Theory of Beauty (Third Avenue)

Mark Doty

Thirty-seven clocks in five tiers.

Sunset, end of a mild afternoon
the hand of winter’s never quite let go of.

Mantel, cuckoo,
rusticated, ormolu, glass-domed, moving brass balls and chimes,
porcelain, French clocks with bronze figures,
thirty-seven, ranged in the shop window,
not especially attractive,

none fine, none precious,
even to my taste individually desirable,
but studying them, then turning away

to the last warmly tinted but almost heatless sunlight,
the buildings ahead in silhouette, and then
the urge to turn back to the stepped rows

and suddenly the pre-eminently important thing
is their fulfilment of the category clock,

the remarkable divergence of means
of occupying that name, honouring the terms
and intent of it but nonetheless

presenting an extraordinarily various
set of faces to the avenue, in the warm light
of the shop. Then I or you, whoever’s

doing the looking, understands
that this is the city’s particular signature,

the range of possibilities within any single set,
and what is pleasing is not the individual clock

(goofy or kitsch, in their frostings and columns,
scrollworks and gildings) but the distance
between it and its name,

the degree to which it belongs and at the same time
pushes towards the edges of difference

– a perception that makes the window a spectacle,
thirty-seven branching aspects of a single notion,

almost absurdly divergent
in their essentially useless variety.

And when you turn away again, there on the sidewalk
is a perfect instance of the category sink,

in this case kitchen, a double stainless model
– discarded from an apartment or restaurant –
battered around the drain, humbled at its edges,

rim a little crumpled, but the interior
shining from the lifetime of scouring that’s made

this singular instance of the uncountable
manifestations of its category
in all the five boroughs, and beauty

resides not within individual objects but
in the nearly unimaginable richness of their relation.