Creases and Flecks
- Still Life with Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty
Beacon, 72 pp, US $11.00, January 2002, ISBN 0 8070 6609 5
- Source by Mark Doty
Cape, 69 pp, £8.00, April 2002, ISBN 0 224 06228 X
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.