Reviewed by Chelsey Clammer

It is the language Mark Doty uses in Still Live with Oysters and Lemon that intrigued me most while reading the book. Because this book is focused around still life paintings and not any sort of narrative arc per se, Doty has to bring movement to the text by being especially intentional about which verbs and nouns he chooses for his descriptions.

          He does precisely this in the first few pages.

          Who could give the coiled peel the greatest sense of heft and curve,           or spiral it down from the edge of a table, with the most convincing           sense of gravity's pull? In Cornelis de Heem's The Flute of Wine, a               swoop of lemon peel occupies the very center of the picture,                       looping down into the space below the edge of the table and back               up again to end in a flourish of curl, impossibly long, as if the little             fruit had yielded an unlikely bounty of peel to serve the painter's                 purposes. (9, emphasis mine) 

All but the last italicized word convey a sense of movement—coiling, spiraling, pulling, swooping, etc. Due to the fact that the still life paintings are, obviously, inanimate and unmoving objects, Doty uses transient verbs and moving adjectives to describe the lemons, a technique that keeps the reader reading. With these active descriptions, Doty does not desert the reader in a stagnant space, leaving her to look at a  landscape of numbing, motionless lemons. Though this could have easily occurred due to the lack of actual action in the text. But Doty avoids this travesty as he perfectly executes the craft of writing vivid descriptions. This leads the reader past a motionless object and into a text full of movement. 

About the last italicized word: at the end of the paragraph Doty stops the movement. He yields the reader. His use of yielded creates a speed bump in the flow of the paragraph, indicating to the reader that here is the end of this description and its movement—the painting captured, its lively descriptions now done. From this language-induced halt, Doty then jumps into the next description of a still life painting—another one that is full of movement even though it is an unmoving object. And the reader continues to read, enters herself into the flow of the text and moves with it, lazy river style. 

Aside from these active verbs and lively descriptions Doty uses in Still Live with Oysters and Lemon, I was also intrigued by the use of taking an inventory of paintings and objects in order to convey some aspect of himself, as well as of the significant people in his life. He does this because by saying something about the people with whom he has important relations, Doty also says something about himself. In the tradition of Philip Lopate's essays “Portrait of Myself” and “My Drawer,” Doty creates a sense of presence and belonging in the world by taking inventories at specific moments and sprinkling them throughout the text (found on pages 12, 20, 32, 52, and 60).The reader encounters the first inventory on page 12 as Doty describes the things found in his Mamaw's purse: 

          Doan's Pills. Lavender water. Smelling salts in a tiny glass ampule....           Round tin of snuff....A tiny red edition of the New Testament,                     tissues in small packets, a sparkly pair of multifaceted earrings                   whose clasp has long ago broken; short, dull-tipped pencils, a                   cluster of the ubiquitous, potentially useful rubber bands; a scrap of           ribbon snipped from the flowers at whose grave? And then, the item           to which my attention is repeatedly drawn, to which all the other                 items are merely ancillary: those red, pinwheeled peppermints. (12)

From this inventory, the reader gets a sense of the type of person Mamaw was (religious, practical, perhaps superstitious and a little nostalgic), which in turn helps to convey the relationship between Doty and Mamaw, to juxtapose them, to hint at the qualities of their relationship. Later on in the text, Doty draws on this inventory again. He returns to the peppermints, uses them to re-approach his theme of independence versus connection. “Suppose I were to make a still life of my grandmother's peppermints....I could array those little disks in their transparent wrappers against the dark...perhaps lying alone on a surface, perhaps a group of them in a silver dish.” Doty goes on to describe his mother's personality as he starts to remember her character traits through various associations with the peppermints. He continues discussing his hypothetical painting: 

          These associations...would be brought to bear upon my painting of             the peppermints, but none of them would be visible; there's no                   reason the viewer would know any of this [about my mother]. I could           render only what can be seen....And yet there is something more                 here, and that something is what nags at me to write this                           book....Why, if all that is personal has fallen away, should these                   pictures matter so? Why should they be alight with a feeling of                   intimacy? Interiority makes itself visible....Is that what soul or spirit             is, then, the outward-flying attention, the gaze that binds us to the             world?” (48-50). 

By frequently using the form of an inventory throughout the book, the named objects stand on their own, stand out to the reader, and thus Doty is able to return to these specific items/signifiers later on. Upon these returns to certain objects, he shows how their significance has grown, how they get to the heart of his book. These connections provide a rich philosophical question about our relations to the world. Ultimately, this question continues to investigate the theme of independence versus connection that is prevalent in the text. This, in turn, gives the reader a sense of her own connection with Doty's ideas.

I imagine it like this: the reader sits in her comfy chair, alone, reading Still Live with Oysters and Lemon with no one else around, independently looking at the still life paintings through words. A connection to the paintings and what they say to her increases with each lively descriptions. It is not just about how the inventories stick out in her mind, how she admires the specific details Doty uses to describe the people in his life, but it's about how her subsequent knowledge of these personal and telling details encourage her to continue to find her own connections to this text. How does she relate? The images and meditative considerations she has while reading the book help to bind her to the world, a world which, as Doty shows, is full of that vibrant art, those lemons, this beautifully moving still life.

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon
By Mark Doty
Paperback: 80 pages
Publisher: Beacon Press
Language: English
ISBN: 9780807066096



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Great review! I appreciate how you have highlighted the narrative techniques used by Doty in this book. Only somebody with a vast reservoir of words will be able to write about inanimate objects like Doty. I agree with you that his using movement in his descriptions for the still life paintings are exemplary! The inventory of things to show characterization is also a technique I enjoy. It's like the author lets the reader participate in his book. Through the inventory, the author invites the reader to discover and know the character with him. Still Life with Oysters and Lemon is an amazing book and your review is an amazing read!


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