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Still Life With Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy

Still Life With Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy

I am in love with Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon. More precisely: I am in love with Mark Doty’s writing. I read the entire book (novella? long-form poem? poetic prose?) in one sitting, and then read it again, but slower. And I found myself stuck on many of his phrases, just sitting in awe of how masterfully he evokes emotion, describes humanity and makes you feel like you are there looking at still life paintings with him.

Because there is so much to write about Doty’s Still Life - how he manages to weave memoir and poetry and art critique into one small text - I will focus on something very small: his use of parentheses. As a writer who adores the use of footnotes and asides, I was drawn to his parentheses. I will highlight two of my favorite examples:

What we can see of the lost world is exactly this: little vials of medicine, a tall, slender bottle of dark tonic (Remember, says the voice of a distant announcer in my head, Serutan is Nature’s spelled backwards. Isn’t space full by now, of broadcast voices, intoning their slogans and pitches and absurd fragments of human speech? Has our babble penetrated as far out into space as it has within?). (15)

These associations—Cavafy, my mother polishing the silver, a missionary aunt who fled the familiar turf of Tennessee for the otherness of Korea (presumably with the intent of teaching them something, hopefully with the result of being taught) … (49)

In the first example, the idea that Doty has this announcer in his head and that leads him to thinking about human speech in space and if it has penetrated his inner thoughts, has it penetrated space? I loved this idea so much. I also love that the idea was contained in these parentheses and not dwelled upon, but could have been the subject of an entire essay. In the second example, Doty is passing judgment on his aunt – “hopefully with the result of being taught” – in the midst recollections about his family members. We never hear of the aunt again throughout the text, but this small aside in parentheses tells the reader so much about what type of person she is and what Doty thinks of her. 

I read Doty's Still Life with Oysters and Lemon for a creative nonfiction writing class this winter, and I believe it should be required reading for any creative writing class. It was by far my favorite text we have read in our class.

Rating: ★★★★★

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