Books: The Poet and The Painting

by anneMoore on June 7, 2009

A quiet wing of the Louvre is devoted to Flemish and Dutch painting: landscapes, portraits, still lifes. When I visited recently, my friend Deborah kept referring to lines from a book she’d read — and loved — about a single Dutch painting, “Still Life with Oysters and Lemon,” by Mark Doty, (Beacon Press, $13.)

When we returned home to Chicago, she pressed a fresh copy into my hands. So slender! A handsome cover, a mere 70 pages, now dog-eared and double-dogged by me, marked pages that hold a word or phrase or truism to be revisited.

books How could a thin book be so rich?

Doty nabbed me on the first page, with his hurly-burly description of a part of Manhattan I know well. On the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, pigeons are a gang, and even in the sharp cold people huddle in groups, eating hot pretzels, sipping warm coffee, smoking. He, too, is cold and weary, his back hurts. Why is he there?

. “…I have fallen in love with a painting.”

It is a small painting, the size of school boy’s notebook, by Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-1684). Its subject is the everyday, captured: oysters, a peeled lemon, green grapes, a glass of wine. Objects on the brink of time, Doty writes. To look at them, and look at them again and again, to be pulled into a painting, is a kind of love, he says, an intimacy.

And intimacy, he argues, is the finest human condition: to be separate, but also connected.

Doty is a poet; his language is lush. The book is both a meditation and a memoir: he takes us into the homes of his childhood, into the first home he owns and where his lover dies, and to Amsterdam for — you guessed it — a museum’s blockbuster show on Dutch still lifes.

At times I had to put this book down: it was too much, too filling. But it is a balm; its language and subject elevates. it would be the perfect book to keep in your bag, taken out and savored when you’re stuck at an airport, or riding an over-peopled bus.

3 responses to “Books: The Poet and The Painting”

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