Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1919
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 that-which-goes-forward.” The recurrent dreams, however, remind the speaker that the dog too is vulnerable, “he is where we’ll be hit first.” Thus when Arden and the speaker, who is barely awake from the dream, are out for a walk in the early morning and the dog steps into the vacant street, the man reports,
I screamed his name and grabbed his collar.
And there I was on my knees,
both arms around his neck
and nothing coming.
Arden’s “bewildered face” makes the man realize that he did not know whom he “was trying to protect.” Thus his grief and anxiety are projected onto the dog. They translate into small, physical symbolic acts of daily living, which interpret but do nothing to avert the coming catastrophe.
The other sections focus too on death and nature, death in nature. “Atlantis” sees nature’s message as bringing at least the suggestion of a cosmic wholeness in which death is transcended. The speaker mentions that he “didn’t understand what’s to come/ was always just a glimmer up ahead” and talks about the reappearance of the lost world,
where herons ply their twin trades
of study and desire. I’ve seen
two white emissaries unfold
like heaven’s linen, untouched,
enormous, a fluid exhalation. Early spring,
too cold yet for green, too early
for the tumble and wrack of last season
to be anything but promise.
Stevens’ presence may be glimpsed in these lines too; it is noteworthy that Stevens’ work—which is some of the most intensely elegiac poetry in English, although it does not mourn the loss of a specific person—is the source of the epigraph for the collection. Doty’s Atlantis is more focused on the particulars of a personal loss, from which he looks outward for interpretation and comfort. In this segment he finds it, at least as a possibility.
As the poem began with reflections on the dog Arden, the last section concludes with the introduction of another dog, and these two dogs will appear again in the last selection of the book. “Atlantis” concludes with “A New Dog,” in which the vital, physical presence of the new dog and the dying Roberts’ impulse to touch the dog, bring a kind of peace. It could be tempting to look on the whole of “Atlantis” as a kind of working through of the stages of grief, but that is too facile. The stages of grief are present, but not in sequence; in fact, they are all experienced at once. It may be significant, however, that in medieval iconography the dog symbolizes faith and loyalty.
The other poems in this book are equally powerful. “A Display of Mackerel” shows how the physical transcends itself through light, so that death becomes another dimension of life. The mackerel of the poem are beautiful in their display, and Doty gives a direct and then a metaphorical description of them:
each a foot of luminosity
barred with black bands,
which divide the scales’
like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window.
The mackerel then themselves turn into metaphor:
Suppose we could iridesce,
like these, and lose ourselves
entirely in the universe
of shimmer—would you want
to be yourself only . . . ?
The fish and the self merge in the last lines into a “rainbowed school/ and its acres of brilliant classrooms.” The conclusion is wistful and triumphant at once:
How happy they seem,
even on ice, to be together, selfless,
which is the price of gleaming.
“A Display of Mackerel” first appeared in The Atlantic; an individual tour de force, it gains additional power from its association with the other work in Atlantis.
The general effect of this collection is of a world slowed down, through the intensity of the coming loss, to a sequence of sharply etched (and edged) moments. Two wrecked boats spotted on the beach, a little girl trying to revive a sick loon she has found on the coast, sunflowers dying at the end of the season—all repeat the story of death of the self, and yet all “chronicle the fashion in which/ the world gains luster as it falls apart.” Is this luster an illusion born of desire, or is it some obscure promise? Doty does not definitively answer this question. Mary Oliver comments that “he finds no more than Keats found: a riddle.” Yet Doty never stops exploring the implications of the enigma. He studies the world’s hieroglyphics with a loving and hopeful eye.
The last poem of Atlantis is shot through with the gleams and shimmers that Doty finds often on the surface of the world and that he suggests may come from deep within it. “Aubade: Opal and Silver” functions as a kind of epilogue. The speaker is walking with his two dogs, Arden and Beau. Beau is “the new dog” introduced earlier in a section of “Atlantis,” “the one my lover’s asked for/ in the last month of his life”—thus Roberts demonstrated his commitment to life, to the life force. Now the weather is coldly beautiful; the dogs run “through a continuously descending voile/ of little white darts, heaven’s/ heavy silver brushed to lavender/ at the rim.” As the dogs rush ahead of him out of sight, into the scrim of snow, Doty is once more reading the landscape, reading his own story and Wally Roberts’ there. There is love reaffirmed and rueful recognition of finality: “That’s the nature of the trick:/ time animates what it kills.” The poem then shifts to metaphysical speculation. The landscape is breathtaking, a creation made by a dressmaker/magician with “enough antique lace/ to sew a bodice for the harbor,/ its silver-skinned breathing/ dotted now with little flowers of ice.” The dressmaker/magician is “our old enchanter,” who “works these fierce and delicate effects/ from somewhere in the wings.” Are these “shifting tableaux” intended “for our instruction and delight” or “to confound us”? The walker wonders, watching the dogs disappear into the snow, then reappear. The poem’s (and the book’s) final lines are memorable as well as optimistic:
spun of such insubstantial stuff
it doesn’t quite conceal the other world.
Can’t we see into it already, a little? Look,
there: two gestures, one black
and one golden, racing into the veil.
These poems do not have the any of the heavy machinery of current postmodernist work—their allusions are clear, their experience universal. The intensity of the feelings expressed together with the originality of the recurrent images impresses passages—single lines, aphorisms, endings—on the memory; few contemporary poems stay with the reader like Doty’s. Those who appreciate poetry that makes them see the natural world anew and that also helps them deal with the losses and griefs in their own lives will find Atlantis a collection to return to, to read aloud from, and to share.
Sources for Further Study
Library Journal. CXX, August, 1995, p. 79.
The New York Times Book Review. C, November 5, 1995, p. 25.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, September 25, 1995, p. 50.