Creases and Flecks

Laura Quinney

  • 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

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in