Fire to Fire

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2029

Mark Doty’s poems in Fire to Fire, winner of the National Book Award, are about the large issues of life: human mortality, the transitory beauty of nature, the transformative influence of human aspiration, and the power to realize that aspiration. A self-described poet of the sublime, he has cultivated a style combining plain-spokenness with the elevated diction that often characterizes the sublime.

That Doty has a “democratic” sense of the sublimevalidating the struggle of all creatures toward something larger than themselvesaccounts in part for the great popularity of his work. He shows ordinary people confronting what he has called “the raw fact of our inadequacy in the face of the world,” but reaching out to become allied with forces vastly superior to human nature. This inclusive notion of sublimity is consistent through the eight volumes of poetry represented in this collection. The poem from which this book takes its name“Fire to Fire,” first appearing in School of the Arts (2005)includes these lines: “If I were a sunflower I would be/ the branching kind,/ my many faces held out/ in all directions . . . ”

The new poems are contained in the first section of the book, titled “Theories and Apparitions,” which was published in Britain as a stand-alone volume. The first poem of that section, “Pipistrelle”named for the most common of Britain’s fourteen bat speciesillustrates Doty’s proclivity for appreciating diverse perspectives without exalting one above another. This habit even diminishes any sense of rivalry with other poets, as he describes himself and a friend writing in two different veins (the friend’s “lyrics” and Doty’s “tale”) about their sighting of the small creature, which could be counted as one of the “apparitions” in the title of this section. The opening lines belong to the friend: “His music, Charles writes,/ makes us avoidable,” meaning that the bat’s sonar keeps it from bumping into objects. Doty, in contrast, calls the bat an “emissary of evening,” An emissary would not avoid but would seek out those for whom a message is intended. Doty decides that this encounter “is my personal visitation,” and the thought humbles him: “. . . I with no music/ to my name save what I can coax/ into a line, no sense of pitch,/ heard the night’s own one-sided conversation.” This is Doty’s poem, so he continues “filling in the tale.” Reflecting upon bats, he realizes that “Only some people can hear their frequencies,” and he is one of them. Just so, not everyone can hear all the nuances of a poem. Then comes a passage that reveals Doty’s distinguishing intellectual modesty: “Is it because I am an American I think the bat came/ especially to address me, who have the particular gift/ of hearing him? If he sang to us, but only I/ heard him, does that mean he sang to me?”

In “Pipistrelle,” as in much of his work, Doty uses an everyday experience to enter by small steps into deep questioning and meditation. Soon, however, he becomes concerned that he may be reading too much into the experience, inspiring though it may be. Does his poem, he wonders, tend to “worry my little aerial friend/ with a freight not precisely his?/ Does the poem reside in experience/ or in self-consciousness/ about experience?” In the midst of such fervent questioning, the natural setting in which he and Charles saw the bat exerts a calming effect, and in the end he is left with what appears to be a simple contrast between self-conscious art and the natural phenomenon that inspired it: “Listen to my poem, says Charles./ A word in your ear, says the night.” Doty’s preference between the two seems pretty clear; yet he leaves the contrasting viewpoint intact, undiminished in force. Elsewhere he has written, “It’s a very large and capacious house, American poetry. I have no desire for everyone to work in the same way.”

In keeping with this philosophy, Doty has chosen a simple, straightforward formgenerally, unrhymed stanzas from two to four lines long, each with three to four beats. One can barely detect any craft in his work, so skillfully does he make the difficult look simple. His work represents a return to formalism, not form for its own sake, but as an avenue to depth of thought and feeling. Despite his seeming artlessness, he is not the heir to the spontaneous Beats; indeed, Doty says that while he respects spontaneity, his own poetic practice is “quite the opposite.” Thus, he does not fully subscribe to Jack Kerouac’s theory of “spontaneous bop prosody” or Allen Ginsburg’s “first thought best thought,” but he believes in “sitting” with the poem as long as one can endure any attendant pain. Developing writers, he says, often stop too soon, believing they have finished a piece, but actually they are just avoiding emotional discomfort. He is wary of finishing a poem too quickly so that it presents only “what is familiar, the stories we already know, what we expect to hear from ourselves.” Doty observes, “The longer we can stay submerged in not knowing what we’re doing, the more we’re going to discover in the process of writing.” He adds that his poem “In the Airport Marshes” required two years for completion. That poem concludes with the line, “How do you reckon your little music?” The poem is partly about creating poetry, about finding the words to convey to the listener the meaning an experience has for the speaker.

Doty’s preference for the deliberate and well-considered goes beyond stylistic consideration. This is clear from the distinction he makes between “theories” and “apparitions” in the section of new poems. Like the little bat, many other “apparitions” in this section tend to be animals that can evoke an aesthetic response by purely mechanical, unconscious means. The pipistrelle cannot know that to a human beingat least to a poetits cries sound “somewhere between merriment and weeping.” In a poem explicitly titled “Apparition,” a peacock (“oracular pear,” Doty calls it) spreads “the archaic poem of his tail” into “ . . . an arc of nervous gleams,/ a hundred shining animals/ symmetrically peering/ from the dim/ primeval woods . . . ” Two other poems also titled “Apparition” are about human subjects, but these poems, too, deal with mechanical actions and rote responses. In “Apparition (Favorite Poem),” a boy reciting from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem is seen

repeating a crucial instructionthat must be delivered, word for word,as he has learned it:My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair.

The “theories” in this section’s title are poems that begin with simple anecdotes or comments and develop into meditations on large issues. Doty’s titles include “theories” of narrative, of the soul, and, he says, “five theories of beauty, which I keep returning to because I never seem to get it right.” The poet takes a deceptively casual approach, often humorous, and leads the reader into the subject. His “Theory of the Sublime” recounts a “happening” art project in which Doty simply clapped his hands for thirty-seven minutes while an artist records him on videotape. With no other direction than this, the poet finds himself “reaching for some sort of rhythm to perform” and slowly discovers a natural pattern of the body in which “ . . . the pulse becomes firmer more persistent,/ Life of a tree unfurling, green burl spreading out/ Its swath of selfhood, an actuality . . . ” After his initial sense of inadequacy, he ponders, while clapping, the creation of the sublime in nature and art, such as Barcelona’s massive Templo Expiatorio de la Sagrada Familia church, begun by Antoni Gaudí in 1882 and still under construction in the twenty-first century. At the end of the clapping session, the artist stops recording and indicates with approval that “something has happened here.” Indeed, the poet has achieved a distance from the ordinary that has allowed him to perceive both the greatness of sublime art and his own smallness. Elsewhere Doty has noted that physically large works of art, which inspire a sense of awe, have been made by human beingssometimes several generations of themmoving over large areas of canvas or stone to create their work. He feels it even more paradoxical that this realization could have been brought about by “something as ephemeral as 37 minutes of clapping.”

Much of the sublime art that so inspires him is Christian art. Implicitly or explicitly, many of Doty’s poems ponder Christian themes. Doty once told an interviewer that while growing up he had Protestant Christian ideas drummed into him, especially that of life’s transitory nature and what he calls “a built-in obsession with mortality.” While he believes that much of his influence was negative, his poetic explorations seek to bring out what is fresh and alive in Christian faith. The poem “Citizens,” about the commonplace outrage of nearly being hit by a truck in Manhattan, addresses the Christian theme of forgiveness, as well as the Zen concept of letting anger go. The truck driver grins as Doty shouts indignantly, “what are you doing, act like a citizen.” Later, Doty wonders what kind of “citizen” he must be to have stayed angry so long. He recalls the story of a Zen monk who carried an elderly woman across the river, only to be asked by a fellow monk, “How could you touch her when you vowed not to” traffic with women. “And the first monk says, I put her down/ on the other side of the river./ Why are you still carrying her?” In time, Doty realizes he is angry because the truck driver “Made me erasable,/ A slip of a self, subject to. How’d I get emptied . . . question.” The poet concludes

I don’t care. If he’s one of those people miserable for lackOf what is found in poetry, fine.***  When did I ever set anything down?

Poets set all their thoughts down on paper.

The best example of a Christian theme made fresh and alive is “Messiah (Christmas Portions),” originally published in Sweet Machine (1989) and included in Fire to Fire as one of Doty’s finest poems. “Messiah” describes a choir of ordinary people coming together under “the Methodist roof” to sing George Frideric Handel’s famous oratorio. They are “blacks and whites,” a

cloudbank of familiar angels:that neighbor whofights operatically with her girlfriend, for one,and the friendly bearded clerk from the post office,   tenor trappedin the body of a baritone? Altosfrom the A&P, sopranofrom the T-shirt shop . . . ***Silence in the hall,anticipatory, as if we’re allabout to open a gift we’re not sure  we’ll like;  how could theycompete with sunset’s burnishedoratorio? Thoughts which vanish,when the violins begin.Who’d have thoughtThey’d be so good? . . .   This musicdemonstrates what it claims;glory shall be revealed.

Near the end of the poem is the central message of the experience:

  Aren’t we enlargedby the scale of what we’re ableto desire? Everything,  the choir insists,  might flame;inside these trappingsburns another, brighter life,  quickened, now,  by song . . . .   Still time.  Still time to change.

It is significant that it is common people whose actions lead the way to these perceptions. The poet acknowledges the doubt that such people as the woman who “fights operatically” can deliver something this great, but the success of their concerted effort reveals a truly Christian message in the best sense.

The “Christmas Portions” of the poem’s title refers to the parts of Handel’s Messiah (1742) that are generally sung at Christmas: Part I (The Birth) and the “Hallelujah” chorus. In addition, Doty may also mean by “Portions” that through their own desire for and pursuit of the sublime, these ordinary singers have secured their true portion in life.

People sing Messiah from a desire to be uplifted. Doty writes poems for much the same reason. A poem is the outcome of a sometimes arduous process of thought and feeling, a process of digging ever deeper for the truth. Writing poems can be a discipline that can shape the lives of poet and reader for the better.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 22

The Advocate, April 8, 2008, p. 59.

Booklist 104, no. 14 (March 15, 2008): 16.

Lambda Book Report 16, nos. 1/2 (Spring/Summer, 2008): 18-19.

Library Journal 133, no. 6 (April 1, 2008): 86.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 8 (February 25, 2008): 53.

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