1950s. “And here are all the beautiful contents of my Mamaw’s purse, each laid out, barely touching the other, each made poignant with distance and time. Here in the center, in a footed silver dish brought back by one of my aunts who was a
missionary in Korea, a sparkling dragon circling its rim, the peppermints anchor and glow, sparkling in their little skins of cellophane.”
The peppermints were a constant in his grandmother’s hands, but they made a permanent impression the day Doty’s family went to see the bears. The family trekked into Tennessee to see the bears, black shapes emerging from black forest, and they were not disappointed. Mamaw even offered them peppermints, leaving a line of the candies on the stone wall by the edge of the field where they appeared.
When I had the pleasure of hearing Doty lecture at the Bennington Writing Seminars in 1998, he read us one of his favorite poems, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose.” (Geography III is, he said, one of the books which accompanies him everywhere.) The bear episode he describes in Still Life with Oysters and Lemon is the same kind of encounter with the other, with something numinous, that Bishop describes in her verse.
So, too, is Doty’s encounter with de Heem’s painting, which-while not alive-has been imbued with a kind of life. What kind of life that is, exactly, is one of the questions I think Doty ultimately answers in this slim book.
I am a longtime afficionado of Doty’s poems, especially those in My Alexandria and the more recent Sweet Machine. The latter was written at roughly the same time as his memoir Heaven’s Coast, about the last years of his partner Wally’s life in their home in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In both of the latter two, Doty’s fascination with the luminous and the broken – winter light, old sequins, the process of dying, shards of china washed up by the sea – come clear. Still Life with Oysters and Lemon feels to me like a descendent of these books. Although another memoir, Firebrand, came between them chronologically, this is the one which carries on their theme of the mysterious, tragic yet ultimately joyful temporariness which characterizes human life.
Here, as in other books, Doty recalls attending auctions with Wally in search of antiques with which to furnish their home. He describes the worn furniture and odd etched wineglasses they acquired, the way these things acquired beauty through use. He says almost the same thing of a painting whose paint has dissolved. “And so the paint of the quince has crumbled, at the surface, breaking Nellius’ illusion, and making the sweet autumn sheen of his painting-brandy-warm, tinged with smoke and the scent of ripe leaves-that much sadder and that much more alive.”
The paintings, the coastline, the Vermont auctions of a lost decade: all of these things come to the reader through the matrix of Doty’s memory and language. He is not unaware of his filtering role. After describing his childhood Magic 8 Ball, he writes “Now I think there is a space in me that is like the dark inside of that hollow sphere, and things float up into view, images that are vessels of meaning, the flotsam and detail of any particular moment. Vanished things.”
Vanished things are necessarily important when one is considering a still life painted three hundred years ago. (Or, for that matter, an attic packed wall-to-wall with the leftovers of a life.) Why, he wonders, do these paintings retain their sense of intimacy when those who painted them, and the objects within them, are so long gone? What should be meaningful about a centuries-old painting of asparagus, for God’s sake?
Maybe, he concludes, it is because the “gaze which binds us to the world” is what soul, or spirit, is; because still life paintings distill gaze, therefore spirit, to their “quietest, most startling essence.”
“Certainly this is true of poetry, the poems of the dead,” he points out. “Where there was a person, a voice, a range and welter of experience compressed into lines and images, now there are only lines and images. Where there was a life, now there is a form. A still life is more like a poem than it is like a portrait.” And this book is more like a still life than like an ordinary essay or memoir.
I know that all of this might be taken as precious, a hymn to so much useless beauty, in an hour when the notion of beauty is suspect-when it seems to suggest a falsely bright view of the world, or a narrow set of aesthetic principles related to the values of those in power, an oppressive construction.
And indeed it might be so, were what matters about still life simply confined to the museum. But still life is about the given. And in both senses of the word: that which is always at hand, which we take for granted, and that which is offered, proffered, which the world provides for us.
In the title essay of her 1995 Art Objects, Jeanette Winterson writes, “Long looking at paintings is equivalent to being dropped in a foreign city, where gradually, out of desire and despair, a few key words, then a little syntax make a clearing in the silence. Art, all art, not just painting, is a foreign city, and we deceive ourselves when we think it is familiar.”
Winterson’s essay, like Doty’s book, begins with her sudden and irrevocable tumble into the world of a Dutch painting. Over the course of the essay she explores notions of art, authenticity and authority, and the need for (and rewards of) engaging deeply with seemingly-silent paintings. If art is not relevant to one’s life, she writes, one must ask what has happened to one’s life, not what has happened to art – the latter question is too easy an escape.
I did not escape. At an Amsterdam gallery I sat down and wept. When I sold a book I bought a Massimo Rao. Since that day I have been filling my walls with new light.
In exploring the nature of still lifes (I almost want to say still lives), Doty arrives at conclusions about the nature of humanity, about being in the world. This small book, like the still lifes it describes, is both exquisite and important. There’s more in it than meets the eye.
Like the Dutch paintings I have spent so much of today reading about, Still Life With Oysters and Lemon carries a light of its own.