Mark Doty's prose has been hailed as "tempered and tough, sorrowing and serene" (The New York Times Book Review) and "achingly beautiful" (The Boston Globe). In Still Life with Oysters and Lemon he offers a stunning exploration of our attachment to ordinary things-how we invest objects with human store, and why.
This book is notable for me for a couple of reasons, firstly, due to it being the first e-book I’ve read - such is my favoring of print, and secondly, because Mark Doty, so unexpectedly, swept me off my feet with his exquisite poetic prose. I don’t think I’ve read a book quite like this,
Walking the galleries of the Upper East side one random day, he comes across a three-hundred and fifty year old still life painting by Jan Davidsz de Heem (so explaining the title of the book) which completely captivates him.
... I have fallen in love with a painting. Though that phrase doesn’t seem to suffice, not really – rather it’s that I have been drawn into the orbit of a painting, have allowed myself to be pulled into its sphere by casual attraction deepening to something more compelling. I have felt the energy and life of the painting’s will; I have been held there, instructed. And the overall effect, the result of looking and looking into its brimming surface as long as I could look, is love, by which I mean a sense of tenderness toward experience, of being held within an intimacy with the things of the world
It is this that springboards him into a melancholic review of the intimacies of his life, as he extrapolates from the effect that the painting has on him to a deeper consideration of the items which are precious to him, and the people that are intertwined with them. Entranced with the still life objects of the painting – the oysters, the slivers of lemon - he muses, ‘these things had a history, a set of personal meanings; they were someone’s'.
This moment of significance takes him completely off-guard - as epiphanies are prone to do - and launches him into a lengthy meditation on the personal items which become part of the histories of our lives, imbued as they are with such personal meaning for each and every one of us. Thus, the blue and white platter, purchased at a second-hand sale and brought home prior to his partner's death, becomes inseparably bound up with reminders of their lives together; this, he slowly and poignantly unravels.
This book is the result of that lyrical wonderment, a deep reverie about how our most special possessions intersect with who we are, who we love, and who we ultimately lose.
I read this book for my Delve Class, now being held on Zoom. I am totally loving it even if we can't access the Portland Art Museum where this class was supposed to be held. (COVID-19)
Doty explores what makes paintings so precious, and furthermore,
Doty is a poet, and the richness of his words cannot be surpassed as he describes the beauty of these paintings and of life. There are no pictures in the book, which forced me to use my imagination to translate his lines of prose into strokes of imagery. Only afterwards did I venture to the internet to look up these Masters' works of art.
And then there is his exploration of the meaning of life.
Here are just a few quotes:
"On one side of the balance is the need for home, for the deep solid roots of place and belonging; on the other side is the desire for travel and motion, for the single separate spark of the self freely moving forward, out into time, into the great absorbing stream of the world.
A fierce internal debate, between staying moored and drifting away, between holding on and letting go. Perhaps wisdom lies in our ability to negotiate between these two poles. Necessary to us, both of them--but how to live in connection with out feeling suffocated, compromised, erased? We long to connect: we fear that if we do, our freedom, and individuality will disappear." (p. 7)
"...a poetic field of objects arrayed against the dark, things somehow joined in a conspiracy of silence, taking place...in the time of art, which is a little nearer to the time of eternity than our poor daily gestures." (p. 15)
"...Goethe commented that he would rather posses the painting of the thing than the sumptuous object itself; the image, as rendered in oil, was more lovely and, finally, more desirable. I agree, but it is the image of the daily world I prefer to own. When both are made of paint, is a cabbage any less precious than a golden cup?" (p. 36)
A moving, erudite meditation on the the way we relate intimately to