Mark Doty’s fourth book of poems, Atlantis, is both disturbing and comforting. These poems combine an exact and appreciative description of nature with a narrative of Wally Roberts’ death from AIDS. One might expect the combination to self-destruct, turning to facile comfort or a nihilism born of the ironic contrast, but it does not. Instead, the juxtaposition of death and beauty leads to a rereading of both the physical and the spiritual world. The conclusions reached are tentative and uncertain, but they represent a credible faith. If this book narrates a tale of death, there is also a birth—the surfacing, through pain, of another possible continent where everything lost is transformed into a lucent permanence.
Doty’s three previous collections brought him to the forefront of the contemporary poetry scene as a poet both accessible and challenging. His first two books, Turtle, Swan (1987) and Bethlehem in Broad Daylight(1991), were recognized for their combination of passion and precision. His third book, My Alexandria (1993), received major acclaim, receiving the National Book Critics Circle Award and being named a finalist for the National Book Award. Doty himself has also been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, and other major awards. Atlantis has the stylistic precision of his earlier work and a powerful additional focus on the AIDS death.
Doty’s style is relaxed and direct; he usually writes in unrhymed three-line stanzas that have no regular meter but contain many falling rhythms, trochaic feet, which are particularly appropriate to the theme of Roberts’ long dying. Doty’s flexible tercets are reminiscent of Wallace Stevens’ use of this form. The focus on Roberts’ death draws everything into the death, so that nature, music, literature, and art all mirror this loss. Everything perceived becomes a metaphor for the death, and for other deaths experienced by those who love.
These poems have both an individual and a cumulative effect. Originally published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Nation, and other journals with a broadly intellectual readership, in this collection the poems are able to gloss one another and enhance their message in its totality. Motifs are allowed to repeat themselves in variants. Atlantis will appeal not only to other poets but to all who are committed to literature—especially those readers who have lost a friend or family member to an extended illness such as AIDS.
Atlantis pays homage to the force and beauty of the physical world. Any comfort that can be found for the devastating loss it chronicles is rooted in the physical. Yet through this long dying, shared by the poet and his lover, the physical transcends itself and becomes the metaphysical. The glimpses of transcendent nature in the poems suggest a kind of natural religion that recalls the poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. The land and its inhabitants, human and animal, seem animated by a single force. This unifying force is beyond individual deaths and births, which find their being and their meaning in it.
Atlantis is divided into segments that shift from Roberts’ death to elements of the landscape in which the drama of human loss takes place. The poignant reality of loss is read into the landscapes, but it seems that the physical gives back, through its qualities of light, an enigmatic message of wholeness. The nature poems flank the centerpiece of the book, the title poem, which describes Roberts’ death.
The long poem “Atlantis” is a rare experience, an elegy that does not lose its subject in poetry. It is a series of six titled segments that discuss Roberts’ illness and death as well as other events that impinged on this experience. Dreams and animals are the recurrent images, and they send a mixed message about the meaning of Roberts’ impending death. The first section, “Faith,” is strikingly moving. The speaker tells of his dreams of his dog’s death on the highway, after he has learned of his lover’s diagnosis. “Current wisdom” suggests that he think positively about the situation, yet the reality is a debilitating illness that slopes toward death.
I swear sometimes
when I put my head to his chest
I can hear the virus humming
like a refrigerator.
Instead of trying to cultivate the recommended “positive attitude,” he thinks of their dog Arden, who reflects both his hope and his grief. “Soul without speech,/ sheer, tireless faith,/ he is...
(The entire section is 1919 words.)