At a recent book club, I had a long-awaited chance to air my latest grievance. It wasn’t the book itself; it was a particular blurb on the back. And it wasn’t that single blurb specifically; it was its representation of an alarming rash of blurbs that inevitably dub debut novels, or volumes of poetry, or memoirs “luminous.”
Luminous, meaning (according to the Encarta English Dictionary) “emitting or reflecting light,” “startlingly bright,” “brightly illuminated,” or “inspiring” is an outstanding word. I wish I invented it. But it’s maddeningly overused. The problem with its overuse is that I worry it won’t be trusted when it’s really applicable.
Take Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, by Mark Doty, a truly luminous read. The word must be used, and it’s ironic that the blurbs on my edition don’t use it (on the rare occasion they should). The book is a hard-to-describe combination of appreciation of the immediate, material world and tangents of philosophy that tie into this immediacy. Doty had me in the first few pages, in which he’s leaving the museum that houses the still life shown on the cover:
We are all moving . . . in the light that has come toward me through a canvas the size of a school notebook; we are all walking in the light of a wedge of lemon, four oysters, a half-glass of wine, a cluster of green grapes with a few curling leaves still attached to their stem. This light is enough to reveal us as we are, bound together, in the warmth and good light of habitation, in the good and fleshy aliveness of us.
Yes, Doty’s taken with a particular painting. But the painting’s just an icon for all the material moments he has a passion for describing. And the material moments are just doors to something much more. You’d think a book centered on a still life might be lacking in excitement, but this slim edition is a case in point for how a gifted writer can write about nearly anything and hold your attention, in essay format nonetheless. In Doty’s case, his subjects include, besides several master still lifes, the contents of his grandmother’s purse; a cracked, five-dollar, yard-sale blue and white platter; box lots at auctions; and various painterly renditions of asparagus, all pondered in stupendous detail.
What Doty manages to convey, through these mostly pedestrian objects, is the meaning of intimacy in the deepest sense. Not love-life intimacy, but love of life intimacy. The love of a life that sees, that contemplates, that attempts to define what is ultimately most relevant:
To think through things—that is the still life painter’s work—and the poet’s. Both sorts of artists require a tangible vocabulary, a worldly lexicon. 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 . . . Why should we have been born knowing how to love the world? We require, again, and again, these demonstrations.
Doty’s essay is a demonstration in its own right. If I’d had to lend a title back in 2001, I would have suggested Everything Is Illuminated, a title used not long after Still Life for Jonathan Safran Foer’s debut novel, because Doty’s descriptions of light and color are arresting and unifying all at once. The book directs its light on this: there is so much more to be seen in our immediate proximity than what meets our usual casual glance, and it’s worth the second, and third, look.
This week was instructive in looking again and looking deeper on two counts. After Still Life I turned to Barbara Kingsolver’s Small Wonder, an essay collection she formulated when 9/11 was still quite raw in the American consciousness. It was suggested to Kingsolver that she write something in response to the terrorist attacks; the act of writing also helped her cope.
Kingsolver’s style is not as succinctly lyrical as Doty’s; she’s also less visual and more heart on sleeve, but a genuine ace in her own right at descriptive prose. When it comes to politics, it’s not hard to figure out which way the author leans, and although I happen to agree with her on several counts, I don’t always want to wade into the complicated muck of weighty topics. However, I found that Kingsolver was a good and thoughtful guide in explaining her perspective on matters of ecology in particular, owing to both her biology background and her ability to paint the big picture with up-close anecdotes. In the piece Knowing Our Place, Kingsolver ultimately reminded me of the urgent need to be vigilant about environmental stewardship, but she hooked me with her love of a particular place, seen from her office window in the Arizona desert:
. . . I bear witness to a small, tunnelish clearing in the woods, shaded by overarching mesquite boughs and carpeted with wildflowers. Looming over this intimate foreground are mountains whose purple crowns rise to an altitude of nine thousand feet about the Tucson basin . . . By day, vermilion flycatchers and western tanagers flash their reds and yellows in the top of my tall window, snagging my attention whenever they dance into the part of my eyesight where color vision begins.
. . . [I] tend to work where the light is good. The window is the world opening onto me. I find I don’t look out so much as it pours in.
Kingsolver’s passionate stance on many matters overflows onto the page, and those who fundamentally disagree with her world view might interpret some of her words as quite strident. But those who take the time to read her words and ponder them will find that she also takes the time to explain her stance thoughtfully and deliberately, a much-needed effort in this world rife with summary sound bites. Her piece on genetic engineering (in the context of agriculture), which starts with a surprisingly engrossing tale of hummingbird nest building outside her kitchen window, is the first such piece that’s managed to fully explain this rather complex issue to me.
Small Wonder is a modest title, for there is an abundance of wonder in this book. We get to witness Kingsolver wondering, and taking her time doing it, and are ultimately cheered by her overall hopeful perspective on many issues, even those that find us knitting our brows in consternation. There’s both intensity and humor between the covers. Pieces such as Kingsolver’s letters to her daughter and her mother, Taming the Beast with Two Backs (on writing about sex), and an account of her experience judging short stories balance out the more socially conscious selections nicely.
Kingsolver’s got a knockout final paragraph that summarizes what drives her scrutiny of her surroundings, but Doty, with his parallel penchant for examining things up close, could have borrowed it had he the need:
Maybe life doesn’t get any better than this, or any worse, and what we get is just what we’re willing to find: small wonders, where they grow.
Both Still Life and Small Wonder are cheering reminders that the world—its natural features; its complicated relationships; its politics, art, and history—the whole mystifying package, is worth our attentive study, ready to repay our efforts with new insights and ever-evolving perspective. Both books are excellent fodder in this season of hibernation, as we watch the light grow a little brighter and stay a little longer each day.
Books mentioned in this column:
Katherine Hauswirth is a medical writer by day and a creative writer by stolen moments. She writes creative nonfiction and poetry. She is the author of the book Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey and contributed to the anthology Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough. Katherine has been published in many venues including The Writer, Byline, The Christian Science Monitor, Pregnancy, The Writer's Handbook, The Writer's Guide to Fiction, Chronogram, Women of Spirit, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poetry Kit, Eat a Peach, Lutheran Digest, and Pilgrimage. A Long Island native, Katherine lives with her husband and son in Deep River, Connecticut. Harriet’s Voice: Home Base for Writing Mothers is her personal website. Contact Katherine.