Last night I sat down with a glass of wine and Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, by the poet Mark Doty. I read it in one go and a second glass of wine. I really don’t have words to describe the experience of reading it. Any attempt to express it seems shallow after Doty’s beautifully crafted prose. I will only say that it has been a long time since I read a book that spoke so deeply to me, but this phrase also seems shallow and clichéd. Yet, speak to me it did.
This book defies genre, and my appreciation of it maybe comes from the fact that I had no expectations about it. Reading other reviewers it seems to me that those mostly disappointed by it were the readers that tried to peg it to a genre, be it art review, memoir or poetry. And if they were looking for a specific theme they had the right to feel disappointed, because it is all of these - art review, memoir and poetry – and none of it.
Oh, I envy Mark Doty though. How can he name so effortless – as it seems - the experiences of my heart. I too have...
...fallen in love with a painting. (...) have allowed myself to be pulled into its sphere by casual attraction deepening to something more compelling. I have felt the energy and life of the painting’s will; I have been held there, instructed.
Often I shy away from describing my experience of art, as I don’t have the academic knowledge or vocabulary to do it, and speaking of art as it tugs my heart, I tend to be melodramatic and incoherent. Then Mark Doty comes along and says it for me, so beautifully, so tenderly.
But he also speaks of life, death and grieving. Maybe this is a book about grieving more than anything else. And on grief he again puts words to feelings I have not been able to vocalize:
Not the grief vanishes – far from it – but that it begins in time to coexist with pleasure; sorrow sits right beside the discovery of what is to be cherished in experience. Just when you think you are done.
It felt surprising too that in a book so small – 70 pages – I relate so close to two of Doty’s experiences. I too love to browse through state sales and auctions. In my part of the world the state auctions are mainly of farm machinery and mechanical tools, but I have found small treasures here and there. White porcelain napkin holders in the shape of chubby chickens, tucked away in a sad box of Tupperware. Medalta pottery, cracked and beautiful in its utility. A wooden horse, its original tail replaced by a rough cord, a survivor of many children’s play. A pocket size New Testament encased in metal covers to protect the heart of a loved one from a bullet on WWI.
These excursions into people’s past, their day-to-day, now relegated to the junk pile. I always felt there was a lesson here, and again I never was able to vocalize it, to name it.
Then, there is Mark Doty’s trip to Amsterdam on his 45th birthday. I was in Amsterdam this last September, celebrating not mine but one of my sister’s 45th birthday. We are three sisters spread very evenly around the globe. I live in the middle of Canada, the birthday girl lives in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and the baby of the family lives in Hong Kong, China. Amsterdam of all places on Earth seemed to be the epicentre of our geographical distances.
I wish that I could say that, like Mark Doty, that a visit to the Rijksmuseum was the highlight of our trip, but actually we never made it there. As it is often the case with sisters, we have very different approaches to life, art and travel, and this trip, as special as it was, was really a great exercise on compromises. I forgo the Rijksmuseum for the Van Gogh Museum and an Antiquity Art Show on Alexander the Great at the Amsterdam’s Hermitage Museum.
My experiences at both Museums felt short of Doty’s experience at the Rijksmuseum, and short of my own visits to other art museums in previous years. I found the Van Gogh collection and museum to be too small for the amount of visitors. It was crowed and hot in there. Too many people elbowing each other for a view of the masterpieces made it impossible for me to achieve an emotional connection to the paintings. Yes, rationally I admired then, but I never experience, as Mark Doty would say, being pulled into it, held there and instructed by it. How sorry I feel to say it even, as Van Gogh’s works, above most, generally provoke and emotional connection and response from me.
As for the show at the Hermitage, it was an historical show. Not that the pieces were not artistic, but their value was in the historical exposition of Alexander’s life and influence at his time. An experience that was much more rational than emotional for me.
Yet, I relate to what Doty says on having his senses sharpened by this trip to Amsterdam, and by the viewing of a painting, or art object. And I related to what I think is his bigger message on this book, of how the essence of life impregnates the objects around us. How a chipped china plate carries the memories of other times, other people, and how its intrinsic beauty can affect us and our own lives.
If the museums I visited in Amsterdam did not provoke this, the house of Anne Frank certainly did. Had I been travelling by myself, the line up of people waiting outside would have driven me away. I also suffer from mild claustrophobia, and felt anxious in anticipation of the small spaces that the Franks had to live in. But again, this was a trip of compromises, and one of my sisters felt strongly about visiting it, so we went.
The Frank’s hiding place was actually bigger than I had imagined, and what really disturbed me was its emptiness. As per requested by Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father, all furniture has been removed. The walls still have the collages the girls did from pictures in magazines that they cut and pasted on a few walls. An open widow in the attic, which they would open from time to time, framed the autumn colours of the trees on the street.
But it was in the absence of personal objects that their suffering was more poignant. The nothingness of life exposed almost brutally. Who were those people? Where are the chairs were they sat to eat and talk? The plates and cutlery? Where are the echoes of their voices, laughter and cries if nothing of their surroundings, the objects of their daily lives, were also taken from us.
Could a painting of the trees outside replace for the Franks that open window?
No, I don’t think so. As I see it, art does not replace life. But a painting of the view of that widow could let us glimpse into their existence. And sometimes I painting, an installation, and sculpture do just that. It allows us to share an awareness beyond past and future, and we are faced with an essence of feelings and life.
Would I be betraying their pain if I said I felt as if I was viewing an artistic installation while visiting the actual rooms where the Franks hided? I felt detached from the particular individuals that lived and suffered in there, but was embraced by all the suffering represented in the void of this space; the vacuum of their deaths and the deaths of many others in the same time period.
But, here I am again trying to say something of my experience of art and becoming melodramatic... So I better stop right now. Go read the book. Mark Doty says it with so much more poetry and coherence than I could ever do it.