From the moment I started reading Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, I knew I was going to start re-reading this book the minute I finished it. Poetry is like that and, apparently, so is this lucid memoir and meditation by poet Mark Doty.
I quoted from Doty’s book in an earlier blog about my unwieldy collection of cloud photographs and the strange new art of virtual collections. Though Doty does not write about clouds per se, his thoughts on still life painting are of interest to me as the working title of my next book is Still Life with Clouds.
I have never heard of Doty until I read a New York Times article by Rob Walker, which quoted him and mentioned his book. Though Doty's Still Life with Oysters and Lemon is ostensibly about a still life painting by 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Davidsz de Heem, Doty moves gracefully from the canvas to explore the art of seeing, intimacy, beauty, and life.
Ibegan reading this slim seventy-page essay on the runway before taking off from
And now my problem. Explaining, paraphrasing, summing up, describing Still Life with Oysters and Lemon. What I would really like to do is start with page one and retype the entire book here for you to savor. It’s that beautiful and irreducible. However, I will start with a quote.
“…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 with an intimacy with things of this world.”
|Still Life with Clouds (photo by M. Ruth through a sailboat window)|
Strangely, this is what comes over me when I look at a cloud. Strangely, because a cloud is not still, not alive, and too distant really for intimacy.
Yet, I find the clouds as compelling and inviting as the painting Doty has fallen in love with--a small canvas composed of shucked oysters, curling lemon peels, a cluster of grapes, and a shining goblet of wine—not water droplets and ice crystals constantly moving, constantly changing form. Jan Davidsz de Heem’s painting captures a table set 350 years ago, forever fixing the relationship between carefully arranged object. The curls of lemon peel will always curl just so, the lemon wedge will always rest on the grapes, the glistening oysters will never stray from the edge of the brown wooden table, everything will remain clustered around the sparkling goblet, the light will never change, and decay will never taint the soft, ripe air.
Yet still-life paintings are never still, even though the living things in them have been stilled—the lemon and grapes plucked, the oyster shucked, the greenery cut, and the wine long ago separated from the life-giving vine. Our restless imaginations go to work changing them—warming wine, shriveling the oysters, drying the lemon, browning the grapes. We hear the buzz of the fly, smell the fragrance of decay, see the hands of servant or artist himself clearing and resetting the table, shaking out the tablecloth.
We keep the still life moving by adding the element of time to the painting. And though the stories of the artist and his feast are lost to us, we enliven the feast with our own stories. We reach for the goblet, taste the wine, recall our first oyster (maybe also our last), think about the oyster beds, the ocean bays and inlets, the vineyard, the window where the sun pours in from the left, what is outside the window. We break the serene silence of the still life with sounds of the market, the clopping horses on the cobblestones, the gulls, the fruit vendors, and (because we cannot help ourselves) fish mongers and huge wooden clogs. I am looking at Jan de Heem’s painting now, the one on the back cover of Mark Doty’s book, and this is exactly what happened.
So what exactly happened? A kind of intimacy. With the painting, with the eye of the painter. And with the "I" of the painter. We inhabit for a brief time the soul of the painter. We see through him.
From the experience of looking at this particular painting, Doty moves to wonderful stories of his grandmother's striped peppermint candies, of other still-life paintings, lost loves, yard sales, of chipped blue-and-white platter, and new loves. And they all express the highest value: intimacy.
“...what we want is to be brought into relation, to be inside, within...But then why resist intimacy, why seem to flee it? A powerful countercurrent pulls against our drive toward connection: we also desire individuation, separateness, freedom. On one side of the balance is the need for home, for the deep solid roots of place and belonging; on the other 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.This is the banquet Doty lays out for his readers--a feast for a cloud watcher studying themes of restlessness and sense of place.
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 without feeling suffocated, compromised, erased? We long to connect; we fear that if we do, our freedom and individuality will disappear.”