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The Poetics of American Song Lyrics ed. by Charlotte Pence

This book took me an inordinately long time – weeks – to finish, but not because I didn’t love it. I loved it. It’s just dense, and took a lot of mental energy. And being a collection of discrete pieces, it was easy to take breaks. And it hit just at the end of a wonderful but wearying semester, so my mind was fatigued. [Post about the semester wrap-up to come.]

I’m going to let editor Charlotte Pence introduce this book to you as she did to me.

Not many editors can pinpoint the exact moment a specific project began, but I can say for certain that it was September 12, 2003, the day Johnny Cash died. I was living in Nashville, teaching composition and poetry writing at Belmont University where 27 percent of the entering freshmen are part of the Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business. The university sits on a hill that hovers at the end of Music Row, those legendary two streets that Nashville record labels and studios call home. When students miss class at Belmont, the reason often involves the words “touring schedule.” Essentially, the music business is an extension of the campus, and there I was teaching poetry and having students ask if they could bring their guitars to class for backup as they read their “poems” for the class to critique.

She goes on: when Johnny Cash died, Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander gave a speak on the Senate floor in which he wondered why Tennessee English professors (“including those at Belmont specifically”) didn’t teach lyrics alongside poetry. Pence acknowledges their “differing politics,” but answers the call nonetheless, to explore this question. Poetry professors have a number of quick-and-easy answers to the question of how poetry and song lyrics are different – I’ve had this conversation with my own favorite poetry professor, Doug Van Gundy, who among others things (like citing a lovely quotation from Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry) recommended this book to me. But Pence understood that it remains a question in many minds, Lamar Alexander’s and her own undergraduates’, and created a course investigating the issue. In seeking assigned readings for this course, she quickly realized that there was a major shortage of articles analyzing the content and techniques of song lyrics. Long story short, this book was born to answer that shortage.

Pence has more than this to say in her introduction, which I read with great interest. She explains the mix of contributors she’s pleased to present: poets and teachers of poetry; literature professors; and music scholars. They write on a wide range of musicians: Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Michael Stipe, Bruce Springsteen, Okkervil River, Magnolia Electric Co., Leonard Cohen, and a litany of country and rap artists. They generally depart, I venture, from the more standard poetry professor’s position that music and poetry are too different to share the same conversation. Obviously, here they share the room.

Each essay, naturally, varied in how it worked on me. There were a few I ended up skimming past or not finishing; but only a few. Unsurprisingly, many of them tempted me to stop and listen to an album or four before continuing (I mostly did not indulge in this further slowing of my reading, although I found a few single tracks online to aid me). Some of them made points that surprised me or opened my mind.

A few highlights, for me personally:

Pence’s own contribution, “The Sonnet Within the Songs: Country Lyrics and the Shakespearean Sonnet Structure,” was a good discussion of the traditions of a particular poetic form, accessible to my level of knowledge coming in. And it was exciting to see poetry and lyrics lining up.

“Gangsta Rap’s Heroic Substrata: A Survey of the Evidence,” by John Paul Hampstead, was another thrilling example of traditions of one form recognized in another, apparently very different form. Hampstead considers ancient and medieval heroic poetry (Homer, Virgil, and ninth and tenth century Anglo-Saxons) alongside Lil Wayne, Notorious B.I.G., Short Dawg, and a number of others. He finds five common threads: feasting, raiding, treasure, misogyny, and fatalism. I do mean thrilling: it gives me a thrill to see connections like this made.

Pat Pattison’s “Similarities and Differences between Song Lyrics and Poetry” serves as a good overview discussion of, well, the similarities and differences between song lyrics and poetry, and concludes that they are indeed different beasts: a view held in common with my friend Doug and the Maxwell quotation. It’s well defended here but also pulled apart.

I enjoyed David Kirby’s “The Joe Blow Version,” about the various versions of Otis Redding’s song “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” and the richness offered by variability, as opposed to a single, definitive, correct version of a song, poem, play, etc. He quotes a textual scholar, Anne Coldiron, who says “The nineteenth century in particular was an age of canon founding,” the establishment of definitive texts; but the Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, Auden’s poetry, and Brecht’s music are all examples of work with variations. Kirby offers that “Some of the songs that get under our skin the most aren’t written so much as assembled,” that differing versions “remove the mystery and, in so doing, heighten the pleasure.” This essay, by the way, is itself a lovely work of art: Kirby’s arguments are packaged within a narrative of his travels in Macon, Georgia, researching a book on Little Richard and visiting with Otis Redding’s widow and daughter. It is a finely crafted essay and a beautifully executed argument about the value of variation in art, and of the transparency of the creative process.

I also responded to essays studying Okkervil River and Magnolia Electric Co. (the latter a band I’m just discovering through a friend, which is a story unto itself, and a synchronicity that strengthens the reading experience). Those essays are by Stephen M. Deusner and Jesse Graves, respectively. And while the two essays studying Michael Stipe and R.E.M. appealed to me less in their particular subject matter, I was enchanted by the idea of “investigat[ing] the assumption that lyrics should provide literal meanings… ultimately inviting listeners to co-create rather than simply receive meaning from the lyrics.” (Jeffrey Roessner’s “Laughing in Tune: R.E.M. and the Post-Confessional Lyric.”)

I’ll stop there for now. I found The Poetics of American Song Lyrics a stirring and challenging read. For one thing, I lack an enormous amount of the vocabulary and background required for literary criticism of poetry; many of the terms confused me at least a little, and although there is a glossary, it didn’t solve all my problems. Maybe I’m holding myself to an unnecessarily high standard, but I don’t feel qualified to fully appreciate the criticism and in-depth critique in these pages. I felt like I was missing a fair amount. However, the most exciting part is that these essays do the kind of work I dream of doing for some of my own favorite musicians and lyricists: Jason Isbell, Guy Clark, Patterson Hood. I’m not much closer to being able to do that work myself, but I can see now that it’s possible to do such work, and that is exhilarating.


Rating: 9 fading trails.

Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family ed. by Joy Castro

Family Trouble is a delightful collection about the challenges of writing nonfiction about family. I loved the wide range here: of experiences related by these established (published) writers; of the advice they have to offer; and in the writers, themselves, who are of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, sexualities, gender expressions, and life experiences. Editor Castro contributes a pure-gold introduction, which incorporates quotations and references to all her contributors but also manages to offer her own perspective. I was on page 7–yes, in the introduction–when I found my first epiphany.

Essays are sorted into sections by outlook or strategy: “Drawing Lines,” “The Right to Speak,” “Filling the Silence,” “Conversations of Hope.” I have read some of the contributors before: Paul Lisicky, Alison Bechdel, Robin Hemley, Dinty W. Moore, Richard Hoffman, Sue William Silverman (and have attended classes with Karen Salyer McElmurry). Others I knew by reputation: Susan Olding, Susan Ito, Sandra Scofield, Lorraine M. L√≥pez, and more. I did have favorites, sure, but I emphasize, I most appreciated the interplay, the sum of parts: these diverse voices and perspectives playing off each other. The anecdotes from experiences are valuable (and often entertaining or humorous, although there is much pain here, too). The writing is lovely. It’s a hell of a collection.

Here are a few of my most treasured lessons.

“Good writing must do two things,” contends Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (2001). “It must be alive on the page, and it must persuade the reader that the writer is on a voyage of discovery.” Writing The Truth Book, I truly was on a genuine voyage of discovery, and these two driving questions* helped shape the memoir, guiding my choices about what to disclose and what to omit. If an incident, detail, or family story contributed in some way to the answering of one or both of those questions, then it went onto the page. If it didn’t, I didn’t even draft it.

From Castro’s introduction; and she mentions the *two driving questions earlier in the paragraph, but I submit that they don’t even matter here, for the purpose of the lesson she offers. I’ll try and recapture it: the memoirist must be driven to tell a story in pursuit of discovery or of answering a question or questions. The issue of whether to include certain material (which, I’ve said elsewhere, is a central issue in crafting memoir) then becomes simply an issue of whether it pursues the main question(s), the desired discovery. …This assumes that we know why we’re writing, and I don’t, always. Sometimes I just want to write a thing, without knowing what the burning issue is. So this becomes a multipart problem: figuring out why a story needs writing (what’s the burning question?), and then mindfully allowing that question to sort what needs inclusion and what does not.

This seems, now that I’ve thought it out, plenty obvious. But I had to get there, and Castro helped.

I also really appreciated the concept that the idea of family stories exists on a spectrum, with the immediately, intimately personal (individual) on one end, and a global human community on the other. From Aaron Raz Link:

A writer working with family materials stands in a liminal space where my story meets your story, meets the reader’s story, and becomes our story. Before I became a writer, I was a historian working in public museums. As a result, I see that family assembles our individual stories together to become the fabric we call culture and history. This process gives each of us some sense of belonging to a larger world.

Richard Hoffman’s first memoir helped put the man who raped him in childhood away in prison, and therefore offers a particularly stark example of personal or family stories having larger ramifications. He contributes to the same idea:

The trouble with the view put forth in dozens of books about family “dysfunction,” some of them interesting and helpful, is that it tries to understand the family without its community, without its culture and class, without its history and the relation of that history to–well, History.

Somehow, I feel like this relates back to some comments I made near the end of this post, about interdisciplinarity. Seeing the connections feels like some of the most important learning we can do, ever.

I loved that some essays took different forms, like Susan Olding’s contribution, “Mama’s Voices,” with its stop/play/fast-forward organization, involving tape recordings. I appreciated the far-reaching context and concerns of Faith Adiele’s “Writing the Black Family Home.” And I enjoyed and marveled at Ariel Gore’s “The Part I Can’t Tell You,” in which she does tell us. Or does she?

Much to be admired, and probably of interest to a fan of memoir as well as a hopeful writer of same.


Rating: 8 mournful duets about two people who never should have broken up.

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee

Strong words, but I’m going to say it: I think this is the most enjoyable craft book I have read. Strunk & White and Stephen King are very good but McPhee wins it.

Eight essays about writing, previously published in The New Yorker and only one of them previously collected (“but to a far greater extent [it] belongs here”). McPhee is funny, self-deprecating, practical, and wise. He tells stories! I love the anecdotes, such as the one that begins “Frame of Reference,” and makes the point that a reference must always be chosen with an audience in mind. (Greta Garbo will not be meaningful to kids born after 2000; Britney Spears will not be meaningful to my grandmother.) He gives good, down-to-earth writing advice, unsurprising, as this skill has been honed by decades of teaching experience. McPhee’s students populate these essays, too, some of them bumbling and some of them accomplished, and all of them treated gently. He relates tales of interviews that went easily (Woody Allen) and less easily (Jackie Gleason). The tone, McPhee’s writing voice, is exceptionable. I find him just quintessentially likeable. He is funny, humble, and instantly recognizable.

“Progression” is about linkages, and fits nicely with the following essay, “Structure,” on that topic. “Editors & Publisher” is something of a series of profiles of those McPhee has worked with, with some advice and wisdom about how the work works. “Elicitation” is about interviews (those great stories), both anecdote and how-to. “Frame of Reference,” with all its details from life and history and McPhee’s writing and reading, was one of the most enjoyable essays for me. “Checkpoints” is about fact-checkers, again with such an engaging proportion of fascinating story and practicality. “Draft No. 4” is about the writing process and the writing life: how drafting works, and how to hopefully retain sanity. “Omission” is about brevity, and cutting, and allows McPhee to finish both this essay and the book with a humorous line spoken by General Eisenhower: this is a writer who knows how to pick a quotation and let it stand.

McPhee gave me some things to ponder: his astonishing method of finding a structure first and them a subject to fit it; his method of note-taking and outlining; his drafting. And I will cherish forever one-liners like, “If you kill a widow, you pick up a whole line” (not about homicide at all, but about “greening,” a topic after my own heart). I will keep this book handy for both its solid advice and its entertainment value. I’ll be recommending it to everyone I know; and I can’t wait to read more McPhee.


Rating: 9 mustaches.

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.

part two of two-part review: Earth Works by Scott Russell Sanders

Following up on part one.


Thanks for bearing with my lengthy review. I’m picking back up with a brief (!) list of a few of my favorite essays, in order of appearance in this collection.

  • “Doing Time in the Thirteenth Chair,” about being an alternate juror in a small-time drug-dealing case starring a confidential informer
  • “The Inheritance of Tools,” previously mentioned, about his late father’s legacy in the form of tools, literal and figurative
  • “Staying Put,” about attaching oneself to place, weathering the storm
  • “Letter to a Reader,” a life history, as man and as writer
  • “Buckeye,” my longtime favorite of his, more father’s legacy in objects
  • “The Common Life,” about what is basic and good in life, like making bread with loved ones
  • “Mountain Music,” about a fight with his teenage son that opens his eyes to a mistake he’s made (and inspires an essay collection)
  • “Silence,” an interesting one to appeal to me because it references faith and religion, topics that usually make me twitchy; about the Quakers’ silent worship
  • “A Private History of Awe,” about the things he finds moving in the world
  • “Buffalo Eddy,” a visit to a sacred place that inspires related musings, in a structure I appreciate: linking of concepts reminiscent of Eula Biss
  • “Mind in the Forest,” similar contemplation based in place.

There were other essays that gave me trouble, too. “The Uses of Muscle” makes some efforts (“I have a much greater appreciation now for the bodily strength of women”) but ultimately returns repeatedly to ideas of men using their muscles, or not, and the societal concerns with each possibility: “Fortunately for the peace of society, many boys play sports…” “How might boys and young men–or, for that matter, men of any age–use their muscles for something besides recreation or mischief?” You know this made me grumble. “Honoring the Ordinary” responded to certain critiques of the memoir genre in a manner I found a little broad and simplistic, but I should forgive this because Sanders’s audience for such writing was presumably a mainstream less tuned in than I am to this topic. But then the notes say that it was composed for a conference on the art of the memoir, so, hm. (On the other hand, both the early “The Singular First Person” and the later “Letter to a Reader” do a better job with this subject, in my opinion.)

If I nitpick, it is only because this essay collection engaged me so. The overall impression is excellent; if there are essays here I need to interrogate, it’s only because the whole is so impressive that I hold Sanders to a high standard. From another writer, “The Men We Carry In Our Minds” would have turned me away entirely, and I wouldn’t have finished the book.

Do I still have your attention? May I share a few favorite lines, for final good measure?

From “The Inheritance of Tools”:

I look at my claw hammer, the distillation of a hundred generations of carpenters, and consider that it holds up well beside those other classics–Greek vases, Gregorian chants, Don Quixote, barbed fish hooks, candles, spoons.

I ardently love a list, and Sanders is good at them. He chooses his items for alliteration, juxtaposition, sounds, and themes, with both poetry and meaning-making in few syllables. This concept of classics is one of the finest lists in this collection.

From “Staying Put”:

How can you value other places if you do not have one of your own? If you are not yourself placed, then you wander the world like a sightseer, a collector of sensations, with no gauge for measuring what you see. Local knowledge is the grounding for global knowledge.

From “Wayland”:

There is more to be seen at any crossroads than one can see in a lifetime of looking.

This for me recalls Annie Dillard, or Terry Tempest Williams, down on hands and knees, really looking into the grass where a casual looker would say there was nothing.

My encounters in Wayland shaped me first as I lived through them, then again as I recalled them during my visit, and now as I write them down.

In “Honoring the Ordinary,” I was struck by a concept which matches one from Still Life With Oysters and Lemon. Referencing his own earlier book, A Private History of Awe, Sanders writes,

I wished to honor ordinary experience, not by making it seem exotic, but by peeling away the rind of familiarity that keeps us from seeing the true power and beauty and wonder and terror of it.

Doty writes:

These [still life] paintings reside in domestic, physical, fleshly space… it is so startling… that everything in this up-close, bodily space is delineated with such clarity. We’re accustomed to not seeing what is so near to us; we do not need to look at things that are at hand, because they are at hand every day. That is what makes home so safe and so appealing, that we do not need to look at it. Novelty recedes, in the face of the daily, and we’re free to relax, to drift, to focus inward. But in still life the familiar is limned with an almost hallucinatory clarity, nothing glanced over or elided, nothing subordinate to the impression of the whole.

(Bold emphasis is mine, italics are his.) When I come across the corresponding line in Sanders, then, I’m struck not only by the sentiment, such a neat parallel to Doty’s, but also by the turn of phrase, the rind of familiarity, so evocative of Doty’s beloved lemons and their luxuriant, sensual peels.

From “Buffalo Eddy”:

We cannot know what moved those vanished artists to carve their language into stone, but I imagine it is akin to the impulse that will move Bill to write a poem about our visit to Buffalo Eddy and will prompt me to write this essay. Such writing is like breathing, an exhaling that follows inhaling, as natural as that.

That is as lovely and natural an ending as any for my thoughts here. Forgive my quibbles. Sanders is on the whole an essayist to admire and emulate. I appreciate his subject matter and the frank, humble, wondering nature of his prose: a man after E.B. White, even, with perhaps more gravity and less humorous witticism. I’m a fan.


Rating: 7 crows.

part one of two-part review: Earth Works by Scott Russell Sanders

For other Sanders work, see Pops’s review of Staying Put and my review of Writing From the Center.


At this point in my semester, I’m beginning to work on a first draft of the third semester project in my MFA program: a critical essay, or longform investigation of the strategies of writers I admire that might inform my own work. (For more about the critical essay, you can take a look at pages 42-44 of the student handbook here, and follow this tag.) My essay topic is the use of stuff, things, or material objects (new tag!) as a way in to a subject or a character. With this topic in mind, I approached this most recent (2012) collection of Scott Russell Sanders’s work especially interested in a few essays in particular. I’d intended to only sample from the rest; but I couldn’t put it down.


Earth Works is a must-have collection for the Sanders fan. He carefully selected the 30 essays here, including nine that have never before been collected. I’ve read some of these before, but remained mesmerized by both content and style regardless of my familiarity. Sort of like with that Beard essay I so revere, “Buckeye” remains a feat to appreciate on every reading, even six or eight readings in.

A brief preface places these essays in some context in Sanders’s life and aims, and then they unfurl, in mostly chronological order by date of composition (some exceptions for the sake of juxtaposing topics), and with few revisions to their original published form (“for better or worse”). I really appreciate that the first essay, composed in 1987, is “The Singular First Person”: it lays out Sanders’s perspective about the personal essay, its form and purposes. It’s a smart way to start, because it offers some idea of what he thinks he’s up to, and therefore some promise of what is to come. A humble man speculates on what he finds in the world, in the hopes of asking big questions: “Who am I? What sense can I make of this inner tumult? How should I live? Does the universe have a purpose? Do we? What finally and deeply matters? What is true, and how can we know?” (From a later essay, “Letter to a Reader.”) Sanders is concerned with nature and the natural world, but resists the term “nature writer” (as did Edward Abbey), because he is most concerned with interconnectedness: human beings with one another, with the natural world of which we are mere part. He wonders about spirituality, about our place in the cosmos, about the sadness of consumerism and war, the destruction of the Earth; but he has a great love for the world, too, and allows that to shine through.

This reading, my deepest exploration of his work, confirms for me that Sanders is one of my favorite essayists. He marries content that is meaningful and sympathetic to me with style that is both lovely to read, and nearly invisible. As I’ve said before, the best writing often doesn’t even feel crafted, but that’s when you know it was hardest to craft. These essays are good examples of that idea.

I came for three essays in particular, as I said. “The Inheritance of Tools” uses stuff or things to get at a character: Sanders recalls his father through the tools that father passed on to him, along with the knowledge of how to use them; this essay is a way of processing his grief on his father’s death. “Under the Influence” is about the same father, but in this essay, the father is an alcoholic, who causes his family great pain. The two fit interestingly together because they’re about the same man from two very different perspectives. Finally, “Buckeye” continues the grieving for the beloved father, through a series of objects, beginning with the title buckeyes but traveling through other material things. Because all three attempt to profile a parent, and deal with the relationship between writer and parent, and because two of them do so through objects, they offer a number of things to me. For the purpose of the critical essay, I’ve also got my hands on a talk Sanders gave in 1990 at the University of Iowa, about the crafting of “The Inheritance of Tools” and “Under the Influence.”

As I said, these were not the only standout essays for me, and I kept reading for the pleasure of it beyond the three essays I’d intended to study. It wasn’t all good times, either, though. An early (1984) essay, “The Men We Carry In Our Minds,” made me angry. Sanders means well, and he is good to the women in his life (wife and daughter) in many ways. He considers himself a feminist. This essay means well, too, but it makes some major blunders, when he concludes that his own upbringing in relatively impoverished, working-class conditions make the challenges he’s faced the same as those faced by women. I am taken back to an excellent article I read years ago, titled “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.” The idea here is that you can be really poor and still enjoy privilege as a white person, because at least your race isn’t contributing to the limitations or constraints you face. The same principle could be applied to Sanders’s arguments. You might have been poor, you might have been limited, but you didn’t face the glass ceiling, the sexual harassment, the wage gap, the rape culture, or the insidious, invisible assumptions of incompetence that women did and do face. Concluding that you thoroughly understand the predicament of women when you don’t is arguably more problematic than not attempting to understand in the first place; congratulating oneself and turning away is troubling, because it makes you something of a false ally. His blindness to this problem gave me a lot of trouble. The HuffPost article was published in 2014, and Sanders’s essay, again, in 1984. But since he’s reprinted it in 2012 without feeling a need for further comment, I think he still needs to go read the HuffPost piece.

I won’t forget the blind spots exposed in this essay. But it’s to the great credit of the rest of this book that I still love it. Because there is indeed much to love here, not least the previously uncollected work near the end–I really enjoyed seeing Sanders articulate his appreciation for Emerson, Thoreau, and Wendell Berry, among others. I had already sent a copy of this book to my father before I got to these essays, but they made me glad again that I’d sent it to him.

Come back to me next Wednesday and I’ll do more raving, and slightly more quibbling, with this long and rich book.

Still Life With Oysters and Lemons 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.
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