What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life by Mark Doty

What Is the Grass is literary criticism and explication, memoir and meditation, and the kind of fine, evocative, thoughtful prose that Mark Doty does best.


It was part of Walt Whitman’s extraordinary innovation with Leaves of Grass to close time and space, to bring his observations and a sense of intimacy to each reader who finds him. It feels perfectly natural that acclaimed poet and memoirist Mark Doty (Dog Years; Still Life with Oysters and Lemon; Deep Lane) chooses to receive, interpret and muse upon these transmissions with What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life.

Doty, like Whitman, is gifted with words, a lover of beauty and of men, a New Yorker. He feels haunted by the elder poet, sees and smells him in the museum of Whitman’s home, again encounters his ghost “above the shoulders of a bedmate on a winter afternoon early in the twenty-first century, in an apartment tower in Hell’s Kitchen.” What Is the Grass is a close reading of Whitman’s great work, but also of American poetry, same-sex love, the exuberance of the physical body, myriad cultural shifts and Doty’s own life.

As is his habit, Doty’s mind on the page wanders widely. Considering a “weird period piece of art porn,” he realizes that “even in the imagined paradise of limitless eros, there must be room for death.” Indeed, death is the fifth of five sources Doty identifies for Whitman’s genius, by which he organizes this book. First, “an experience… of transforming character, loosening the doors from their jambs,” some life-changing moment or moments in Whitman’s life. The second source, “The Unwriteable,” is vigorously, jubilantly celebrated queer sexuality; here and throughout, Doty considers his loves and lovers, relationships and travels.

Next the very city, the “great stream and pulse of life” that is Manhattan, and then language itself, the lovely trips and surprises and sensuous effects and all the multitudinous details to be found in the Crystal Palace exhibition, “at which examples of practically everything human endeavor had created up to 1853 were on display.” Add to this slang and regionalisms, and “these words splash onto the page in Whitman’s first edition, as if a dam holding back a flood of new speech had been dynamited, all at once, by the force of a single poem.”

The fifth source of Whitmanian genius is death, “that strong and delicious word,” which Doty as well must wrestle with. “I’ve seen a man I loved die, and it seemed to me a pure liberation.” But “time avails not, distance avails not,” as Whitman and Doty each repeat, and the latter helps navigate the former. Readers should be prepared to dig out a copy of Leaves of Grass (or find one: “there is a copy of the Leaves in every used bookstore, everywhere in the nation, count on it”) upon reading this book, which makes an indispensable companion and guide. Arriving finally at “the poet’s greatest glory, and the exegete’s inescapable defeat,” in the end, Doty reminds us that Whitman’s “words accomplish what words cannot,” and exits quietly.


This review originally ran in the March 20, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 lines I’d consider tattooing on my body.

reread: Still Life With Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty

This is my third review of this book – sorry if you’re getting bored! – and I’m probably close to ten times reading it, what with it being near the center of both my critical essay and my graduate seminar. Obviously a favorite. This time, I am motivated by Jessie van Eerden’s seminar, “Valley of Dry Bones: Bringing Non-Narrative Prose to Life” (see also Monday’s post). Because I’m traveling and almost all my books are in storage, I bought a fresh copy. (As I’m graduated and attending these seminars not for credit but for fun, Jessie encouraged me to skip the reread, but really.) It was a joyous adventure to mark up a clean copy: you may recall I rarely mark up books at all, but this one is special, and I went for it. I’m pretty sure my markings are very different this time around, which is an interesting story. When I have the two side-by-side one day, I will certainly compare them, which may make for a fourth blog post! Welcome to pagesofjulia, the Still Life With Oysters and Lemon blog… (First two posts here and here.)

This is an increasingly perfect book, at least for this reader, and as is the case with books like this, every read deepens it for me. On my first reading, I definitely didn’t get the full impact; I know the second was significantly more rewarding, but each time since, I see more through-lines and subtle echoes, and I am more appreciative of the lovely language and imagery. The narrator has just given a man a ride home:

On the front porch of the unpainted wooden shotgun house, his ancient wife sat reading her Bible aloud, Praise the Lord after every passage, and as Chris led me inside, she said, Chris, don’t you go gettin’ in that liquor in there, and though he said, Why no, Esther, I won’t do that, he led me right to the big Victorian armoire that concealed his treasure: beautiful glass jars of his own plum brandy, whole fruit preserved in pickled sleep, and poured each of us a shot of the most delicious brandy I’ve ever known, before or since, dusky, fiery, perfect.

And these lines have long been a special place for me in the book, but this is the first time they made me cry. A page later,

jars of plum brandy, whole fruit turning in their sleep like infants in the womb.

Whole fruit turning.

I marked many phrases like this, just a few words that made my heart sing: “floors sloped with fun-house abandon,” “what tugs at my sleeve and my sleep,” “that’s what we are, facts,” “not the thing itself but the way of seeing,” “if bodies could flower out.” “I feel possessed by the things of the day.” “There is nothing anywhere just like this.”

I marveled more than ever at the bodily, physical, intimate nature of all of Doty’s observations. I wondered, did I really never notice this before, how the “sexual presence, physicality, bodiliness” he ascribes to still life paintings of seashells is also inherent in everything else his eyes touch? Paul’s jacket, “shiny and blue-black,” and his black shoes “gleaming with droplets; his shoulder pushes against mine.” The men in the sauna, “these beautiful physical presences, all this skin, framed here–like works of art–by the little doorways.”

I noted again the repetition of a line of Cavafy’s poetry – “They must still be around somewhere, those old things.” But perhaps for the first time I saw its echo in the scent Doty recognizes in his mother-in-law’s house: “Is it still out there, in the houses of old women somewhere?”

I recalled but never before noted how perfect this description is:

An unfinished violin, of bird’s-eye maple, in two parts–the top carved out as a single piece, complete, and the violin-shaped block of uncarved wood that would have been the fiddle’s bottom half, the two parts together purchased for a dollar, and feeling, in the hand, like music emerging out of silence, or sculpture coming out of stone. A perpetual wooden emblem: something forever coming into being.

And I appreciated anew the (I will call it) theory of art he lays out, in saying that old things that belonged to someone else (the things you buy at an estate auction), or still life paintings, are beautiful because of what’s invested in these objects – stories, emotions – even when we don’t know what those stories or emotions are. It reminds me of Hemingway’s iceberg metaphor, or the idea that a novelist must know her characters’ backstories even when those backstories never enter the story on the page; the reader will feel them.

Also, having just suffered the loss of a friend, I was comforted in some small way by these lines:

Not that grief vanishes–far from it– but that it begins in time to coexist with pleasure; sorrow sits right beside the rediscovery of what is to be cherished in experience. Just when you think you’re done.

In short, it seems I concentrated on words and sentences this time around, having gotten more or less comfortable with the larger narrative (such as it is) and philosophies presented by the book as a whole. (Recall that this book is really a longform essay at just 70 pages.) I have struggled with the latter, with those philosophies, over multiple readings. This time I just let it feel good to read words and sentences.

I am terribly excited for Jessie to teach from this book. I’ve never had an outside guide to it before, and the subject of Jessie’s seminar is so close to my heart, and she feels so simpatico with my thinking and feeling in general; this will be a real treat. Reading this book is always a real treat. Also, I’m finally going to get around to reading Doty’s other memoirs, I swear it…


Rating: for me, a perfect 10 quinces.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Another book that came to me at just the right time thanks to Jessie van Eerden. I know of Rebecca Solnit, of course, but I think this is the first of her writing that I’ve read. I really enjoyed it in several aspects: its subject matter is very much in line with that of my thesis (that I’m currently writing); its structure is of interest and also has something to offer my own; the writing is lovely; the content it approaches is wide-ranging, and (as Jessie said early in this semester as we did a manuscript review), “I like to learn stuff.”

That said, it’s not an easy book to sum up. These collected essays are connected, but far from telling a narrative. Solnit is exploring the idea of getting lost and what it has to offer us; and that is ‘getting lost’ in several senses, geographic (I got off the trail and I was lost) and metaphoric (after my mother died I was lost, or I lost several years). Also the sense in which we lose both things and people: lose your keys, lose your mother (to death), lose a boyfriend (when you break up). She sees value in getting lost – sometimes it’s how we find ourselves – and notes that we don’t get lost much anymore. Late in the book, she looks at old maps with their ‘Terra Incognita,’ and observes that we don’t have terra incognita on our maps anymore. We know it all! Right? (Of course, we’ve thought we knew it all before, and been proven wrong.)

I’m using the sense of place tag here although it’s not quite right, which is perhaps a design flaw in my tag. By ‘sense of place,’ I have tended to mean a strong attachment to a certain place; so Jesse Donaldson’s writing about Kentucky, James Lee Burke’s New Iberia, Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles, or Mary Karr’s southeast Texas. That is not what I found with Solnit, so much as a strong feeling about the importance of wandering, losing and finding oneself, in place and in other senses. Place plays an important role here. This book feels like it fits that tag, even though it doesn’t fit the tag as I originally conceived it. (This blog will be eight years old next month. Expect some scope creep.)

Structure-wise: there is a chapter-title refrain, with the heading The Blue of Distance (italicized, where the others aren’t) taking every other place between differently-titled essays. These are not the same essay over and over, but they all meditate on blue and its role in our observation of distance, beginning with the literal meaning (that is, that the sky and deep water both look blue for scientifically observable reasons) and moving through less-literal ones. Distance, it seems, is an inextricable part of one’s ability to get lost. My 600-square-foot house would be much harder to get lost in (tell that to my geriatric dog) than a 20-something room mansion would be. I really appreciated this design, the repeated title for very different essays; it was a succinct cue to the way in which they’re linked.

Another item I found interesting to note was Solnit’s references, the other thinkers she turns to. Some were perhaps unsurprising, as writers cite other writers: Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Katherine Anne Porter, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad. These are joined by Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Bobbie Gentry, Yves Klein, Plato, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and Alfred Hitchcock (among many others). A huge number of minds contributed to Solnit’s own thought processes here – which are of course her own – and I was fascinated by the twists and turns. Again (and again), this is something I need in my own writing and that appeals to me. I can’t wait to tell Jessie how right-on she was with assigning me this book.

Obviously this Field Guide‘s usefulness to me is just beginning. You will like it, too, if you like far-ranging considerations of the human condition and where each of us as an individual might be or should be headed, if we’re thinking about it. I found it an engaging and curiously winding path, and I recommend it.


Rating: 8 shades of blue.

did not finish: Three Kinds of Motion: Kerouac, Pollock, and the Making of American Highways by Riley Hanick

I’m sure this is a good book, but not for me at this time.

The idea is definitely intriguing: three creations, linked by place and certain themes. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road; Jackson Pollock’s Mural; and Eisenhower’s development of the interstate highway system. Riley Hanick is in Iowa. Just four years after Peggy Guggenheim commissioned Pollock’s mural for her Manhattan townhome (where “the narrow width of [her] hallway would have made [proper viewing of the painting] impossible”), she gave it to the University of Iowa Museum of Art. Later, Kerouac’s first draft of On the Road, on a single long scroll of paper, will be on display in the same museum. This museum will flood, and the art will itself end up on the road, in transit.

An interesting concept, to weave these three threads together, three movements. Jeremy recommended it to me in part because I was writing about Houston’s Menil Collection, and traveling home to visit it (after Hurricane Harvey, no less, with notes on what precautions the Menil took). This was a wise recommendation for obvious reasons. But as it turns out… Hanick’s style is sketched, abstract, sometimes taking the form of very short chunks, and conflating his two Jacks until I was often unsure of whom we were talking about. His pronouns run from ‘he’ to ‘they’ to ‘we’ to ‘I’ and I was frequently lost. It was nearly 100 pages in when he first quoted Gertrude Stein, and I thought, aha! that is my problem here: there is too much of the Stein here.

As I put this book down, I remain slightly interested, and in another world, one where I have lots of free reading time, I’d fantasize about picking it back up again. But in this life, when I have too much reading to do that will help me (as a student, as a writer, as a book reviewer) and that I can understand, Three Kinds of Motion is not for me.


I’m forgoing the rating this time.

Transfer of Qualities by Martha Ronk

What an extraordinary, slim little book. Many thanks to my classmate Andrew, who I think was the one to recommend it for my critical essay topic about objects.

Martha Ronk is a poet, so insert my usual hesitation about making intelligent commentary on a genre I’m not terribly comfortable with. This book is organized in three parts: Objects, People, and Transferred Stories (in the table of contents) or Transferred Fictions (within the text). That last discrepancy, I assume, is an editing error; but I kind of enjoy having the two options to choose from. On the other hand, my copy transposes a number of pages in the middle of the book: clearly an error, and a very annoying one, and I keep getting books with missing pages or transposed pages or whole sections replaced by duplicate sections; what gives? Anyway–I did have all the pages, and thank goodness, because they are good pages.

The section “Objects” is further subdivided into “Various Objects,” “The Book,” “Photograms,” and “Collecting,” and the first subsection is all prose poems, a breed of poetry I feel more at home with: just one or two paragraphs of lyric observations, and right up my alley, topically. I loved “A Glass Bowl” and “A Lost Thing” especially. As the book continues, prose poems give way to short essays, but there remains a dreamy note of not-quite-reality, and an attention to lyricism, rhythm, and sound. These words deserve to be read aloud.

Can I get away with sharing one of these prose poems here? If I choose a very short one? This is “The Cup,” the very first item of the book.

The cup on the shelf above eyelevel, the reach to get it for the first morning glass of water, the running of the water now clear after the silty water yesterday, the large dragonfly drowning in the cup, now in the bottom of the sink, and the sudden understanding of the whirr that edged the room last night, the unlocatable whirr that stops and starts and finally falls still as the lights are put out and what is left is the neighborhood barking, unidentified sounds pushed to the edge of consciousness, the sudden storm in the middle somewhere, and the knowledge that there must be a reason for what is now silence, a reason lodged in the absent muted clatter, as in the sudden morning appearance of venational wings, each the size of a thumb, folded inside the cup from the top shelf.

Go ahead, read it aloud.

Ronk quotes heavily from other writers, most especially Henry James (blurbs call James the “patron saint” or the “major genie” of this work). She studies various objects that move her, and a number of these are works of art–sculptures, paintings–making this partly a work of ekphrasis, recalling Doty (again and again). She has a piece called “An Obsession with Objects”–yes, I see you seeing me. She slips in Lolita and Posada (I look up at the Posada print on my wall), as well as her mother’s death and her own study of kung fu and fear of mortality; but it is the objects, always, at the center. The title concept is the transfer of qualities between objects, people, and places, an evocative thing to consider, especially for a person with my obsessions. She has a special care for bowls, and for blank space, for the air contained in bowls and other voids. I love it.

I found lots to love, to quote, and to save for future work, both critical and creative. At just seventy-nine pages, this book came as a small but powerful gift to me, not unlike (again) Still Life With Oysters and Lemon (also by a poet–hm). If you share my interest in “stuff,” by all means, make this a point.


Rating: 9 frames.

reread: Still Life With Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty

This is one of a few rereads and re-reviews, as I work my way into this semester’s project: my critical essay about the use of material things in Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemons, Terry Tempest Williams’s Pieces of White Shell, and a handful of Scott Russell Sanders’s essays. Original review here.


I annotated this book last semester for its use of objects. This time around, I’m interested in contrasting its strategy for using things with Terry Tempest Williams’s in Pieces of White Shell.

Where PoWS is a collection of essays or stories, SLWOL is a single essay, just seventy pages. Williams offers a collection of objects and devoted a chapter to each, where each object (or grouping of objects) allows her a way in to discuss the topics she needs to discuss. Doty’s work is initially ekphrastic: he is engaged in a lengthy, unhurried meditation on a single painting, and along the way meanders through a wide variety of places, buildings, objects, and other paintings. Doty refers to the habitual attendees of auctions, a tribe in which he includes himself, as “curators of objects, some of which would outlast us” (33); Williams is employed as museum curator during the narrative present of her book. Both books are concerned with material things, and use those things as a way in to larger topics, or allow them to stand in for less concrete concepts. But they do it both in very different ways and to very different effects, in part because the two writers are pursuing very different subjects.

Williams explores a body of knowledge and mythology that is outside herself (Navajo culture and myth, and a scientific approach–geography, biology–to a specific place) in order to better understand her world, including her Mormon background and her relationship with people and nature; she works to put forward a philosophy gleaned and developed from these sources. Doty wants to develop a worldview as well, of the dualities that engage his curiosity: intimacy versus independence, home versus travel. (He writes in The Art of Description about the usefulness of polarity: “the pull of forces in opposition to one another makes writing feel alive, because it feels more like life to us than any singular focus does; reality, we understand, is a field in which more than one attraction, more than one strong tug, is always at work.”) He does this by examining the objects that draw his attention, and the nature of that attention. Thus, he’s not studying a still life painting so much as studying its effect on him, although a study of the painting is involved in a study of its effects.

In this way, Williams and Doty’s use of objects necessarily differs. Williams chooses the objects that head her chapters for their associative value. The Storyteller is a useful object because it opens the door to discuss storytellers she’s known, and the cultural value of storytelling. (The reader takes her word for it that these are also the objects actually on her desk, but whether chosen for the desk or for the book, still chosen.) Doty doesn’t choose objects so much as they choose him. He’s not using the painting, or the blue-and-white platter with antlered deer on it, or the peppermints, because of what they let him talk about. He is rather driven to use those objects because they have acted upon him, and it’s that acting-upon that he writes about in this book.

He also writes at several points about the narrative contained in objects: “I loved best the [auctions] that took place at people’s houses, for then the narrative of a life was most available” (31). The things he’s purchased “are informed for me, permanently, by the narrative of the auction, an experience of participation” (33). Obviously a nonfiction writer interested in composing a larger story through objects, perks up her ears at these mentions of narrative. However, I think perhaps Doty is even more interested in that “experience of participation.” Williams’s approach is more like narrative-through-representative-object (objects for their associative powers), where Doty’s is more the experience of interacting with objects, as the central narrative.

If there were a thesis question at the heart of this book, it might be, “Why do these things make me feel what they make me feel?” The title painting leads him into a lengthy discussion, revisited throughout the book, of how lemons represent intimacy. I’m not sure I would ever have gotten, myself, to a conclusion that lemons represent intimacy; but I’m deeply involved in Doty’s thought process. In the end, this book is not centrally about Doty’s life, any more than PoWS is about Williams’s. Rather, this book is about how Doty looks at (literal, material) things, and by extension how we all look at things.


Rating: upgraded to 9 quinces on this go-round.

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty

I came to this book originally some time ago, from Paul Liscky’s The Narrow Door, though they only subtly name one another. It was a happy continuance when Kim Kupperman recommended it. And, I have a thing about oysters. This book is not terribly much about oysters, mind you, but it still attracted me.

Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon is a lovely meditation on a single still life painting which shares the book’s title; but it is also a study of still lifes in general, and a thoughtful retrospection ranging through the author’s life and loves by way of a handful of objects, and finally a study on the topic of attention. Doty returns to the idea that we seek both intimacy and independence, both belonging and exploration, both the comfort of home and the risk and excitement of travel. Interesting as ekphrasis, as study of duality, and as biography in objects–even as a lyric list essay, broadly defined. I found it interesting to note all the references he makes to other paintings and other art forms (chiefly poetry). Also lovely writing, although this will surprise no one who knows Doty as a poet.

Another of my continuing obsessions–even more than oysters–is things or stuff. Think Guy Clark’s song “Stuff That Works” or Scott Russell Sanders’ essay “Buckeye.” I really appreciated the attention Doty pays to things in this very short book. It was a rewarding immersion, and I recommend him.


Rating: 8 quinces.
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