Jim Schley's Essays

Genre-Benders: Mark Doty and Anne Carson as Poet-Essayists

Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon. Beacon Press, 2001. Anne Carson, The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos. Knopf: 2001.

The virtuoso fire eater or sword swallower must long for new challenges — new ways to defy artistic and actual death. Here are two new books by prolific and popular contemporary poets both outstanding for their ability to defy expectations. 

Mark Doty’s book-length essay Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (Beacon, 2001) combines probing observations about a highly stylized genre of visual art — still life painting — with episodes of personal remembrance, elegies for dead loved ones, and meditations upon the physical texture of mortality. Author of five books of poems and two memoirs, this is a writer who can glide down from the heights of overarching concept to whisper in a reader’s inner ear. 

Unlike academic art criticism, the book begins with a story of deeply concentrated, sustained looking: "I have a backache, I’m travel weary, and it couldn’t matter less, for this whole scene — the crowd and hustle on the museum steps, which seem alive all day with commerce and hurry, with gatherings and departures — is suffused for me with warmth, because I have fallen in love with a painting." From this disembarking Doty moves into a series of overlapping tableaux, as layered and vivid as painted portraits: a beloved grandmother and her empty room, after death; another  beguiling, eccentric older woman, the poet’s mother-in-law; a now deceased lover, whose memory is embedded in certain things he and Doty found at auctions together; and a weather-beaten but familiar coastal town. Doty’s transitions are so smooth, so sensuous, that several pages into a new setting I would find myself doubling back to see how he’d managed the segue.

 "To think through things, that is the still life painter’s work, and the poet’s," writes Doty. He is fascinated by the metaphysical, even biochemical paradox of an artist’s task. What could be more ephemeral than fruit, cheese, raw shellfish, or wine? Fabric, glass, and wood seem more durable, but these too are momentary from the perspective of the centuries. Our phrase for these works reveals our desire: they are "still life" in the sense of "repose" and also "continuing to be." 

We live in an era when the literary arts especially are saturated with self-regard. By contrast, still lifes delight in the guise of objectivity. They may be rich in personality, but indirectly. 

To Doty, a still life makes manifest our earthly adoring: "A language of ideas is, in itself, a phantom language, lacking in the substance of worldly things, those containers of feeling and experience, memory and time. We are instructed by the objects that come to speak with us, those material presences. Why should we have been born knowing how to love the world? We require, again and again, these demonstrations."

Like Doty, poet Anne Carson is a genre-bending escape artist. She is author of six extremely unique books, none of which is easily described, and all of which are now in print due to her remarkable celebrity of late. A classicist by academic discipline, expert in ancient languages and arcane prosody, Carson seems to have read everything that anyone has ever written and spun a multiplicity of influences into work of rare import and impact. 

Her newest book of poems, The Beauty of the Husband (Knopf, 2001), has the feel of the future. 

Described in a subtitle as "a fictional essay in 29 tangos," and on the jacket flap as a study of "Keats’s idea that beauty is truth," the book is a very dramatic enactment of prismatic episodes in a strange and impossible marriage ("that swaying place . . ."). The tumultuous momentum of her narrative is intensified by what the poet calls "delays" — shifts in vantage, quotations from Keats and others, and percussive interruptions of blank pages like abrupt pauses. 

Many poets are struggling to overcome the self-conflating claustrophobia of the personal lyric. In Carson’s work we can watch her discover ways of  propelling a long, strong current through a set of poems, like the continuity in an oratorio.

But in what way are the book’s main poetic chapters "tangos"? In tango, two people glide through a variety of dance tempos, alternating long, slow steps with short, quick ones. Carson’s lines are likewise cadenced short and long, made of snatches of conversations, conveying relationships that are sinuous, clasping and releasing.

Maybe her characteristic bravado with form is what the new book’s wifely narrator calls "sheer wantonness." The point is, these poems do not invite you to worry, but rather to submit to the dizzying intoxication of a fabulous story with its compressed cast of characters — a wargame-playing older man who seduces an inward, evidently brilliant young student; his friend Ray, the painter "who cooks (most nights) at the Sincere Diner"; the wife’s parents; and the husband’s lover and her sister, Merced and Dolor, viz mercy and sorrow.

Repeatedly Anne Carson fashions a bridge between seemingly unreconcilable varieties of poetry, on the one hand a style that calls constant attention to its agitated surface, and on the other plain narrative, anecdotal and verging on melodrama. By making her literary apparatus explicit (numerous dedications and epigraphs, the hyper-ironic, teletype-like tango titles, abandonment of conventional punctuation), Carson raises a veil our eyes must press through to understand. Then when that surface gives way to pure transparency, the effect is oracular and exhilarating. This is an astounding book, showing how far erudition and fluency  can go in the service of emotion. By demanding more of her readers’ attention and intuition, Carson takes us far deeper into the experience of others than is possible with poems that are accessible in more obvious ways. 

― Published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 8, 2001