Mark Doty. Still Life With Oysters And Lemon.
As is my wont, I am reading a little bit backwards. Mark Doty arrives at these reflections on the relation between portrait and still life after having written about voice and breathing life out into the world again. But first, before we turn to that, let us dwell on the comparison of still life with poem and portrait:
A still life is more like a poem than it is like a portrait. When you look at a representation of a human figure — a shepherd, a saint, a prince — that figure looks back at you; the painting is concerned with the experience of animation, with what will give soul to the figure before us. The end of our seeing is in the eyes of the figure that seems to see us, that looks back toward us, quizzical, alive, caught. It is at the eyes of a portrait, always, that our seeing stops.
But in a still life, there is no end to our looking, which has become allied with the gaze of the painter; we look in and in, to the world of things, in their ambiance of cool or warm light, in and in, as long as we can stand to look, as long as we take pleasure in looking.
And before this fount of never ending pleasure we as readers were brought to meditate on transitoriness, in particular “the poems of the dead.”
Where there was a person, a voice, a range and welter of experience compressed into lines and images, now there are only lines and images. Where there was a life, now there is a form.
And the form, spoken, breathes something of that life out into the world again. It restores a human presence; hidden in the lines, if they are good lines, is the writer’s breath, are the turns of thought and of phrase, the habits of saying, which make those words unmistakable. and so the result is a permanent intimacy; we are brought into relations with the perceptual character, the speaking voice, of someone we probably never knew, someone no on can know now, except in this way.
This is where the hinge happens between poem and still life. And so the act of looking is like the act of breathing.
I found myself resisting on first reading the easy identification of poem with intimacy. What of parody and mimicry? And then found myself agreeing that even the most plagiarized tissue of quotation speaks of an effort of choice and selection and so represents a unique perceptual character. I even found myself wanting to see what Doty would sound like if the words from this prose were arranged like the short lines of a Robert Creeley poem (imitation of examples found in Words or in Pieces).
in the lines
if they are
is the writer’s
are the turns
Caught looking. Caught dropping commas. Avoiding periods. Too close for intimacy.
And so it is verified by empirical monkeying around that giving breath is like constant pleasurable looking. But I do differ with Mr. Doty on the question of portraits. Having read Stein, portraits like landscapes, hers and those of others, also offer pretexts for continuous looking and voicing.
And so for day 1017