Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2516
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 had been asked to contribute to Brian Bouldrey’s anthology about AIDS and religion, Wrestling with the Angel (1995), but very soon he found that he was writing about himself, writing to give shape to his experience, and discovering that in doing so he could inscribe his memory of Wally. In the process, he reanimates all of his love for his lost partner, getting inside their relationship in ways he had never felt before; and he learns the consoling lesson that we are not merely our bodies but are fluid, multiple, extended, that Wally is not entirely lost to him. It is Wally’s presence he imagines encountering when he meets the depthless gaze of a coyote or watches the buoyant play of a coast seal. These totems come bearing signs of the otherness that is death, but intimations, too, of the connections that may exist between this living world and the shadowy one beyond us.
In a real sense, it was Doty’s work that saved him, the effort of making, of writing—and becoming—a story. He remembers reading that when his wife Camille was on her deathbed, Claude Monet said, “I found myself, without being able to help it, in a study of my beloved wife’s face, systematically noting the colors.” In the same way, Doty cannot help but note the colors. “What does a writer do when the world collapses,” he asks, “but write?” So he writes, at first about the immediate pain of absence, the deep and pervasive sorrow that seemed to him, in those initial months after Wally’s death, to be a large and inhabitable space or a season that simply had to be endured, a winter without much promise of spring. He took endless walks out on the salt marsh and in the woods with the two dogs, Beau and Arden, who had lived through Wally’s illness and been such responsive and loving companions to both men. In the dogs’ natural insistence on living life now, in the moment, Doty found some power to attend to the hard but essential realities of his life in the present difficult moment. In their pure directness of being, he found the courage to examine his own identity and what it meant to have discovered that identity in his relationship with Wally over the course of a dozen years.
He writes of a trip taken back to their Boston neighborhood weeks after Wally’s death, a visit full of Dantean echoes of an underworld journey since so many of the men who lived in the tall old Beacon Street brownstone were by now dead too, casualties of the AIDS epidemic. It was here that he and Wally had their first apartment, here as a twenty-eight-year-old man that Doty had plunged into his first passionate gay love affair. Before this, he had been married but had fled both the marriage and the Midwest when the reality of being gay became overwhelmingly clear to him. With six hundred dollars to his name, he packed up all he had in a little yellow Chevette and headed to Manhattan, living off his earnings as a temporary typist and a part-time job teaching in a summer writers program. Within months he had met Wally, and within another three months he had left New York for Boston and the promise of a life together—a life that would take them to Vermont when Doty got a teaching position at Goddard College, then to Provincetown when Wally’s diagnosis made them feel that they needed a more supportive, less isolated community in which to deal with this crisis.
He writes of the death of a close friend and fellow poet, the beautiful, complicated, self-destructive, prodigiously talented Lynda. It was a rich and prickly friendship, professionally and personally nourishing though frustrating. Her alcoholism made her wildly unpredictable, while that very unpredictability made her a fascinating companion. She was a creature of style and charm, mercurial, adventurous, defiant. She shared Doty’s allegiance to an aesthetic of “lush surfaces spread over difficult, edgy material, art full of anguish and pleasure in the racked beauty of the world.” When she died in an automobile accident a mere three months after Doty lost Wally, the strain that had been building erupted in a lava flow of rage and pain, a feeling of dread, of helplessness in the face of the relentless grinding force of life. Hit with these two nearly unbearable losses, Doty could only rail savagely against a reality that seemed nothing but a fiendishly efficient system for carrying people and things away.
Yet he also writes about the moments when, in spite of these larger forces ineluctably drawing people toward separation and destruction, they erect something that gives them hope in a future. The house and garden that Doty and Wally took on in Vermont are emblems of this persistent desire to build, to create beauty and stability in a world of flux. The pages in which he talks about rescuing the sagging Victorian house, transforming it into a warm and shining refuge for themselves and their friends, are full of joy. Like the house finches he watches nesting in his eaves, these two gay men make a dwelling place for their spirits in those five Vermont years. Yet even the lovingly restored house and the luxuriant garden cannot finally protect them.
Running through the text as a kind of idée fixe are the dark and inevitable questions raised by the biblical book of Job. The great and seemingly motiveless losses, the arbitrary motions of the cosmos, the vulnerability, the diminishment, the disillusionment, the pain—all this prompts Job to cry out in his bitterness, Why me? Why do I suffer? What is the point of all this pain? His refusal to accept easily and silently the gnawing black vision of an incomprehensible world, his great defining “No!” leveled at a mysterious power, is a sign of his humanity. Doty feels a kinship with Job in his despair; he too cannot understand and will not be silent. He will write; he will descend into the very blackness of his grief. And he does. He comes through, however, ascends in fact, to an understanding of Job’s condition that is quite different from where he began: He now finds consolation as well as desolation. There is design; there is a power that, while indifferent to his suffering and unprepared to intervene in it, is nevertheless holding it all together. Great grief, yes, but great intimacy and light and love as well.
This vision of a world caught in a paradox, wrapped in indissoluble contraries, appears in another literary voice that winds through the memoir, the voice of Rainer Maria Rilke from the Duino Elegies (1923; English translation, 1930). When Doty reads the line “for beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,” he cannot help asking if it may not also be true that terror is only the edge of a beauty we can hardly bear. The hint that grief and joy are embraced in a curious but beautiful dance, is a saving revelation. It accounts for the strange shine around Wally’s dying, the feeling that Wally leapt up and soared out, free and graceful and whole. It accounts for the way gladness seeps under Doty’s blanket of grief when, all unbidden, the fragrant glamour of an Italian spring pulls him into a joyous present, rich with possibilities yet tinged with past sorrows. It accounts for the poignant comfort of the body when we know that the body can comfort only so much. “Each thing disappears; everything goes on.” Absence and presence. The now and the hereafter. The boundaries are fluid, uncertain. For Doty, “the whole world is heaven’s coast.” Thus it is not surprising that he ends the book with “the story I’ve been saving.” A mere week or so after Wally died, Doty took the dogs for a walk across the salt marsh and found himself thinking of the lines from Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” the section in which the poet imagines, joyously, that grass is the beautiful uncut hair of graves, that it has its origins in the bodies of the dead. Crying and shakily feeling his way through the poem, he reaches the lines he has clearly been moving toward: “All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,/ And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.” That note of transformation and renewal, the refusal to see only death, only grief, resonates in Doty’s poems as much as it does in this radiant work of remembering.
Sources for Further Study
Chicago Tribune. May 5, 1996, XIV, p. 5.
Kirkus Reviews. LXIV, January 1, 1996, p. 37.
Library Journal. CXXI, February 15, 1996, p. 157.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 14, 1996, p. 2.
The Nation. CCLXIII, July 15, 1996, p. 33.
The New York Times Book Review. CI, March 10, 1996, p. 10.
The New Yorker. LXXII, May 13, 1996, p. 95.
Ploughshares. XXII, Spring, 1996, p. 203.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, January 29, 1996, p. 91.
The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, April 7, 1996, p. 11.