Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2402
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.
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 its wings, and wrapped the brilliant risk/ of leaves all around my face.”
Later, in Doty’s class, his students puzzle over why the writer they are studying is so interested in mortality, and Doty says he longs to explain to them the image of the angel he has made, how it represents what is unthinkable between him and Roberts. It leans over his desk, over the bed where Roberts sleeps, just as the angels in the film watched their human charges. Doty names the angel unharmed. Its message seems to be that attachment to mortal beings is as futile as it is necessary to one’s life as a human being: “You die by dying/ into what matters, which will kill you,/ but first it’ll be enough.”
The poems of Doty’s next collection, Atlantis, form a testimony to the suffering AIDS causes both in those who have the disease and in the people who must watch them in their battle. The first poem of the collection, “Description,” defends Doty’s attention to the appearance of things: “What is description, after all,/ but encoded desire?”
The effects of AIDS are described in “Grosse Fuge.” The title refers to the fugue, a form in classical music involving a series of variations on a motif. The poem uses this form as it recalls the autumn Robert Shore (“Bobby” in the poem) spent with Doty during Shore’s last months before his AIDS-related death. The poem circles repeatedly through Bobby’s incoherent but evocative pronouncements. At the same time, the speaker is studying the fugue form to appreciate Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge,” the patterns and autumnal tone of which seem to match Shore’s decline. The form, like the disease and even this poem, seems without resolution: “What can I do but echo/ myself, vary and repeat?”
“Atlantis,” the collection’s long central poem, deals directly with Roberts’s last days and with those of others who died of AIDS. The poem’s six sections are linked by references to dreams. In the first, Doty recounts a dream in which his dog races into the road and is hit by a car. In the second, Roberts relates a dream in which he sees a light at the end of a tunnel but says that he is not yet ready to join the beings streaming toward it. The third describes the dreams of others who have AIDS. The last three sections name other sorts of dreams. Section 4 introduces the dream city of Atlantis, apparently rising from the tidal marsh with an implied promise of life. The plumber’s daughter in section 5 intends to cling to life for the sick loon she has found, just as Roberts stubbornly grasps this world, a commitment dramatized by his stroking the new dog that has joined the household in the last section, a sign of his doomed determination to live.
Source seems to signal the poet’s gradual emergence from an extended exploration of the topics of mortality and loss. In part because of his determination to move on with his life after the death of Roberts in 1993 and in part because of his relationship with Lisicky, his partner since 1995, the book is marked by a greater emphasis on being alive in the moment.
In “Principalities of June,” Doty argues that living in Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod offers daily evidence, especially in early summer, of the theory that all matter is fractured light. According to the poet, the “broken planes” of the white houses reflected in the harbor and refracted by the cloudbank serve as “phrasebooks of day” or useful guides to some new language. In this case, it may very well be the language of renewal and regeneration, “articulated most of all” in the roses, “which mount and swell” on the arbor next to the house the poet shares with Lisicky. Doty asserts that roses are “built to contain/ sunlight . . .” and that in so doing, they contain the moment, which is paradoxically both fragmentary and complete.
Doty revisits, in School of the Arts, his abiding preoccupation with the intersection of people’s inner and outer lives, especially how the poet or any artist must finally step outside himself and view experience from the perspective of the reader or audience.
Exploiting those skills that the poet has developed in navigating the genre of nonfiction, especially the memoir, “Heaven for Paul” translates personal narrative into a lesson of universal import. Doty recounts how he and his partner, Lisicky, faced the possibility of their own deaths while passengers on a plane forced to make an emergency landing. After the initial shock, “. . . crying a little/ and holding each others’ hands . . . ,” they each settled into a separate stance: Lisicky found tranquility and “. . . imagined himself turning toward/ what came next, an un-seeable ahead,” while Doty could not envision a heaven but “only the unimaginable shape of not-myself—.” In essence, each man represents one of the two basic human hypotheses concerning the nature of death: On the one hand, there is the hope of “transcendence,” and on the other, the dread of “dissolution.”
Only in framing the recollected experience as art can Doty step outside himself and gain a larger perspective. In so doing, for example, he comes to wonder why it would matter to him, “. . . on the verge of this life,” that a female passenger would disapprove of two men holding hands. Later, at the end of the poem, when he confronts a second crisis—the threat of tornadoes approaching the airport after the plane’s “wobbling” but safe descent—Doty has reached a state of philosophical composure, able to comment on God’s possible intention regarding such life-threatening moments:“. . . either to torment us/ or to make us laugh, or both. . . .”
Fire to Fire
Besides containing a substantial sampling of poems from seven previous collections, Fire to Fire features twenty-three new pieces, which were published as a separate volume in England under the title Theories and Apparitions (2008). In particular, the eleven poems that grapple with a “theory,” or lyric speculation about a certain topic, follow the poet’s characteristic formula in that they are both confessional—rooted in some autobiographical experience—and universal.
In “Theory of Marriage (The Hug),” Doty revisits the canine companions that he first introduced to readers in his memoir Dog Years: a black retriever named Arden and a golden retriever named Beau. In their interaction with Doty and his partner, Lisicky, the dogs display contrasting behavior. Beau generally would “. . . offer his rump/ for scratching . . .” while facing away from the one performing that act and “. . . looking out/ toward whatever might come along to enjoy”; on the other hand, “Arden would turn his head toward the one/ he loved . . .” and “butt the top of his skull” against that person.
Thus, each dog offers a contrasting perspective on the nature of marriage. Beau regards his relationship to his human caretakers as a secure foundation from which to explore other possibilities—his stance can be interpreted as a canine variation on what some might call an “open marriage”; in contrast, Arden demonstrates the act of “. . . vanishing// into the beloved . . .” and thus achieving a complete and exclusive union.
Very often the personal experience that serves for Doty as a trigger for poetic composition involves the contemplation of or engagement with art. In the case of “Theory of Incompletion,” the poet recounts how while painting “doorways and bookcases” in his apartment, he suddenly became enraptured by a radio broadcast of a performance of George Frideric Handel’s opera Semele (1744). According to Greek myth, Semele seeks to unite with Jupiter, the king of the gods, in his divine form, and because she is mortal, she is consumed in the act of their union. Just as Semele was dissolved by her desire, the poet surrenders to the moment and is suspended in time.
The speaker theorizes “. . . either it’s the latex fumes or the music itself,” but the end result is the same; he is enveloped in “. . . the rapture/ of denied closure. . . .” He sits, leaning back on the rungs of his stepladder, immersed totally in the music, the “gorgeous rising tiers of it/ ceasing briefly then cascading again.” This is the very nature of ecstasy, which is simultaneously “self-enfolding, self-devouring.”
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