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.

wrapping up semester three

I am now on a break* of sorts between semesters three and four of my MFA program, meaning that I will graduate in January**, if all goes well with my thesis this fall. I thought I’d let you all in on how the last six months have gone, school-wise.

Third semester in WVWC’s program is critical essay (CE) semester. This means that on top of the usual creative output (which can be somewhat reduced, but ideally will not be), the students writes a 20-25 page essay on the topic of her choosing, studying a few central works. Instead of the usual output of fifteen craft annotations or craft essays in semesters one and two, only four annotations are due, followed by the critical essay itself; ideally those four annotations serve the essay, as they did for me. Anybody nerdy enough to want to learn more about these products (annotations, CE) are invited to peruse the MFA student’s handbook.

I had two ideas for my CE topic heading into last winter’s residency, and was quickly convinced in discussions there to write about objects, stuff, or things in the works I admire. Two of my early annotations covered two of my CE’s central texts: Terry Tempest Williams’s Pieces of White Shell and Mark Doty’s Still Life With Oysters and Lemon. (Are you sick of hearing about those two books yet? I’m not.) The other two, still on-topic, covered a couple of Guy Clark songs (“Stuff That Works” and “The Randall Knife”), and Cutter Wood’s Love and Death in the Sunshine State, respectively. The latter did not make the CE, but Guy Clark made a few cameos, and my final central text was Scott Russell Sanders’s work in two essays, “The Inheritance of Tools” and “Buckeye,” from his collection Earth Works. My critical essay is titled “Yucca, Lemon, Buckeye: The Strangeness and Singularity of Things.”

I am moderately proud of it, and glad it’s over. I do feel the benefits of studying so closely one craft aspect I admire; but it was also a rather awkward adjustment for me. This work felt more like “school” than anything I’ve done in this MFA program. Getting back to a slightly more academic style was like slipping back into a comfortable groove, in that it’s something I’ve done before and feel competent with; doing creative work, for the first time in my life, just recently, had been a real challenge, and not always a happy one, but I missed it when I slipped back into that groove. I hope that makes some kind of sense.

I did keep up the creative work, more or less; I think I had one writing packet that was light on page count, which was also true in my second semester (I believe I buried Katie Fallon, in semester one, with the maximum allowable page count throughout). And now I’m very excited about heading into semester four, when I’ll write my thesis–or rather (I hope) edit and revise heavily and also do some connective-tissue writing to build a thesis out of the last few semesters’ work.

I had my best semester of reading yet, and had a wonderful rapport with my advisor, Jeremy B. Jones (author of Bearwallow). His comments on both my critical and my creative writing this semester always felt incisive, productive, and specifically geared at my own needs as a writer: personalized, and with a fine understanding of what I am and what I’m up to. I felt very lucky. He also recommended just the right books for me to read. (Look for a post on Friday about my favorite books of the first half of 2018.)

Looking back, then, it was a good semester for me as a writing student. It didn’t always feel that way in the moment! If nothing else, I have the angst of a creative writer down, I think.

I’ll probably be writing soon about the readings I’m doing for residency. It goes by so fast, and now that I’m more or less three-quarters of the way through this program, I’m a bit panicked at the idea of it ending, even as it looks like a relief, too. I’m glad to have written this post so I can remember the satisfaction of semester three, and the critical essay, feeling like accomplishments along the way.

Program director Jessie van Eerden continues to impress me with her promptness, combined professionalism and warmth, and enormous wisdom and talent. Jeremy Jones was a special gift to me this semester. My classmate Delaney McLemore, who will be graduating** this summer, has been a friend throughout, but this semester provided substantial support along the way. (I’m happy for her to be graduating, but I will miss her terribly!) It’s been grand, y’all.

Onward to West Virginia in July!



*Breaks are nearly a fallacy: as soon as my semester portfolio is due, it’s time to start working on my workshop sample for next residency; and almost as soon as my workshop sample is in, I get back other people’s workshop samples to read and comment on, as well as my reading assignments for residency, which number in the hundreds of pages. But technically, break.

**While there is a graduation ceremony at residency, the degree is not officially conferred until the college’s next graduation date, which in my case is May 2019. For that matter, following the January residency where I “graduate” and teach a seminar to my peers, I have something like six weeks to keep working on my thesis before its final-final due date in mid-February or so. January will be a major milestone, but there will be later milestones before the MFA is truly done. And I’ll be learning as a writer forever (hopefully). The process is ongoing, and then goes on.

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.

The Art of Description by Mark Doty

I have had a rough time with Graywolf Press’s The Art of series, which is a shame, because I am a fan of Graywolf Press generally. (I gave Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext and Christopher Bram’s The Art of History 6 widgets apiece, and DNF’d [did not finish] Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention.) But I gave this one a try because it’s Doty, and I am getting to be excited about Doty. (Stick around for a reread of Still Life With Oysters and Lemons.)

Okay, enough parentheticals. The Art of Description is both an enjoyable read and a useful craft book. I appreciate its balance of quotable moments, profound concepts, and nuts-and-bolts writing advice. I also appreciate its illumination of Doty’s working style, because I plan on focusing partly on his work for my critical essay this semester. He includes as well plenty of examples from other writers’ (mostly poets’) work, with close readings, and one large section of this slim book is an alphabetical list of elements of description, which I think must have been fun to put together.

I know many writers/fellow students who love Graywolf’s The Art of books, and I know that my past failure with some of them is merely personal. But here is one that is working for me, in the way that I believe these books are meant to work: it is small, short, pocket-sized, and packed with memorable lines and nuggets. I want to just leave a few of them here, for my use as much as for yours. (All bold emphases are mine. Italics are Doty’s.)

The parts of a narrative are contiguous, each connecting to the previous instant and the next, but the lyric moment is isolate.

People who have studied drawing know that you have little idea what’s in front of you in the visual landscape until you try to represent it. To some degree, the art of description is the art of perception; what is required, in order to say what you see, is enhanced attention to that looking, and the more you look, the more information you get.

I am reminded here of his detailed study of the color of the white asparagus in a (different) still life, in Still Life With Oysters and Lemon. (Switching books on you for this next quotation.) It is blanched asparagus,

grown, that is, shallow trenches of sand, by which the body of the stalk is gradually covered, as it sprouts, so that the flesh will remain white. Though that term is far too simple for the actual color of these stalks: a pale lemony shade, tinged with a little green, shadowed on the underside, particularly where the curve of the bundle falls away, in its lower reaches, into darkness. The shade of these stalks–exactly right, as a look at a bundle of asparagus grown in this European style today confirms–is achieved through a mixture of ash, lead white, and a color called schiet geel, or shit yellow…

I think he’s practicing what he preaches in these lines: only by looking very closely with great attention at this painting could he see these colors, pick them apart; and then he takes what he’s seen back to real asparagus for comparison; and follows with research into the painting techniques of an earlier time (the shit yellow paint was made from buckthorn berries, “a laxative, thus lending the hue its tone”).

Okay, back to The Art of Description.

…the yoking of disparate elements makes more than a vivid account of perception; the best description is never merely decorative, but makes meaning in itself, building an argument about the nature of the real.

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.

If I were asked to say what distinguishes an artistic temperament from any other, I’d say that it’s a fundamental sense that the project of being alive is something peculiar, little understood. I’ve always felt amazed by–a bit envious of–people who take their lives for granted, who feel that of course this (this body, this community, this set of human laws and social expectations) is the way things should be, how could it be otherwise?

And on and on, but I fear copyright infringement.

As I deepen into Doty’s work, I’m observing and understanding better this writer’s appeal to me personally, so this craft book comes at the right time.


Rating: 8 breathless sonnets.

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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