Mark Doty Essay - Critical Essays


Central to Mark Doty’s work is his position as a gay poet; it informs all his poetic vision. Although he draws his subjects from a wide range of human experience, he views those subjects—as any writer must—through his own eyes. In Doty’s case, those are eyes that have observed much beauty but also the painful experience of growing up gay in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the hatred expressed in American homophobia, and the grief of losing a lover to the ravages of AIDS. When a reviewer asked him about a “gay aesthetic,” Doty noted that although gay people exist in as much variety as all human beings, a “sense of disjunction between surface and substance” is probably an essential part of gay life. A common theme in Doty’s work examines the mutability of all things human; everything is ultimately fated to die, the poet says, but people must love anyway.

The relationship between surfaces and what lies beneath them is a recurrent motif in Doty’s work both as he examines human experience and as he examines the external world. To discuss that relationship, he often uses the language of painting, a subject of abiding interest, as Still Life with Oysters and Lemon demonstrates. His diction draws frequently on the vocabulary of surface textures and colors.

A typical Doty poem is long, containing many short lines and short free-verse stanzas, although he sometimes uses rhyme. His poems often incorporate a narrative element, but Doty’s real goal usually lies in the meditation that accompanies the narrative, not in the event itself. In their engagement with Doty’s work, readers may feel they are accompanying the poet as he himself navigates the initial experience and struggles to understand its implications.

Doty has said that he is searching for ways to make his poetry political without relying on the language of the polemic or the harangue. He sees the possibility of making such poetry out of the materials of his own life, for he says that even when people tend their own gardens, they find that they have taken stances regarding social or political issues.

My Alexandria

The poems of My Alexandria demonstrate this balance between the private and the political very powerfully as they address the AIDS epidemic and Roberts’s illness. In “Fog,” Doty records the events that surrounded his and Roberts’s being tested for the HIV virus. The poem’s central metaphor is blood, like the color at the heart of the peony buds in the front garden or the blood Doty lost by a nick from the garden shears. As they wait the three weeks for the results, Doty sees blood everywhere, feels it welling up like a wine fountain. They pass time by consulting the Ouija board, and as they do, they find that all the spirits seem eager to speak “to someone who isn’t dead yet.” One of the spirits seems to say that “M. has immunity” (Doty was immune) and, enigmatically, that “W. has.” Another spirit identifies God as being in the garden, and the speaker, Doty, concurs, perhaps because the garden is a place of so much dying as well as growth.

When they meet the public health care worker, they get the news. She gives Roberts “the word that begins with P”—positive, though Doty suggests that “planchette” (the marker for the Ouija board) or “peony” or any other word would be preferable. At last he asks what one of the Ouija spirits asked: “Kiss me,/ in front of the screen, please,/ the dead are watching.” He goes on: “They haven’t had enough yet./ Every new bloom is falling apart.” The fog of the title is the word the spirits use when “they can’t speak clearly.” Now, Doty says, it is the word he too must use for what he cannot say.

The long poem “The Wings” uses an angel as its central metaphor. The poem begins at a country auction, where a boy lies on the grass, waiting for his parents, and falls asleep while reading. The boy’s parents waken him, and he leaves the magic world of dream and fiction to go back into “the world of things.” As he slings his parents’ purchase—a pair of snowshoes— across his back, he looks suddenly like “an angel/ to carry home the narrative of our storied,/ scattering things.”

In the poem’s next section, Doty recalls some of the things he and Roberts collected through the years. Once they picked apples in an abandoned orchard, where the grasses were still flattened from where deer had been lying. Once they found a rabbit cage containing a pair of homemade painted pine rabbits—a find any collector would treasure. That day calls up memories of the German film Der Himmel über Berlin (1987; Wings of Desire, 1988), in which angels are willing to give up their immortality for the sake of human experience. Doty agrees with the angels—who would not trade being an angel for such experiences? As he recalls the vivid scenes of that autumn day, he concludes “Don’t let anybody tell you/ death’s the price exacted/ for the ability to love. . . .”

The next section takes place at an exhibition of the AIDS quilt—the huge memorial quilt made up of hundreds of blocks dedicated to people who died of AIDS. Doty notes that many of the blocks are made of clothing of the dead; he concludes that these intimate blocks remind the viewer of “one essential, missing body.” He goes on: “An empty pair of pants/ is mortality’s severest evidence.”

The poem’s location moves into the autumn garden, a place in which errors can be corrected, plants can be lifted and reset in better places. The speaker says he is making an angel here, evidently using plantings to make an angelic shape. The image calls to his mind a dream in which he rescued a bird that loved him. When he took it from the closet and gave it water, “it began to beat the lush green music/ of...

(The entire section is 2402 words.)