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I read poet Mark Doty's prose book, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon recently.
Luminous! Delectable! It is a book simultaneously full of the poignancy and joy of life! Even if you did not know who Doty is, reading it, you can tell this was written by a man with a vision of a poet! he last time I had experienced lasting joy after reading a book was after reading Neruda's poetry. I oughta just buy this book and relive the experience from time to time through the remainder of my life!
I found myself wanting to mark or transcribe almost every line of the book. Paragraph after paragraph were worthy of being excerpted and blogged about. But then I realized, that like many poems, it could only be enjoyed in its whole. One cannot quote a paragraph out-of-context and try to convey the joyous experience of reading the book.
Despite this, I'll just leave you with an extended excerpt from the last page of the book... which tell you more about "Still Life" painting, poetry, and life itself than anything else you will have read recently.
Still life. The deep pun hidden within the term: life with death in it, life after the knowledge of death, is, after all, still life.
The darkness behind these gathered things - a living darkness, almost breathing, almost a pressure against us -- is the not-here, the not-now; what we can see are the illuminated things right before us, our good company. The space looming behind them is the unknown of everything else - is, in other words, a visible form of death, and therefore what stands before that darkness stands close together.
What makes a poem a poem, finally, is that it is unparaphrasable. There is no other way to say exactly this; it exists only in its own body of language, only in these words. I may try to explain it or represent it in other terms, but then some element of its life will always be missing.
It's the same with painting. All I can say of still life must finally fall short; I may inventory, weight, suggest, but I cannot circumscribe; some element of mystery will always be left out. What is missing is, precisely, its poetry.
Part of what that poetry is, I think, the inner life of the dead, held in suspension. It is still visible to us; you can look at the paintings and you can feel it. This is evidence that a long act of seeing might translate into something permanent, both of ourselves and curiously impersonal, sturdy, useful.
Ok...let me transcribe one more excerpt... randomly open the book and lo - there is something worth sharing!
Sometimes I think these paintings seem full of secrets, full of unvoiced presences. And surely one of their secrets - somewhere close to their essence - lies in a sense of space that is unique to them. These things exist up close, against a background of burnished darkness. No wide vistas open behind them, no far-flung landscapes, no airy vastness of heaven. This is the space of the body, the space of our arms' rach. There is nothing before us here we could not touch, were these things not made of paint. The essential quality of them is their nearness. ........ these paintings reside in domestic, physical, fleshy space. ......... everything in this up-close, bodily space is delineated with such clarity. We're accustomed to not seeing what is so near to us; we do not need to look at things that are at hand, because they are at hand every day. ...... Novelty recedes, in the face of the daily, and we're free to relax, to drift, to focus inward. But in still life the familiar is limned with an almost hallucinatory clarity, nothing glanced over or elided, nothing subordinate to the impression of the whole.
All those painters, all their lives looking at reality with such scrupulous attention, attention pouring out and out, and what does it give us back but ourselves? 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. And so the boundary between self and world is lelided, a bit, softened.
Go read the book in its entirety -- it is full of such gems! Even if you are a better appreciator of still life paintings than I am and have appreciated still life before, you will find a rare and unique joy in the book - a celebration of life, death, and the nostalgia of memory that is captured in "things". Experiencing a poet's words is, like experiencing a painting, a unique and redeeming experience! ;)
I recently picked up Alain de Botton’s How Proust can Change your Life and the first chapter is "How To Love Life Today"
It seems, in the summer of 1922, the French newspaper La Transitions posted a question:
“An American scientist announces that the world will end, or at least that such a huge part of the continent will be destroyed and in such a sudden way that death will be the certain fate of hundreds of millions of people. If this prediction were confirmed what do you think would be its effect on people between the time when they acquired the aforementioned certainty and the moment of cataclysm? Finally, as far as you’re concerned, what would you do in this last hour?”Proust’s reply:
“I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs studies it, our life, hides from us; made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly, but let all this threaten to become impossible forever how beautiful it would become again.You can hear a 5-minute clip of the chapter, leading up to Proust's reply below.
Ah if only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X, making a trip to India.
The cataclysm doesn’t happen. We don’t do any of it because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today it would be enough to think that we are humans and that death may come this evening.”
To conclude, I leave you with these paragraphs by Alain de Botton, which follow the Proust quotation.
Feeling suddenly attached to life when we realize the imminence of death suggests that it was perhaps not life itself which we had lost the taste for so long as there was no end in sight, but our quotidian version of it, that our dissatisfactions were more the result of a certain way of living than of anything irrevocably morose about human experience. Having surrendered the customary belief in our own immortality, we would then be reminded of a host of untried possibilities lurking beneath the surface of an apparently undesirable, apparently eternal existence.And so it goes...
However, if due acknowledgement of our mortality encourages us to re-evaluate our priorities, we may well ask what these priorities should be. We might only have been living half a life before we faced up to the implications of death, but what exactly does a whole life consist of? Simple recognition of our inevitable demise does not guarantee that we will latch on to any sensible answers when it comes to filling in what remains of the diary. Panicked by the ticking of the clock, we may even resort to some spectacular follies. The suggestions sent by the Parisian celebrities to L'Intransigeant were contradictory enough: admiration of Alpine scenery, contemplation of the extraterrestrial future, tennis, golf. But were any of these fruitful ways to pass the time before the continent disintegrated?
Loved this picture! Would have a caption contest for it, if I had a decent readership here!