In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Creases and FlecksLaura Quinney
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Still Life with Oysters and Lemon 
by Mark Doty.
Beacon, 72 pp., $11, January 2002, 0 8070 6609 5
Show More
Source 
by Mark Doty.
Cape, 69 pp., £8, April 2002, 9780224062282
Show More
Show More

Mark Doty specialises in ekphrasis. The word once meant the description of a work of visual art within a poem, but has come to mean poetic description more generally. Sometimes Doty describes a work of art (Murano glass, a watercolour by Elizabeth Bishop), sometimes an ordinary object (a second-hand kimono, a crab shell), sometimes a part of the natural world (beaches, horses, dogs), sometimes a man-made scene (gardens, harbours, Times Square). He recognises how fond of description he is, and implicitly defends the practice in his essay Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, which takes as its point of departure an austere yet sumptuous 17th-century Dutch painting, a ‘sombre poem of materiality’. Doty praises the painting for inspiring ‘love’ in him, ‘by which I mean a sense of tenderness towards experience, of being held within an intimacy with the things of the world’. He acknowledges that description does not capture reality. It is ‘an inexact … art’, though essential, and is frankly subjective: ‘What is documented, at last, is not the thing itself but the “ way of seeing – the object infused with the subject. The eye moving over the world like a lover.’ Description is a labour, a testimony and a source of love. It vivifies poetry, which might otherwise be reduced to a mere ‘language of ideas’ – ‘a phantom language, lacking in the substance of worldly things’.

Doty’s lover Wally Roberts died of Aids in 1994. Much of Doty’s poetry and prose concerns his loss, his grief and his slow recovery of affection for the material world. It is good that recovery of this kind is possible, but I only wish that the poems allowed us to participate in his emotion more fully, that Doty’s descriptions would do for us what his favourite painting did for him – create ‘an intimacy with the things of this world’, and evince a particular ‘way of seeing’, a distinctive voice. Too many of the poems in Source bring to life neither the things of the world nor the mind of the author. We find ourselves in a middle ground of pleasant chatter. In their rambling, moralistic, timidly autobiographical manner, these poems recall the ‘loco-descriptive’ poetry of mid-18th-century Britain, best known from James Thomson’s The Seasons. As Dr Johnson demonstrated, you can cut every other line from The Seasons without appreciable loss. The culprits in Doty, as in Thomson, are monotony of tone and monotony of structure. Doty favours meditative lyrics of a standard rhetorical mode: description alternating with sententiae. We can predict the tone from the reiterated structure: the speaker is musing, objective, refined. He is a spectator, reluctant to obtrude on the world he describes with any importunate self-concern. His ‘way of seeing’ is supposed to emerge through description; ‘the object infused with the subject’ will refract the speaker’s feeling. But when he looks on the things of the world, Doty has, for the most part, only one emotion: appreciation, or wonder, and the evocation of this soon wears thin. A steady diet of it, and one longs for more urgent, less respectable affects. Not much of the drama of consciousness emerges from these poems, and since they are all first-person lyrics, that leaves a large gap.

Doty is striving to achieve philosophical impersonality, even grandeur, in the generalisations that spring from his descriptions. His poems typically begin with precise scene-setting, broaden out to establish a larger significance, then close with a maxim. ‘Principalities of June’, for example, moves from an inventive picture of roses to a transcendental argument. The roses

mount and swell
in dynasties of bloom,
their easy idiom

a soundless compaction
of lip on lip. Their work,
these thick flowerheads?

Built to contain
sunlight, they interrupt
that movement just enough

to transfix in air, at eye level,
now: held still, and shattering,
which is the way with light:

the more you break it,

the nearer it comes to whole.

He loves a dictum. Other poems in Source end: ‘Here is some halo/the living made together’ and ‘Something in us does not erode.’ Description yields a moral: this familiar pattern reflects a cautious notion of what poetry can and should do, a secret commitment to old-fashioned edification. In Doty’s case, moreover, generalisations betray what would appear to be his aesthetic intention, since they dilute the specificity, the presence, of the things that have been described. Whatever submits to his description loses its autonomy. The world vanishes under his processing touch. This happens even if the moral is the difficulty of the relation between object and abstraction. In ‘Description’, the opening poem in Atlantis (1995), Doty details the features of a salt marsh, in six stanzas, then pauses:

I could go on like this.
I love the language
of the day’s ten thousand aspects,

the creases and flecks
in the map, these
brilliant gouaches.

But I’m not so sure it’s true,
what I was taught, that through
the particular’s the way

to the universal:
what I need to tell is
swell and curve, shift

and blur of boundary,
tremble and spilling over,
a heady purity distilled

from detail.

The ‘day’s ten thousand aspects’ disappear into oddly immaterial ‘creases and flecks’, while the larger philosophical question, although rendered in ecstatic metaphor, remains inert.

While Doty’s use of enjambment and manipulation of rhythm are skilled, he lacks sureness of touch. Heaven’s Coast (1996), an affecting narrative of his lover’s diagnosis and death, is marred by many amateurish sentences, some simply jejune – ‘I want to know how the story of my life will turn out’ – and others tritely rhetorical: ‘Because everything around us races toward disappearance. Our brief moment’s a flash, an arcing flare which itself serves to illuminate the face of death.’ Even in his zest for description, he can be coyly unspecific: ‘Wally had been taking classes in the college where I taught, an entertainingly eccentric little liberal arts school which occupied the grounds of a fine old sheep farm’; ‘I’d been nominated for a literary prize, and I needed someone with me for moral support at the tense ceremonies and hoopla that accompanied the event.’ A memoir can tolerate such miscalculations, and tactlessness is fortunately less conspicuous in his poetry than in his prose. The major failing of his poetry is its banality. His modest titles, with their deferential borrowings from other poets, illustrate the blandness of his language and sentiment: ‘At the Gym’, ‘Lost in the Stars’, ‘Manhattan: Luminism’, ‘Letter to Walt Whitman’ (alluding to Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’), ‘Paul’s Tattoo’ (alluding to ‘Tattoos’ in James Merrill’s sequence ‘Peter’), ‘An Island Sheaf’ (alluding to Hart Crane’s Key West: An Island Sheaf), ‘Summer Landscape’, ‘Lily and Bronze’, ‘After the Fourth’, ‘American Sublime’ (alluding to Stevens’s ‘The American Sublime’). Even Doty’s cleverest offering, ‘Fish R Us’, does not achieve the standard of wit in Merrill (‘Self-Portrait in Tyvek™ Windbreaker’) or A.R. Ammons (‘There! The Light of Human Reason!’).

There are moments in Doty’s poems that make me wince. In Heaven’s Coast, he eloquently praises Whitman’s startling description of grass – ‘And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves’ – and he recalls this line in the opening stanza of ‘Letter to Walt Whitman’:

Are you more than editions, or the grave’s
uncondition’d hair? (More likely, these days,
permed and mowed to chemical perfection.)

This is meant to be a light beginning, but the gesture is ill-judged: the figure of the cemetery grass awaiting its salon treatment will not bear comparison with Whitman’s line. Doty doesn’t always seem in full command of his effects: his humour is too often precious. ‘Paul’s Tattoo’ describes Doty’s new lover having the tattoo of a heart incised on his arm; the poem ends patly: ‘Now all his life/He wears his heart beneath his sleeve.’ In ‘Thirty Delft Tiles’, from Sweet Machine (1998), Doty pays a visit to Merrill, who, along with Whitman and Cavafy, was one of his chief models. In homage, Doty echoes Merrill’s punning playfulness, but without his virtuosity:

God, my dear (is it too late to assume
the familiar now, as once you
asked me to?) is in the damages.

The tone here is arch. Perhaps Doty was disconcerted by his subject. The awkwardness of ‘Letter to Walt Whitman’, the worst poem in Source, may have a similar origin. It also strikes a note of cloying familiarity: ‘I get ahead of myself, Walt’; ‘Then one thing made you seem alive:/your parrot, Walt’; ‘I could smell it, Walt.’ Doty is reduced to awkward inversion and linguistic insipidness: ‘And I can understand/how you might base on that a nation,/Walt.’ The honour he means to pay Whitman cannot survive such bathos.

Doty’s want of tact tells in the detail. He does not always pay attention to sound and is capable of such tongue-challenging blunders as ‘the red round room’ and ‘the interior ear’. This potentially effective moment trips on an article:

I sanded and Danish-oiled
these floors with a man who’s dead,

and the planks gleam still –
a visible form of vitality –
for you and I, love, who now revise,

as each inhabitant must,
the dwelling place.

‘Essay: The Love of Old Houses’

There is a hint of bombast in the grammatical error (‘I’ for ‘me’), but the thought reaches for depth, and the emotion is persuasive. Then the passage swerves into sententiousness. The phrase ‘as each inhabitant must’ strikes a false note, but the fatally portentous word is ‘the’ in ‘the dwelling place’. Doty chooses the definite article in order to avoid a gender-specific or awkward pronoun, but a defter writer would have dodged the problem.

Doty’s appropriations of his own work, too, suggest that his relation to words, and to verse, is blunted. A number of passages from his essay and memoir reappear in his poems, though they are usually inferior to the prose versions. In Heaven’s Coast, Doty tells of an enchanted afternoon spent buying kimonos with a friend, the poet Lynda Hull:

The owner – who seems himself to enjoy our pleasure in his tumble of wares – gives us a deal, and eventually we settle on three: a short, deep blue for Lynda, lined with a secretive orange splendour of flowers; a long scholarly grey for me, severe, slightly pearly, meditative; a rough raw silk for Wally, its thickly textured green weave the colour of day-old clippings clinging to lawnmower blades.

Doty repeats his words as verse in Sweet Machine:

The owner –
enjoying our pleasure, this slow afternoon,
in the lush tumble of his wares –
gives us a deal. A struggle, to narrow it
to three: deep blue for Lynda,
lined with a secretive orange splendour
of flowers, a long scholarly grey for me,
severe, slightly pearly, meditative,
a rough raw silk for Wally,
its slubbed green the colour of day-old grass
wet against lawnmower blades.

‘White Kimono’

Doty does not appear to be engaged in literary experiment here. He seems, instead, indifferent to the distinction between genres. His ready transposition reflects a cheerful spirit of industry, but it shouldn’t be so easy.

He used to have a greater rhetorical sensitivity, a sharper sense of the weight of words. His best book of poems is My Alexandria, published in 1993. In every book since then, he has refined the artfulness of his descriptions at the expense of his emotional power. His language is at its sparest in My Alexandria, and the comparative darkness of the volume – Doty is not reconciled with life – contributes to its rhetorical force. His poems already have their characteristic shape, but the simpler language allows him to attain the thematic economy he strives for elsewhere. A poem about a turtle ends when children

-heft him around the table, praise his secrecy, holding to each adult face his prayer, the single word of the shell, which is no.

‘No’

These stanzas are compelling in their clarity and restraint. Because they are unpretentious, it doesn’t matter that their strategy – borrowing closure from the finality of ‘no’ – is not original. Though Doty rarely shows any unusual skill at managing an esoteric vocabulary, or making piquant word choices – he could never come up with a phrase as striking as ‘the beautiful uncut hair of graves’ – he knows how to find gravity in Anglo-Saxon monosyllables. In My Alexandria, with its comparatively chastened language, Doty makes aphorism work for him. At the end of ‘The Wings’, an angel tells him: ‘The rule of earth is attachment . . . You die by dying into what matters, which will kill you,/but first it’ll be enough.’ The irony of this observation is sharp and satisfying, and it is created by rhetorical tension. The maxim, ‘You die by dying into what matters,’ is followed by two successive controversions: it ‘will kill you,/but first it’ll be enough.’ The clauses compete with one another, giving the sentence a stimulating structure of internal resistance. Doty also plays his phrases off against each other in the poem’s powerful concluding lines:

your story, which you have worn away
as you shaped it,
which has become itself,
as it has disappeared.

The language of the lines is bare, but the rhetorical structure is complex. The aphorisms in Source are less effective because they are affirmations: they lack the vitality of internal resistance to their claims.

The persuasive simulation of voice is achieved by the breaks in it: by tension, contradiction and self-refutation. The most moving lines in My Alexandria display a layering of consciousness, and a corresponding syntactical subtlety:

I heard it, the music
that could not go on without us,
and I was inconsolable.

‘Lament-Heaven’

These lines have a stately rhythm, befitting closure, thanks to the retarding movement of the relative clause. In addition, the phrase ‘that could not go on without us’ makes us pause, since we anticipate the more banal ‘that could go on without us’. Even the word ‘inconsolable’ comes as a surprise. The rising cadence of the preceding lines seems to promise an affirmation, but we get instead a severe ‘no’. The speaker’s mind is doing more than one thing at once, and the things it is doing are not wholly compatible: hearing the music itself, reflecting on its temporality, refusing consolation, despairing over the mortality of human beings and all their works. In his inconsolability, the ‘I’ is further divided between its identification with the collectively mortal ‘us’ and its momentary isolation. The self stands out: it proclaims its refusal, but makes this proclamation conscious of its insubstantiality and helplessness. Here Doty gives his modesty a passionate voice.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.