Still Life with Oysters and Lemon

Mark Doty

Most often classified as a memoir, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon feels like a novella-length personal essay that starts with Mark Doty’s interest in 17th century Dutch still-life paintings and moves through an elegiac exploration of objects and intimacy. It’s surprisingly expansive for its length, and Doty manages to suggest a lot of detail in his descriptions and narratives. Writing about paintings seems at first like it could be a terrible idea — something along the lines of dancing about architecture — yet here it leads to graceful, compelling prose.

The most beautiful still lifes are never pristine, and herein lies one of their secrets. The lemon has been half-peeled, the wine tasted, the bread broken; the oysters have been shucked, part of this great wheel of cheese cut away; the sealed chamber of the pie, held aloft on its raised silver stand, has been opened. Someone has left this knife resting on the edge of the plate, its handle jutting toward us; someone plans, in a moment, to pick it up again. These objects are in use, in dialogue, a part of, implicated. They refused perfection, or rather they assert that this is perfection, this state of being consumed, used up, enjoyed, existing in time.

But the paintings are just a starting point, as the book moves into its memoir territory. There’s a particularly elegant progression where Doty describes living near the ocean and walking along a beach where sometimes shards of china wash ashore. “Any morning I found a blue and white piece seemed to launch a lucky day, as if I’d been granted some token of happiness.” He continues with a narrative of coming upon a yard sale and finding a blue and white platter, a little chip in the rim mended with some kind of compound. “There is a Japanese word for things made more beautiful by use … a kind of beauty not immune to time but embedded in it.” Doty’s partner Wally finds the perfect place for it on the living room mantle. Over time, they try swapping out various paintings, yet the platter always fits best. Then Wally becomes ill and the room becomes a bedroom, then a sickroom until his death. “And the room changed again.” Doty begins a new relationship. “My platter, both broken and whole, has been hanging in its single spot for nearly ten years now.”

I am learning to accept the flux and revision time and experience invariably make, but I am also learning to love what I wish to keep the same, something that nothing in my life has taught me until now; learning, that is, not to let go but to hold on. I hold to the mended, exactly right old platter, fixed in its placed, cherished, singular, at rest. If it is a reminder of loss — my mother, my lover vanished in the slipstream of time — then it is equally a token of what can be kept: a sense of home, of permanence, of the ground for ourselves we can make.

Later Doty considers how he might paint still lifes from his memories, from the peppermints his grandmother always carried, a little silver dish his mother loved. Yet the associations are what make them significant and what would draw him to capture them visually, and those wouldn’t be apparent to others. In the Dutch paintings he loves, any personal significance in the objects rendered has been long lost. He wonders if that’s why he feels driven 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. In my imaginary still life, the “context and commentary” of my experience would be gone, but something would remain, something distilled and vibrant in the quality of attention itself. Is that what soul or spirit is, then, the outward-flying attention, the gaze that binds us to the world?