Monday 28 January 2013

Mark Doty: Tenderness and Style

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon is the title of a painting by Jan Davidsz de Heem (above)  that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York - or rather it was the title; it was recently changed to Still Life with a Glass and Oysters, ignoring that glorious curl of lemon. But it still the title of a rather wonderful slim volume - a long essay really - by the American poet Mark Doty, which I've just read. 
Doty's small book begins with an encounter with De Heem's painting and takes off into a heartfelt meditation on our attachment to things, their place in our lives. Doty's brilliant analysis of the power of the Dutch still life interweaves with scenes - and objects - from his own life, from the red-and-white-spiral mints that his grandmother always carried, to memories of his wife's mother and her house (it was an early, doomed marriage), rummaging and collecting with his late partner (death is ever present here), things seen and picked up, things that stayed in his life, others that were lost... He finds in the Dutch still life a celebration of abundance, of the pleasures of the senses, the fall of light on objects, their Presence, their Thisness. The most commonplace things are intensely seen and celebrated for their own sake, as in Adriean Coorte's Still Life with Asparagus, which is simply a bunch of asparagus painted with meticulous attention, against a brown darkness, the bundled stalks brought (or restored) to the fullness of their being by the act of concentrated attention. 
Towards the end of his essay, Doty ponders the relationship between painting and poetry, seeing both as essentially unparaphrasable; they can only exist as they are, in the form they are in. Whatever he says about a painting will always fall short, will always miss an element of mystery - its 'poetry'. Part of that poetry, Doty concludes in his beautiful closing sentences, is 'the inner life of the dead, held in suspension. It is still visible to us; you can look at the paintings and you can feel it. This is evidence that a long act of seeing might translate into something permanent, both of ourselves and curiously impersonal, sturdy, useful.
  Of what use, exactly? As advocates of intimacy, as embodiments of paradox, as witnesses to earth, here, this moment, now. Evidence, thus, that tenderness and style are still the best gestures we can make in the face of death.'

No comments:

Post a Comment