When a public health worker gave Mark Doty and his partner Wally Roberts the results of their AIDS test in May of 1989, the world cracked open for the couple. Although it was only Wally who tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), Doty registered it as a solvent that dissolved both of their lives, erasing their future together and thus signaling an end to Doty’s life as well. They had built a solid and deeply satisfying relationship over the course of eight years, and would have another four years before Wally’s death in January, 1994.
Heaven’s Coast is an eloquent memoir of those last years and of the turbulent aftermath, Doty’s year-long struggle with grief over so elemental a loss. It is by turns angry and tender, defiant and reverent; for all the pain, for all the physical and emotional difficulties it portrays, it is never less than clear-eyed and unflinching, always scrupulously descriptive and unashamed of its revelations. In the end, the account of Doty’s spiritual journey—through suffering and separation to a cathartic acceptance of life’s betrayals—achieves tragic dimensions. The transcendence he discovers and articulates by the memoir’s last pages provides a fitting finale to an intensely moving story.
Doty’s is one of several books to have been published in 1996 which recount the experience of being an AIDS survivor, building on a tradition first established in 1988 with Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir. As powerful as Monette’s book was, however, it was told from the point of view of a surviving partner who was himself HIV-positive. (After writing two more novels and an award-winning autobiography, Monette died in 1995.) These new memoirs, on the other hand, are written by men who have not acquired the virus and who are left to fashion a rather different and perhaps more complicated narrative of survival, a narrative encompassing guilt as well as grief and rage. Fenton Johnson’s Geography of the Heart and Bernard Cooper’s Truth Serum both explore this increasingly familiar landscape of disease and remembrance, but the fact that they are novelists gives their accounts a somewhat different shape. Their books are not any less effective as tributes to their lost lovers, but they are somehow less immediate, and finally less affecting than Doty’s. They are the work of experienced practitioners of prose, whereas Heaven’s Coast represents Doty’s first foray outside of his usual field of poetry. Happily, his roots show: All the gifts he brings to bear in the poems are readily perceptible here—the uncanny ear, the discerning eye, the restless desire to understand the images that press themselves insistently upon him. As a result, the memoir has a richness, a sensuous finish to it, the feel of having been written by a man on whom nothing—no feeling, no experience, no sensory detail—is lost. The language has all the sheen of a newly burnished poem, the images shimmer and linger in the mind; yet it reads, amazingly, as naturally as conversational prose.
The author of four volumes of poetry and the winner of numerous awards, including the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award forMy Alexandria (1993), Doty has made a name for himself as a poet of almost Keatsian lusciousness, alert to the richness of human experience as well as to its evanescence, its awful fragility. His voice seems most naturally pitched in an elegiac key, and in his meticulous tracings of the clear beauties of the physical world, he never fails to remark the ambivalent quality of nature’s offerings. His poems after Wally’s HIV diagnosis are, not surprisingly, even more finely attuned to this doubleness, to the flux that underlies apparent stability, to the provisional nature of identity, to the contradictions that surround life and death. The poems collected in Atlantis (1995) cover much the same ground as Heaven’s Coast though they do so in the more chiseled and concise manner of poetry. They document Doty’s loss with the same grace and bravery, placing Wally’s death in the larger context of nature and, more precisely, in the natural landscape of Provincetown, Massachusetts, their home, their Alexandria—a border town where various cultures mingle and remain separate at once, where a fascinating spectrum of relationships exists and where difference and surprise is the expected. Here is not only a welcoming human community but an unusual geographical configuration that seems to embody Doty’s sense of existence. The narrow strip of land, the surrounding water, the ceaseless alteration of earth and shore—these images of transformation, of ebb and flood, of renegotiated boundaries accompany Doty’s reflections throughout the poems and the prose and eventually suggest to him a means of coming to terms with Wally’s death and his own ongoing life. Yet the passage toward accommodating so radical a change does not come easily; the vision of grace he finally embraces does not arrive without innumerable interruptions and regressions, yet the memoir traces these emotional fluctuations with a bracing candor.
Doty has solved the problem of how to structure such a challenging narrative by making Heaven’s Coast a compendium—of journal entries (from a journal he kept for two years during Wally’s final illness), letters to and from friends, vignettes from the couple’s past, minihistories of various friends, accounts of Doty’s serious and persis tent back problems, short essays and extended meditations on memory, gardening, sex, animals, the sea, among many other things. It is an impressionistic collection, circling always, temporally and thematically, around the central figure of Wally and his slow decline from progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML), a brain infection that leads to gradual paralysis and death. Left emotionally paralyzed himself after Wally’s death and in the grip of immobilizing back pain, Doty stopped writing for a month. Then, in February, he entered these questions in his journal: “How can I begin, how can I not begin?” The way back was through language. He...
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