SOURCE: Cramer, Steven. Review of Turtle, Swan, by Mark Doty. Boston Review 13, no. 1 (February 1988): 28-9.
[In the following review, Cramer comments on the style and subject matter of Turtle, Swan, asserting that Doty's poetry is “quirky” yet refreshing.]
At a time when much American poetry seems paralyzed between two impoverishing forces—“new formalist” campaigns for the sequence of the metronome versus an equally reductive penchant for concocting puzzles keyed to fashions in literary theory—it is enlivening to come across a poet willing to raise the stakes past gamesmanship. In Turtle, Swan, Mark Doty's first book, form is not merely a container but an embodiment of deep feeling and urgently articulated experience. And if his subjects are the familiar ones involving memory, loss, and the artist's necessarily quixotic project to redeem those losses, Doty's quirky, digressive mode of narration still manages to “make it new.”
Doty's poems strive for a style approximating casual conversation, proceeding anecdotally, as if the poet were catching up with a friend he hadn't seen in years. “In Iowa, 1971, I wore my hair / in a ponytail nearly to my waist,” begins one poem. Unashamedly autobiographical, resolutely naturalistic, the poems fix on names, places, and dates not only for literal fidelity but because these facts offer starting points for the poet to place himself in relation to his past, “which is too large / to apprehend at once.”
In embroidering his relaxed, matter-of-fact narratives, Doty sacrifices some of the more recognizable pleasures poetry can offer. A reader insisting on line-by-line compression of syntax, nuance of diction, the elaborate surface play of vowels and consonants, or the satisfaction of metrical recurrence will likely be disappointed by Doty's colloquial idiom and leisurely distribution of sentences across lines and stanzas. But over the larger arc of his extended narratives, Doty deploys parallels of incident and gesture, details that recur and modulate, and a keen sense of fictive structure to lend his poems an unmistakable shapeliness.
In the title poem, for instance, a swan's “white architecture” and a turtle's shell ultimately transform into the “muscular wings” and the “mottled autumnal colors” of a lover's chest and eyes. In another poem, the cleaning solvents from Doty's night job at a laundry become emblems of the abrasive marriage he returns to each dawn and the growing disaffection that will, “seep into everything like a dye.”
Or consider “A Replica of the Parthenon,” in which his Golden Treasury of Archeology, a childhood Christmas gift, leads Doty to the “summer twilights, blue as Egyptian porcelain,” when he and a neighbor girl, imitating funeral rites, “took turns dying.” Taking his cue from these “replicas”—both, significantly, involving loss—he recalls his own grandmother's funeral, the paper boats he sailed across the bureau in her empty room, and finally the replica of the Parthenon he'd seen in a city park—“strange in its completeness” to a boy used to ruins pictured in his Treasury. Out of these reflections and refractions, Doty distills his final assertion that “this was in Nashville, in 1957,” turning the poem itself into a replica. Like the terse, factual “legend” under an infinitely more mysterious photograph, this last location reminds us that no encapsulation of the past is sufficient; always “there are buried cities, / one beneath the other.”
Given his obsession with replicas, it's not surprising that Doty's imagination gravitates more toward the artificial than the natural. Aside from picture books and Greek ruins, his poems focus on amusement parks, fireworks, Shaker furniture, films, and paintings. For Doty, these made things represent the specifically human longings to arrest change, to...
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freeze the process of time into discrete, graspable, and—however vicariously—relivable moments. “Permanence lay in things,” he says in “Horses,” “etched palmettoes cut finger deep / in a round mirror, a chest of drawers / infinite with handkerchiefs and nightgowns / to bury my hands in cool sliding.”
Yet Doty knows that these freeze frames of time can never wholly satisfy. “Nancy Outside in July,” perhaps the book's most sustained meditation on the “apparent perfection” of the artificial, begins with a wry illustration of how any frame, by definition, idealizes. Walking with his lover through an exhibition of Jim Dine prints depicting the artist's wife, Doty superimposes their own images of intimacy over these portraits of a marriage:
Talking in the gallery, You and I both want to work. You'd draw me, also in variation; I'd draft a sequence, “Nancy” replaced by your name: “Wally Outside in July” followed by Dine's subtitles: “Among Flowers of the Holy Land.”
Yet art's promise of the ideal made permanent is a seductive illusion. “It doesn't work,” Doty says later in the poem, “much as we'd like to believe that false magic.” In the penultimate stanza, the lovers leave the gallery for a hall of mirrors:
in the lobby of the Lenox Hotel, the mirrored walls offer the most familiar image of reflected endlessness. In the distance of the glass's smaller reaches, I don't know which of us is which, or care.
As the sequence of idealized portraits gives way to a prism of shifting identities, the poem concludes by spelling out “nothing / if not your name,” poignantly settling for one of art's more fragile consolations. In a world in which love is easily lost—where, as the book's title poem grimly reports, we read “every week of some man's lover showing / the first symptoms, the night sweat”—perhaps the best art can offer is a momentary inscription of the name of someone loved.
Yet certain poems in Turtle, Swan seek to widen intimacy into community, again focusing on those peculiarly human artifacts and settings that express our need for collective continuity. In the book's summary poem, “Independence Day,” Doty explores most fully how the intimate and the collective, the personal and the historical, the created and the experienced can briefly intersect. As he and his lover sit “blanket to blanket” with thousands waiting for fireworks to commence, he reflects that “the two of us can't help but feel part / of this immense party” in which “the collective future's decided, / I guess, by these crowds.”
The darker shadings to this celebration—hinted at in comparisons of the crowd to refugees and the “mock danger everyone seems to like”—eventually take over as the couple encounters a familiar street character whose interminable stories about himself and his lover they usually try to avoid. Tonight, however, “the story's different: / ‘You won't be seeing Andy anymore. I woke up / and found him dead two nights ago …’ Then / the story's all a tumble: how a swollen leg / led to a burst heart …” Yet out of this isolated loss, and the once-shared routines the survivor clings to in order to distance the reality of his deprivation, Doty constructs a memorable passage of imaginative empathy:
It's that evidence of habit that moves most— the way any of us would turn to touch a familiar arm, the way a familiar chair supports us when we expect it to and does not disappear. As fireworks do, those spider chrysanthemums of our collective independence …
It's no accident that an ambiguous referent in these lines allows the fireworks simultaneously to “support” and “disappear,” reminding us that loss and reclamation must co-exist in an unresolvably mysterious interdependence. If the fireworks bring us together for their “cheerful explosions,” we also assemble to witness their “bright fragments twirl and chatter down / as if even the stars spoke to each other as they fell.”
Finishing Turtle, Swan I was reminded of a passage from Proust, in which the narrator “Marcel” undergoes an involuntary memory that seems to bring his beloved grandmother back to life. Shocked at how little consolation this affords, he laments: “On feeling her for the first time alive, real, making my heart swell to breaking-point, on finding her at last, [I] learned that I had lost her for ever.” With an imaginative range and emotional force rarely found in a first book, Doty's poems inhabit this paradoxical world of memory, where what lies nearest at hand is precisely what we've lost.
Mark Doty 1953-
(Full name Mark Alan Doty; has also written under the pseudonym M. R. Doty) American poet, memoirist, essayist, editor, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Doty's career through 2002.
One of the most renowned American poets to come of age during the late 1980s, Doty has earned distinction for his elegiac, colloquial verse and his emotionally resonant evocation of personal loss and sorrow, particularly as informed by the AIDS crisis and his experiences as a homosexual man. In collections such as Turtle, Swan (1987) and Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (1991), Doty cultivated a conversational style, using elegantly rendered images to illuminate small epiphanies lurking within the natural world and everyday experience. After the death of Wally Roberts, Doty's companion of twelve years, the ever-present themes of mortality and loss in his work became more pronounced. His award-winning volumes My Alexandria (1993) and Atlantis (1995) are considered among the most compelling works to emerge from the AIDS epidemic. Doty has also authored two memoirs, Heaven's Coast (1996) and Firebird (1999), which have both won critical acclaim and a wide popular audience.
Born in Maryville, Tennessee, Doty grew up near various Army installations in the American South and West where his father, a civilian employee of the Army Corps of Engineers, was employed. In Firebird, Doty describes his estranged relationship with his father, a difficult and frightening figure, and his mother's descent into alcoholism. While in Tucson, Arizona, Doty was introduced by his high-school drama teacher to poet Richard Shelton, an important mentor who fostered Doty's literary passion. During his high school years, Doty struggled with his emerging homosexuality. At age eighteen, confused and apprehensive about his sexual orientation, Doty married poet Ruth Dawson soon after graduating from high school. He then enrolled at Drake University in Iowa, where he earned his bachelor's degree. Shortly after graduating, he and Ruth cowrote and published several chapbooks of poetry. By the end of the decade, however, the marriage had fallen apart and the couple divorced in 1980. Doty subsequently moved to Manhattan to live and write as part of a larger gay community. He worked as an office temp, finished a master of fine arts degree at Goddard College, Vermont, in 1980, and met and fell in love with Wally Roberts, a department store window dresser. In 1987 Doty published his first book of verse, Turtle, Swan, to excellent reviews. Two years later, Roberts was diagnosed with AIDS, and Doty's concern for his lover's health was reflected in the darker poems of his second volume, Bethlehem in Broad Daylight. In 1993 Doty published My Alexandria, which was selected for the National Poetry Series by Philip Levine and won the National Book Critic's Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and Britain's T. S. Eliot Prize, making Doty the first American to win the award. Roberts succumbed to a viral brain infection early in 1994, and his passing was commemorated in Doty's next volume of poems, Atlantis, which won the Lambda Literary Award, the Bingham Poetry Prize, and the Ambassador Book Award. Finding it difficult to write poetry after Roberts's death, Doty turned to prose in Heaven's Coast, a memoir of his life with Roberts, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. Throughout his career, Doty has taught creative writing and poetry at various schools, including Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, the University of Utah, University of Houston, Goddard College, and the Iowa Writer's Workshops.
Doty's acclaimed first volume of poetry, Turtle, Swan, embodies many of the hallmarks of his mature verse—the poems are long and narrative, written in free verse that is both accessible and lyrical. In the poem “Rocket,” for instance, Doty uses the image of a rusting sandbox to conjure forth the mysteries of childhood as well as a sense of both sadness and wonder at the changes wrought by the passing of time. This sense of nostalgia and loss would continue to pervade Doty's work and become one of his major themes. In “A Replica of the Parthenon,” Doty links the symmetry and ruins of the ancient world with his memory of childhood games, the death of his grandmother, and the paradox of verisimilitude. In Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, Doty continues to explore the thematic terrain staked out in Turtle, Swan. The work is divided into three untitled sections: the first deals with issues of childhood, particularly relationships between children and parents, the second explores adult relationships, and the third examines the transitory nature of all human encounters. As in Turtle, Swan, the poems in Bethlehem in Broad Daylight are largely autobiographical narratives marked by solid imagery and moments of epiphany. While Doty's homosexuality is central to the poems of Turtle, Swan and Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, his experiences as a gay man are presented as simply another part of the natural world, rather than a focal perspective in itself. In My Alexandria, however, Doty's gay experience came to the forefront, as the work was largely his response to the crisis years of the AIDS epidemic. A sense of loss pervades the volume, and death—in one form or another—is present in nearly every poem. However, poems such as “Becoming a Meadow,” “Brilliance,” and “Fog,” in which Doty chronicles his and Roberts's fateful tests for HIV, Doty draws as much attention to the joys of life as the sadness of its parting. The title of the volume alludes to the home city of Greek poet C. P. Cavafy, whom Doty invokes explicitly in the poems “Chanteuse” and “Days of 1981.” Doty continued to examine themes of mortality and transience in Atlantis. Many of the poems are set in Provincetown, Massachusetts—Doty and Roberts's adopted hometown—and the maritime setting provides much of the imagery Doty uses to evoke an elegiac sense of impermanence and loss, as in “At the Boatyard,” “Fog Argument,” and “Grosse Fuge.” At the book's core is the six-poem title sequence in which Doty chronicles Roberts's illness and passing.
While Doty's critical reputation rests mainly on the strength of his poetry, his prose memoirs serve as an integral and equally important component of his oeuvre. In Heaven's Coast, Doty recalls his loving relationship with Roberts and his struggle to deal with the reality of Roberts's HIV-positive diagnosis and his devastating decline. The collage-like narrative, which incorporates dream journals, diary entries, poetry fragments, and excerpts from literature and letters from friends, mirrors the uncertainty and acute disorientation experienced by Doty during the ordeal. Doty's next volume of poetry, Sweet Machine (1998), marked the passing of his preoccupation with mortality and his reengagement with life and the living. Though a third of the book's five sections pays homage to those who have died, including poets Lynda Hull and James Merrill, the true focus of the book is found in poems such as “Mercy on Broadway” and “Metro North,” which are set in a gritty, bustling urban milieu. Poems like “Favrile” explore the beauty and artistry of decorative textiles and objects d'art as a meditative point of departure. Though maintaining an eye for surface detail, the poems in Sweet Machine also display a resistance to overt ornamentation and fastidious metaphor, as addressed in “Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work.” One of the poems from Sweet Machine, “Murano,” which discusses the glass artistry of the Italian island of Murano, was published as an individual work in 2000 with accompanying photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum. Doty's second memoir, Firebird, recounts his formative years from age six to sixteen, including his coming of age as a gay man. Besides offering a poignant and often darkly humorous recollection of his childhood and adolescence, the book is also a meditation on memory, particularly the way in which one is shaped by early events and how such memories can become sustainable narratives. Doty followed Firebird with another nonfiction work, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (2001), which takes its name from a painting by seventeenth-century Dutch artist Jan Davidsz de Heem. A departure from his previous works, this extended seventy-page essay is part art history, part meditation on art and objects, and part memoir, all written in richly poetic prose style and covering a wide range of subjects. In Source (2001), Doty's sixth volume of poetry, he explores post-AIDS renewal and gay eroticism with his characteristically vivid, meditative, and graceful verse, set against the backdrops of Manhattan, Provincetown, Vermont, Key West, and Latin America. Doty has also published Seeing Venice: Bellotto's Grand Canal (2002), which pairs one of his essays with photographs of Venice, and edited Open House: Writers Redefine Home (2003), a collection of nineteen essays from different authors that examine the concept of “home” in America.
While Doty's memoirs have been considered an important part of his body of work, his poetry has attracted the majority of his critical and popular acclaim. Since the publication of Turtle, Swan, Doty has established a reputation as an enormously talented young poet whose verse exhibits a maturity in advance of his age, a judgment that was further supported by Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, which has earned him favorable comparisons to Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill. Though some reviewers have found his early verse to be overly glib or shallow, My Alexandria has been widely praised as Doty's most emotionally engaged and technically mature work to date. Commentators have asserted that the redemptive, often exultant tone of My Alexandria offers a rare note of hope and optimism for AIDS sufferers and the gay community at large. Atlantis has also received a positive critical reaction, particularly due to Doty's ability to evoke nuanced descriptions of the natural world. However, several critics have contended that Doty is often too detached or preoccupied with surface details, complaining that his insights and metaphors are sometimes facile or formulaic. His supporters have countered that these characteristics are not faults, but simply consequences of the style in which Doty has chosen to work. Furthermore, many commentators have argued that Doty's attention to exterior surfaces is a technique for inferring deeper interior meanings. Such reviewers have also asserted that if Doty's verse lacks either rigorous formal concerns or verbal pyrotechnics, it is because his verse is rooted in colloquial diction and a lyrical, direct style. Despite such debate, Doty has been frequently lauded for his use of language—both as a rhythmic and musical tool—and his striking ability to evoke luminous displays of loss, grief, and transcendence.
SOURCE: Boruch, Marianne. “Blessed Knock.” American Poetry Review 17, no. 4 (July-August 1988): 39-41.
[In the following excerpt, Boruch contends that Doty employs striking imagery and imagination in the poems in Turtle, Swan.]
It is exactly this crucial mix, this imagination, that makes Mark Doty's collection, Turtle, Swan, such a stunning arrival. “I am inventing as much as remembering—” Doty writes in “To Cavafy,” a poem half about love, half a treatise on love, a real boy aboard the pond's raft—and a real companion with whom to discuss him—yet, “… desire, how sometimes only an image, / a surface compels us. …” Or in “Gardenias,” a poem springing forth solely from image, a photograph of the speaker's mother, 1939, before his birth, leaning “against a garden gate, her hands in the black dotted / pockets of her dress. …” From this, meditation unfolds the vivid scene, “its dense, florid heat, its lack of boundaries, / its insistent green,” and into possibility, “some form / imagined, the outline of a ‘son’ like a vacancy / in some unpainted section a muralist / has saved for last. …” Working thus, Lowell told Seidel, “some little image, some detail you noticed—you're writing about a little country shop, … and your poem ends up with an existential account of your experience. But it's the shop that started it off. You didn't know why it meant a lot to you. … And that's marvelous” (72). It's like the broom, nearly luminous in Doty's “Shaker Orchard,” one “so perfect in its simplicity / as to become a pure channel,” or the way knowledge enters our lives through gesture—children in the front yard who play their twilight games, lying down, going solemn, their hands crossed on their chests, and so take “turns at dying” (“A Replica of the Parthenon”).
Poem as unknown, then; poem as journey. In “Rocket” we spring off one of the “totems” of childhood, looming years ago over the speaker's job at a day-care center, a “rusty metal rocket, a sandbox / with its promise of discovery and burial.” Here, the small world revolved, and for the poet, the force of one radiant boy, John, and back of that, John's house, “the patterned brick / … pots of pink geraniums— / emblems entirely predictable. …” So the poem meanders. “I'm not sure,” Doty writes, “if I wanted to steal / their child or be him, at the center / of an excellent house. …” But beyond that, the territory deepens, the real parents by phone call, the speaker's mother guided out of her “dimmed room” to talk to her son about those who talk to her, the dead, those “ghosts / still gathered. …” But the unbearable is blinked back. “John must be what, / now, eighteen?” the poet rushes to tell us. Does he remember the place, its gaudy rocket? And what is such recall? Does it “strike him now, as we say / things magnified in memory do, as smaller / than he remembered, less dangerous?” Repeatedly in this collection, one is touched by the depth of the imagery, the way it works above ground and below to make its fatal, heart-linked sense.
Turtle, Swan (poetry) 1987
Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (poetry) 1991
My Alexandria (poetry) 1993
Atlantis (poetry) 1995
Heaven's Coast (memoir) 1996
Sweet Machine (poetry) 1998
Firebird: A Memoir (memoir) 1999
Murano: Glass from the J. Paul Getty Museum (poem) 2000
Turtle, Swan & Bethlehem in Broad Daylight: Two Volumes of Poetry (poetry) 2000
Source (poetry) 2001
Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (memoir and nonfiction) 2001
Seeing Venice: Bellotto's Grand Canal (essay) 2002
Open House: Writers Redefine Home [editor and author of introduction] (essays) 2003
SOURCE: Baker, David. “Smarts.” Poetry 159, no. 5 (February 1992): 282-98.
[In the following excerpt, Baker faults Doty's poetic style in Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, claiming that Doty's voice lacks “dramatic significance” and laments the attempts to instruct readers at each poem's conclusion.]
Poets these days want us to think they are smart, it strikes me as I read much of the poetry written in the last few years. If the decade of the Seventies favored the shorter lyric and the Eighties became a decade of narrative extension, then the Nineties are shaping up as an age of discourse, of poetry infused and sometimes laden with obvious smartness: the Poem Thinking. That's certainly a preferred rhetorical method, one of the most common stances, among poets currently. I think, therefore I instruct.
This should not be an altogether surprising development, given the circumstance of a dramatic number of poets these days. They teach. But perhaps the current instructive and discursive modes may be explained by considering other matters, too. Perhaps poets are articulating a desire to engage and educate their audience toward a further enjoyment. Perhaps poets feel overshadowed by the critical superstars of the day and so wish to appear au courant with the more hip talk of theory. Perhaps they feel critically abandoned and therefore charged with the task of explicating their own work. Perhaps, in widening the scope of poetry from the personal to the historical, political, scientific, or more broadly cultural, poets are struggling to find appropriate voices and forms to bear such heavy weight. Indeed, it's finally not a bad development. Poetry had better be able to think hard. But our best poets are careful also not to destroy the passions, humilities, and mysteries that make poetry—not merely to talk so smart that only a few other poets (or critics) will care or pretend to understand them. …
Like [Andrew] Hudgins, Mark Doty writes well-ordered poetry whose primary method is anecdotal, whose speaker is singular and personal, and whose vision is skeptical. But where Hudgins takes each of these current conventions into startling, sometimes brilliant directions, Doty seems satisfied with humdrum competence. His narrative drive turns frequently into lineated prose; his speaker often prefers detachment and judgment over involvement and sympathy; his view of things seems rather self-contained or meager.
Doty's Bethlehem in Broad Daylight follows Hudgins's interests in the experiences of adolescence and art. In “A Box of Lillies,” a professor/poet is “driving to work, late, / Tannhauser on the tape player— // the skittering violins spiraling down / in their mortal pull. …” Juxtaposed with the “grand theme” of Wagnerian opera is the speaker's appointment with a young student who “tells me he's fallen / in love, an old girlfriend / still lingering somewhere.” To the speaker, the student's dilemma is overblown, even compared to the inflation of Wagner's grandiose style:
There's something bravura, something nineteen in even saying it,
and I can't decide whether to love or blame him. …
From here Doty's speaker shifts to consider a friend who has embarked “on a kind of going / we don't know the least thing about.” The journey seems to imply a terminal illness, but again the speaker reorients his description, this time to the misdirected gift of a box of lilies and his neighbor's subsequent desire to see the flowers blossom:
it's the beautiful event in the garden she waits for,
and their fragrance goes hurrying up; she's an interruption
en route to heaven.
Doty's desire to connect narrative threads is admirable. The blooming lilies suggest operatic trumpets, his student's dilemma parodies Wagnerian tragedy, and the whole scheme attempts to understand the friend's terrible loss. But Doty's treatment is just too easy; his drive to understand is dramatically undercut by facile philosophizing:
Maybe dying's like being given a box of what will be trumpets,
maybe it feels like a mistake, and you plant them with all
the requisite attention and wait for something. …
Matters are too either/or in Doty's work, too quickly explained, vaguely confronted. How indeed is dying like a box of “trumpets”? Why were his only two possible reactions to his student's story either “to love or blame him”? He reduces, forcing things into tidy polarities: “I don't know which I love better— // knowing the bulbs are there, this March … or the brief July spangle // smudging our faces / with that golden lipstick.”
Doty's preferred method is to connect and juxtapose anecdotal episodes. He often demonstrates good instincts for such correlations; he doesn't want to be pure. But he also doesn't manage enough stylistic rigor to convert anecdote into poetry. Often I feel as if I'm reading lined prose:
The school bus rattled around more turns in the desert roads than I'd ever be able to trace again, the summer I worked in Head Start and the lead teacher arranged a field trip from the barrio to the Valley of the Moon.
The opening stanza of “The Garden of the Moon” is cleanly lined but typifies Doty's limited voice. I find little resonance, little figurative intensity, little dramatic significance; instead the tone is flat-spirited, the voice of reportage and self-satisfaction.
My other hesitation with Doty's style concerns a related easiness. Doty possesses the admirable desire to turn instance into meaning; he wants to philosophize and thereby instruct. His method here is often to conclude a long narrative passage with a short general observation. In “The Death of Antinoüs,” the opening thirteen-line sentence describes in moving, concrete language the agonies of the drowning hero and his eventual immortality as statuary, but Doty follows up his precise description with nearly meaningless generality: “What do we want in any body / but the world?” I have some strong opinions about that question, if he really wants to know; but he doesn't seem to. Rather, in the poem's final sentence, he again confuses abstract emptiness with epiphany: “Longing, of course, / becomes its own object, the way / that desire can make anything into a god.” Doty's impulse is often good—to make serious meaning out of detail and episode—but he smudges and reduces so much that his arrived-at theses seem sentimental, artificial, wrong, or at least seriously debatable.
The overall problem in Doty's work—and I feel the same about much contemporary poetry in this fashionable mode—is its detachment from its own story. Doty doesn't seem possessed by his content but, rather, a distant and privileged observer and commentator on it. “All we have of our neighbor's lives / is noise, and the stories we can make of it,” he asserts in “Against Paradise,” though in the same poem he claims that he “couldn't love any world but this.” It's just not sympathy, but disconnection, not “love” but a final, subtle unconcern, that he describes. Within the realm of art, Doty's speaker is hopeful, faithful; otherwise he's an uninvolved skeptic: “That's the lesson,” he theorizes, “art is remembering, and turning away.” If that's the lesson, it may also be the obvious damning problem.
SOURCE: Hoey, Allen. Review of Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, by Mark Doty. Southern Humanities Review 27, no. 1 (winter 1993): 96-100.
[In the following excerpt, Hoey offers praise for Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, stating that Doty manages to create balance between straight narrative and the “stricture of lyric.”]
For Mark Doty, in Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, his second full-length collection, desire even at its most carnal, as in a garden where “every alcove / [was] alive with men until after dawn” and the speaker “didn't know whose hands were whose” (“Paradise”), is the way we struggle toward, as he writes in another poem, “the body's paradise”—an approach to divinity. Doty's subjects include a sixteen-year-old runaway living in a residential hotel in New York City, the clientele and performers at a seedy gay nightclub, the world revealed through books and artifacts, and, in the poem from which the title comes, an exhibition of patchwork quilts. His dominant theme seems to be the longing to grow beyond our solitude and the many forms that longing takes.
The volume is carefully structured in three unnamed sections, beginning with “Harbor Lights,” in which the narrator recalls staying in a hotel at sixteen, longing for a strong mother, represented by the stone face of a woman in a shop window, while waiting for the hallucinogen he purchased at the corner to make “the flowers in the cracked linoleum / … twist and open, scrubbed into blossom.” Other poems, which seem firmly rooted in autobiography but flower outward from that center, delineate the need for a mother, the desire to have a strong physical and emotional relationship with a father, and the hopeless realization that the things we long for most pass quickly, leaving, as he writes in “The Ancient World,”
a form we cannot separate from the stories about the form, even if we hardly know them, even if it no longer signifies, if it only shines.
By the second section, both narrative and form move away from childhood losses and learning to speak a language of emotional need to the ways we seek shape and significance in sexual exchanges. Here, in “Tiara,” an elegy of sorts for a friend we assume has died of AIDS, Doty writes of the man's need to “go down // into the salt tide / of wanting as much as he wanted,” and suggests that “heaven is perfect stasis / poised over the realms of desire.” Nowhere in these poems does Doty distance himself from his subjects; even in a poem like “63rd Street Y,” which specifically concerns the narrator's voyeuristic pleasure in the satisfactions of others he watches through their windows, he finds an empathy with and compassion for those he observes.
Nor, though they veer closely, do the poems degenerate into apologetics. In “Paradise,” quoted above, the narrator checks his reminiscence of bathhouse-variety promiscuity to note:
I don't want to glorify this; the truth is I wouldn't wish it on anyone,
though it is a blessing, when all your life you've been told you're no one, and you find a way to be what you have been told,
and it's all right.
This poem, like others in the third section, moves to a more consistently elegiac tone. Where the first section elegized childhood, and the second dealt more with the ordinary gains and losses of maturity, the third section confronts more directly the transience of attachments, returning to and varying earlier themes.
Doty's poems have a sure narrative quality, braiding detail and situation in language and lines supple yet firm. His forms are loose, poems usually organized into stanzas of fixed length, with considerable enjambment of both line and stanza. At times the poems become a bit prolix, but he manages to balance between the openness of narrative and the stricture of lyric as well as he handles the balance between the personal and the social, the private and the public, desire and divinity.
Doty, Mark, and Philip Clarke. “Doty's Dance.” Lambda Book Report 8, no. 5 (December 1999): 20.
Doty comments on the subject matter and publication of Firebird.
Kirby, David. “The Survivor.” New York Times Book Review (10 March 1996): 10.
Kirby evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Heaven's Coast.
Kirp, David L. “Speak, Gay Memory.” Nation 263, no. 3 (15-22 July 1996): 33-8.
Kirp discusses recent gay memoirs, commending the “precise economy of language” in Heaven's Coast.
McInerney, Stephen. “A Glimpse of Bright Wings.” Quadrant 46, no. 9 (September 2002): 82-3.
McInerney praises the majority of the poems in Source, but comments that the thematic material of some of the pieces is “hackneyed.”
Padel, Ruth. “Songs of Myself.” New York Times Book Review (17 March 2002): section 7, p. 15.
Padel praises Doty's examination of surface beauty in Source, asserting that “the real pleasure of Doty's poetry lies in the details, rather than insights gleaned from them.”
Reynolds, Susan Salter. “Discoveries.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (14 January 2001): 11.
Reynolds lauds Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, asserting that “[b]ooks like this, that address the sources of creation and the sources of our humanness, come along once a decade.”
Shetley, Vernon. Review of My Alexandria, by Mark Doty. Yale Review 81, no. 4 (October 1993): 138-56.
Shetley praises Doty's talent for phrasemaking in My Alexandria, but notes that some of his verse is undermined by overreaching sentiment.
Shoaf, Diann Blakely. Review of Atlantis and Heaven's Coast, by Mark Doty. Ploughshares 22, no. 1 (spring 1996): 203-05.
Shoaf compares and contrasts Atlantis and Heaven's Coast, offering positive assessments of both.
Spiegelman, Willard. “Poetry in Review.” Yale Review 84, no. 2 (April 1996): 160-83.
Spiegelman commends Doty's skillful use of lyrical verse in Atlantis.
Tuller, David. “Poet in the Making.” Washington Post Book World (16 January 2000): 9.
Tuller compliments Doty's prose in Firebird, though notes shortcomings in Doty's penchant for asking rhetorical questions and the underdevelopment of supporting characters in his memoir.
Additional coverage of Doty's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 161, 183; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 110; and Literature Resource Center.
SOURCE: Gonzalez, Ray. “Something from Nothing.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (31 October 1993): 12.
[In the following review, Gonzalez extols the elegiac poetry in My Alexandria, arguing that Doty manages to find positive truths and beauty amid pain and death.]
In his poem “Brilliance,” Mark Doty writes: “In a story I read / A Zen master who'd perfected / his detachment from the things of the world / remembered, at the moment of dying / a deer he used to feed in the park, / and wondered who might care for it, / and at that instant was reborn / in the stummed flesh of a fawn.”
A book like My Alexandria is noted in part because of the current trend in singling out powerful books about AIDS, but also because Doty goes beyond the triumph of the plague to write about life beyond this dark century. In poems such as “Fog,” “Becoming a Meadow,” and “With Animals,” Doty encounters death in life and the terrifying surprise that, as the acute poet, he has the courage to extract beauty out of the living moments created by death.
The entire sequence of poems in My Alexandria proves that the poet has no choice. AIDS grips everything around him as he embraces what is spared, what teaches him to see and which visions in natural and urban settings allow him to write and go on. By the time friends and lovers are dead, this poet no longer lives in their world. Like the Zen fawn, he is in the body of a poet rebuilding a country of language where poetry is the only culture spared the disease. My Alexandria demands no pity. It is different than Thom Gunn's “The Man with Night Sweats” and anthologies of poems about AIDS because Doty's poetry does not insist on the concrete moment of mourning or the wish to change the realities of the late century. My Alexandria marks a new way of responding. Doty writes about the suffering around him, yet goes on to create in a totally, perhaps frighteningly clean atmosphere where the pain, the memories and the surviving beauty strengthen and nourish him.
In “Becoming a Meadow,” Doty says “someone comes in and the bell on the shop door rings; / then the words I hear in my head, from nowhere, / are becoming a meadow. Why does that jangling / shopkeeper's music translate itself to that phrase?” Then, later in the poem, he goes toward the other existence—“And then the whole place, the narrow aisles and stacks, / is one undulant, salt-swollen meadow of water, / one filling and emptying wave, spilling and pulling back, / and everything waves are: dissolving, faster, / only to swell again, like the baskets of bread / and fish in the story, the miracle baskets.”
My Alexandria takes the difficult form of elegaic poetry and blends it with a bitter celebration for the energy and stamina it takes to speak to those dying around us, knowing what they leave behind may only serve the poet in his own attempts to recreate the past, perhaps lightly tap the shoulder of the vicious present and plunge, gasping and euphoric, into a future few poets know how to forge with language that often has too short a life amid the countless number of books crying out for our attention.
These poems are rapid travelers in the reformation of contemporary American poetry, in a time when the world wants to challenge the writer with ugliness. The poets who are able to weather this environment, and who are willing to turn the ugliness into something else as the 20th Century turns itself, are the only ones who know the beautiful and infinite voice that appears out of this ugliness. As Doty writes in “Lament-Heaven,” the final poem in the book: “Our guiding spirit, / spelling out his name and intention / through the Ouija's rainbowed alphabet, isn't much help. Though death's / his single subject / he insists there is none, / or rather that what awaits us is ‘home,’ something he'll say little about.”
SOURCE: Smith, Bruce. Review of My Alexandria, by Mark Doty. Boston Review 18, no. 5 (October-November 1993): 33.
[In the following review, Smith lauds My Alexandria, stating that the collection contains rich, “buoyant” language and that Doty is an important contemporary poet.]
My Alexandria, Mark Doty's third book of poems, is a rich continuance of the stories of paradise, pageant, and fugitive grace found in the justly praised first two books. His preoccupations have remained the same: the lush world, its architecture and artifice, and the forms of remembering and inventing—what Doty earlier calls “something storied.” In My Alexandria the stories have become raddled with history and language and desire to form a brilliant fabric, a wild spun silk. This “shantung” (one of Doty's spirit words) is his metaphor for pattern and the creation of the poem—the warp of diction, the weft of experience. This deft spinning is the most remarkable feature of his work and the allure of this new book. The great weavers and embroiderers—Scheherazade, Penelope, Ariadne, and Arachne—are his literary mothers. The poems are enchanting, slow and slant, stylish and conscious of style, and shot through with “brilliant bits” and blossom. These poems are interrupted narratives that ravel the lush textures of the world—Keats's poetry of earth—and tragedy—loss and the insults to the body in the era of AIDS. The identifiably gay context of some poems is a thread to find our way in and out of the labyrinth—a sensibility and tactic rather than an exclusionary politic.
“Night Ferry” is an indeterminate love poem/love story, both lyric and narrative, set “between two worlds.” It begins:
We're launched into the darkness, half a load of late passengers gliding onto the indefinite black surface, a few lights vague
and shimmering on the island shore.
The shimmering surface becomes “roughened … like the patterns of Italian book-paper, / lustrous and promising.” Doty's poems ride on the consciousness of their own making. He's aware of the mesh of the story; its illusory, watery skin (its “black moire”); and the poem itself as vehicle for what's beyond (love? faith? some comfort?).
The narrative of the ferry begins and ends brilliantly, and its text is this moving out into what is soon before us and behind: the night going forward,
sentence by sentence, as if on faith, into whatever takes place. It's strange how we say things take place as if occurrence were a location—
I like the shifts and turns in the unjustified lines. I like the wit and the risk; consciousness moves idiosyncratically from self, to other, to the “good boat” with its “good smell of grease and kerosene.” In between
There's no beautiful binding for this story, only the temporary,
liquid endpapers of the hurried water shot with random color.
The liquid and buoyant line gives the feeling of being transported and held, of being “between two worlds.” In the shuttling between lines as between shores or loves there is a startling energy here that is restrained in the passage, the process. He's less interested in the outcome than in the “sheen” and “glory” of the journey. In a poem from his first book Doty says: “Not the kingdom itself, where nothing happens / but the approach to the kingdom: / everything, the coming to love.”
The first eight poems in the book are remarkable and “exhilarating” (another of Doty's bywords). There's more world here—city streets, human traffic, nightclubs, and public gardens. And there's more Art here—references to other works of art: Lowell, Wilde, Proust, Hart Crane, Cavafy, and Prendergast. I resisted the referential of the first few poems until I came to “Almost,” a homage to the jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. I'd like to quote the whole solo of the poem, its supple phrasing and gripping attack, but here's part:
you're going to wake up in any one of the how many ten thousand locations of trouble and longing
going out of business forever everything must go wake up and start wanting.
It's so much better when you don't want: nothing falls then, nothing lost
but sleep and who wanted that in the pearl this suspended world is, …
These poems are not frotteurs to the famous, accruing value by association, but deeply realized revisions with “all the sheen artifice is capable of.” The art is “that which we know,” in Eliot's phrase, and what enables us to enter these new locations, like languages and genders, is the courage and passion of their lesson. Like the mirror on the cathedral steps in the poem “Heaven,” we are allowed to see the Virgin's golden face reversed. The world is reconstructed by Doty in marvelous ways. And there's an odd harmony between the “wonderful detail” of the city and the artifice (art) that finds its emblems in art's magnificent monuments and in the tawdry—transvestite wigs, sequins, lipsynched songs.
“Chanteuse” and “Lament-Heaven” are Doty at his best—a lavish surface and a troubled depth. I hope that readers, and not just readers of poetry, will add these poems to their private anthology of consciousness at the end of the century.
SOURCE: Bedient, Calvin. “These AIDS Days.” Parnassus 20, nos. 1-2 (1995): 197-231.
[In the following excerpt, Bedient praises Doty's finesse and imagination in My Alexandria, but finds flaws in his tendency toward sentimentality and forced conceit.]
(a) Between Pater and Pantheism. Mark Doty walks on the sunny side of Pater's still impressive, pathos-and-beauty-ridden sense of reality. Where Pater emphasized the elemental forces ceaselessly “parting on their ways,” undoing us, Doty accentuates the ensemble [in My Alexandria]. Life is not a thing of darkness; there are riches for the tasting, the taking, the telling. Consider “the unlikely needlepoint” that wild asters make of an October slope. Life is an obvious good. “It's enough to name the instances.” “Couldn't we live forever / without running out of occasions?” Nothing is a poverty: “Anything lived into long enough / becomes an orchard.” “Even the most circumstantial things / are holy in themselves.” We can make earthly angels of ourselves—make “the rain / part of the angel.” Yes, we will die, but first “what matters” will have proved to “be enough. Or more than that.” (All quotations are from “The Wings.”)
At the end of the century that confirmed psychological abysses and bombed up a global atmosphere of disaster, even such modest affirmations have become wagers. Doty's seem a sort of class embroidery, remote from the Third World. Yet the best hope remains the testimony of some of the survivors of atrocity: the reaffirmation of the simple blessing of sunshine, work, and community that Terrence des Pres summarized in his book The Survivor, and Doty is not far from this testimony. Not far at all.
Certainly “The Wings” has authority compared to the romantic apologetics of “Tiara,” an earlier poem of Doty's reprinted in Poets for Life. “Tiara” recounts that tension breaks at a funeral when someone says of the dead man, referring to the closed casket, he's “in there in a big wig / and heels,” but returns when someone else says “he asked for it”:
Asked for it—when all he did was go down into the salt tide
of wanting as much as he wanted, giving himself over so drunk or stoned it almost didn't matter who,
though they were beautiful, stampeding into him in the simple, ravishing music of their hurry.
“What could he do, / what could any of us ever do / but ask for it,” the poet punningly asks at the end, braving the fact that the past tense of the second “could” betrays caution and that the question isn't really rhetorical even if it seals itself off by omitting the question mark. The poem is egregious in its go-for-broke erotic romanticism. Such lines as “the simple [!] / ravishing music [!] of their hurry” and “dreaming and waking men lie / on the grass while wet blue horses [!] / roam among them, huge fragments [!] / of the music we die into [!] / in the body's paradise” are more wide-eyed than sensual, more purple than blue.
In a later poem on a transvestite, “Esta Noche,” placed in the first part of My Alexandria, Doty applauds the stage-lit black-silk-draped “la fabulosa Lola” (“a man / you wouldn't look twice at in street clothes, / two hundred pounds of hard living, the gap in her smile / sadly narrative”):
Tonight, she says, put it on. The costume is license and calling. She says you could wear the whole damn black sky and all its spangles. It's the only night we have to stand on. Put it on, it's the only thing we have to wear.
Apart from confusing what you stand on with what you can put on, the lines reduce nature to so much black stuff best used to adorn the “sad” human form. They support a sentimental vanity, at best. (Merrill celebrates a “fabulous” getup in these AIDS days with more Paterian finesse in The Inner Room.) But as a seer, Doty has proven commendably ad hoc, experimental, if within a narrow, noncontradictory range. “The Wings” is evidence of this; and two strong poems near the end of My Alexandria, “Night Ferry” and “Becoming a Meadow,” also provide wiser perspectives than do “Esta Noche” and “Tiara.”
In “Night Ferry,” the self-admitted fiction of the world as a story (another pedal point in the book) first appears in a gorgeous image for reflected dock lights: “their colors / on the roughened surface combed / like the patterns of Italian bookpaper, / lustrous and promising. The narrative / of the ferry begins and ends brilliantly.” The end of the poem both takes up the figure again and pokes an air hole through its paper walls:
There's no beautiful binding for this story, only the temporary,
liquid endpapers of the hurried water, shot with random color. But in the gliding forward's a scent so quick and startling it might as well be blowing
off the stars. Now, just before we arrive, the wind carries a signal and a comfort, lovely, though not really meant for us: woodsmoke risen from the chilly shore.
We find here Doty's ever-present pulled-taffy tone and syntax (his voice's prison and its gift). But in this rhythmically beguiling poem we find, too, a caution before the temptations of narcissistic illusion, a lucid bargaining at the table of the little that life offers as comfort, which distinguishes it from “Esta Noche.”
If the virus is only implicit in “Night Ferry” (in an interview in the 1994 annual issue of Provincetown Art, Doty notes that being under so low-hanging a sword as AIDS intensifies the need to “love what is passing” and “to think about what it means to be temporary”), “Becoming a Meadow” pulls it out of the shadows: “I am thinking of my terror / of decay, the little hell opening in every violated cell, / the virus tearing / away—is it?” Really less a tearing away, as I understand it from Warner C. Greene's article “AIDS and the Immune System” in the September 1993 issue of Scientific American, than the virus' con-mannish entry into the cell, its subsequent confusion of the cell's identity by insinuating itself into the cell's chromosomal structure through a semiemulative, quick-change artistry in regard to its own constitution and consequent reduction of the cell to serving as the ground of its replication—a dizzying cycle of extraordinary complexity. (The virus itself has over 9,000 “bases” and more genes at its beck and call than other viruses have ever dreamed of.) The insidious complexity of the virus, not to mention what Greene calls its “rapid Darwinian evolution” (the result of the “error” it makes approximately once in every 2,000 incorporated nucleotides, leading to a constant generation of new variants of viral proteins), flies at a ripping angle from the large view of things that Doty creates in “Becoming a Meadow.” Here, and despite Doty's own description of a viral “tearing,” the world is a rhythmic whole of apparently harmonious comings and goings—the sweetest paganism. But Doty gives the idea considerable dignity, even so. Standing in a bookstore, “comforted” as usual “by the presence of stories,” he remembers a recent walk with his companion in Head of the Meadow by the “waves / endless rows of bold cursive,” and even as he thinks of his “terror of decays” he feels that “we are still a part of the meadow.” Indeed, the books around him are “like grasses,” the “whole place … / is one undulant, salt-swollen meadow of water” where waves swell again and again “like the baskets of bread / and fish in the story, the miracle baskets.” Not uncharacteristically, the elaboration of this conceit is, however elegantly, forced; and the miracle of a Creation renewed in each instant should probably be introduced as more than a simile (as it is, also via “baskets,” in a famous passage in Whitman's “Song of Myself”), or not at all—as it is, it feels slipped in and put over. In any case, the following vision, which brings Dante's terza rima down to all there is of an earthly paradise, or of any paradise, is perhaps as imaginative, surprising, unfeverish, freeing, and, withal, plausible an affirmation of things as they are as anyone has yet devised in these AIDS days:
a meadow accepts itself as various, allows some parts of itself to always be going away, because whatever happens in that blown,
ragged field of grass and sway is the meadow, and threading the frost of its unlikely brilliance yesterday
we also were the meadow
SOURCE: Slavitt, David R. “Eastward Ho!” New England Review 17, no. 1 (winter 1995): 194-98.
[In the following excerpt, Slavitt faults My Alexandria for incorporating literary criticism into its verse and for its elements of heavy explication.]
The last time I saw Alexandria—wicked Alexandria—its heart was old and gray. It was a sordid ruin of a place, with the glamour and glitter of Lawrence Durrell's lovely quartet utterly gone, replaced by grinding poverty and boring collectivization. Those grand mansions in which mysterious characters had once called “Yassou” to one another and arranged their trysts and hunting parties were now religious schools and orphanages that stared impassively through the unkempt remnants of their shrubbery to a dreary slate-colored sea. And yet, Durrell and, even more, Cavafy, have made the place a metropolis of the imagination, a great center of learning in life's most difficult subjects—acceptance, equanimity, and resignation.
It was a large and bold move for Mark Doty to invoke that city and its poet in his book. Ingratiating, too, I thought, because he manages the gesture without much fuss. A title like “Days of 1981” [in My Alexandria] is an unmistakable reference to certain of Cavafy's pieces (“Days of 1903,” “Days of 1896,” “Days of 1908,” and the like) which were all more or less wistful celebrations of homosexual passion as Doty's poem is, too. But in “Chanteuse,” the poem from which Doty gets his title, he is rather less light handed about it. Indeed, he tells us explicitly:
Cavafy ends a poem of regret and desire—he had no other theme than memory's erotics, his ashen atmosphere— by going out onto a balcony
to change my thoughts at least by seeing something of this city I love, a little movement in the streets,
in the shops. That was all it took to console him, some token of Alexandria's anarchic life. How did it go on without him,
the city he'd transformed into feeling? Hadn't he made it entirely into himself?
When you put literary criticism into your poems, it's a good idea to make it accurate or at least recognizable. Cavafy did, indeed, have another theme, a more important one, actually, than “memory's erotics.” His assertion of Hellene excellence, the richness and liveliness of that tradition, and its superiority to, say, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and the rest of the modern and supposedly enlightened world is what unites all his work. The Hellenic and Hellenistic notions about homosexual love were more relaxed than those of the later, more or less puritanical monotheisms. With great wit and subtlety, and often in a spirit of playfulness, Cavafy would juxtapose pieces like “Philhellene” (with the splendidly hopeless claim at the end: “So we are not un-Greek, I reckon”) with his accounts of the beautiful gray eyes of the clerk in the jewelry store. It was the daring combination of these two kinds of poems that worked with such authority. What he was calling into question was the very idea of civilization, and his civility was what so impressed Durrell and E. M. Forster and Auden, too. How could they not have been dazzled by the poet's arrogant breeziness that not only refused to apologize for homosexuality but insisted on the provinciality, cruelty, the deplorable barbarity of the contemporary world's—and especially England's—disapproval.
One doesn't have to be gay to be impressed by Cavafy's remarkable poise. One learns from him all kinds of vital lessons in tact, economy, dexterity. And silence. Often, the kick in a Cavafy poem comes not from the words themselves but from the spaces in between—which is one of the reasons that Cavafy translates so well, either in the Keeley/Sherard or the Dalven versions. Cavafy will make a move, and then another one, and where one's breath catches is in the leap between the two.
The aerodynamics of Mark Doty's leaps are nowhere near so spectacular. He spells out for us what we would surely have inferred—and believed and granted—if he hadn't actually said it. “Chanteuse” ends with the following explication of itself:
As she invented herself, memory revises and restores her, and the moment she sang. I think we were perfected,
when we became her audience, and maybe from that moment on it didn't matter so much exactly
what would become of us. I would say she was memory, and we were restored by
the radiance of her illusion, her consummate attention to detail, —name the colors—her song: my Alexandria,
my romance, my magnolia, distilling lamplight, my backlit glory of the wigshops, my haze
and glow, my torch, my skyrocket, my city, my false, my splendid chanteuse.
I have the feeling that I am being beaten about the head and shoulders with the items in this list, or, putting it another and perhaps more accurate way, that the poem is not intended for me at all, or for any ordinary readers of poetry. Doty may consider that he is writing for the slow reading group, which is to say a political faction (the gays, the feminists, the blacks, and the native Americans each have an audience larger than the natural readership for poetry, and the overwhelming temptation for poets of any of those constituencies is … to reach out to them and write for them). If there were some way of getting a sound-track with music that could well up to say how impossibly sad the magnolias and the wigshop and the Boston Public Garden can be in this terrible time of AIDS, Doty might, with reason, have used it. But the gesture in Cavafy's direction, in the direction, that is, of restraint, implication, delicacy, rhetorical leverage, finesse, and tact would not seem to be so much of an embarrassment.
What's distressing is that when he is not invoking Cavafy or Rilke or trying to be so damned explicit, Mr. Doty can produce poems of real accomplishment and commanding quality. My favorite is “The Ware Collection of Glass Flowers and Fruit, Harvard Museum,” which begins:
Strange paradise, complete with worms, moment of an obsessive will to fix forms; every apricot or yellow spot's seen so closely in these blown blooms and fruit, that exactitude
is not quite imitation. Leaf and root, the sweet flag's flaring bud already, at the tip, blackened: it's hard to remember these were ballooned and shaped by breath.
SOURCE: Wilde, Winston. “The Book of Love.” Advocate (16 April 1995): 62-3.
[In the following review, Wilde praises Heaven's Coast and contends that Doty's voice and language in the collection are powerful and important pieces of the contemporary gay canon.]
As we pass the one-year anniversary of the death of my lover, gay American writer Paul Monette, it was with great resistance that I agreed to read yet another memoir of yet another AIDS casualty. My defense of selected deafness to the horrors of this planet is still shattered by moments of “fresh grief.”
Mark Doty's lyric recollections in his latest book, Heaven's Coast, on the dying of his lover, Wally Roberts, and on Doty's afterlife will undoubtedly be enshrined with the few other literary master relics of the gay American holocaust. Heaven's Coast is not just about the good nurses and the bad doctors, the ineptitude of family and the altruism of strangers, those quirks we veterans have too often witnessed. Doty has poignantly risked the consequences of introspection: “What my soul requires is this going down into darkness, into the bitterness of salt and chewing at old roots.”
Heaven's Coast is replete with the beauty and ferocity of nature. As a consummate gardener, the poet/author often reflects on the flora: “… the bee-pestered wedding lace of beach plum.” His magnificent depictions of salt marshes and the estuaries of Cape Cod make me want to jump on a plane now. But it's really Doty's love of Provincetown and its community that strikes the queer heart:
Here, at land's end, in the superb setting of this landscape, our gems are the rich possibilities of human love, human pleasures, the splendid diversity and sameness of our longings. It is a place worthy of pilgrimage, where the elements arrange, as they conjoin, small tableaus of miracle and reversal.
Although Doty is distinctly New England in his approach to writing, his queer sensibilities give him an American voice—unafraid to use words like kiva—that distinguish him from your common pompous homosexual New York writing divas. His availability to the holiness of life, his balance of pragmatic skepticism and assured intuition, and his earthly drive to sniff “the scented herbage of my breast,” in Walt Whitman's words, are emblematic of the grace and grit of our true queer spirit.
Of all the good people in this book, I must confess that my favorite characters were the dogs. With my loss of Paul—his celebrated life and its accompanying hoopla—I have endured too many other losses, notably the death of Paul's dog, Puck. In this painfully quiet home, I now refer to my boxer, Buddy, as my significant other. In the aftermath of our quake, I say to Buddy, “We're all we've got left.” During Paul's and my many travels together, whenever we came upon an extraordinary animal, we would refer to it as “a friend of Puck's.” In Heaven's Coast there are many friends of Puck, miracles of fauna whose secrets I shan't reveal. But I must warn the fragile-hearted, any widows clinging to their pets, that everything turns out OK for Doty's dog, who gets hit by a car. For this was the point where my wailing rocked the house.
And in the final analysis, Heaven's Coast, like all great legends, is a love story. But Doty's keen knowledge of love surpasses the confines of passion, surfing equally powerful currents: the primitive butt-hole intimacy of cleaning up your lover's shit, the unparalleled affection of companionate love (“What talk is better than talk in bed?”). I applaud Doty's unashamed honesty in discussing his and Roberts's sexualities. And because of his unapologetic truthfulness, I only wish—perhaps pruriently—that he would have elaborated. We gay men, as sexual as we are, as out of the closet as we are, have so many sexual secrets in our relationships.
Aren't we gay people blessed to have so many kinds of love? Doty writes of falling in love with his lover, after Roberts's death, all over again. In my gentle lunacy I have not dared to attempt to explain to anyone this kinky love I now have for Paul:
Being in grief, it turns out, is not unlike being in love.
In both states, the imagination's entirely occupied with one person. The beloved dwells at the heart of the world, and becomes a Rome: the roads of feeling all lead to him, all proceed from him. Everything that touches us seems to relate back to that center; there is no other emotional life, no place outside the universe of feeling centered on its pivotal figure.
And perhaps ultimately, we widows must endure the bitter consolation: “Is the way that time ‘heals’ us simply that it encourages us to turn away?”
Realtors are wont to say, “Location, location, location.”
Heaven's Coast: spectacular views, rustic and romantic charm, queer inspiriting, priceless.
SOURCE: Doty, Mark, and Michael Klein. “A Talk with Mark Doty.” PN Review 21, no. 6 (July-August 1995): 22-7.
[In the following interview, Doty discusses his creative process and aesthetic concerns, his thematic preoccupation with AIDS and gay identity, the influence of place and autobiography in his work, and his experience as a teacher.]
Mark Doty is the author of four books of poetry, Turtle, Swan, Bethlehem in Broad Daylight,My Alexandria, and the forthcoming Atlantis. For the greater part of the last decade, he taught in the MFA Program for Writers at Vermont College and at Sarah Lawrence College. My Alexandria, published in 1993 by the University of Illinois Press after being selected by Philip Levine for the National Poetry Series, won the National Book Critic's Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award and was nominated for the National Book Award and the Lambda Literary Award. Doty recently received fellowships from the Ingram Merrill, Rockefeller, and John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundations. This interview took place in the house which Doty purchased in 1990 when he moved to Provincetown with Wally Roberts, his companion of 12 years who died of AIDS in January 1994.
[Klein]: Have poems frightened you?
[Doty]: Yes. Over the past five years since Wally tested HIV-positive, poetry has always been a way for me to struggle with what I was feeling—to struggle with naming the condition under which we were living. That was true before, too. The reason I write is to try to figure out my experience by shaping it. The urgency of that struggle was highly underlined for me by Wally's illness. During that time I'd be going along about my business in the outer world, and to return to the desk was to enter into the inner life—enter into the heart, really—which was often very frightening because it meant facing the reality of losing him. I guess I can't pay enough attention without language. I don't mean the kind of language where I'm talking spontaneously, but language as a made thing. That work of making causes me to look harder, to see if I've said what I really feel. Have I done justice to the world I'm attempting to describe? And I have to look again at what I'm describing. I have to look again at my description and that process of refinement brings me closer. Without writing, I don't know how else I would get there.
Almost every poem begins with some trigger in the world—some originating image—an encounter, usually, which speaks to me in some way, which demands to be written about. But if I know what it has to say to me, if I know how to read it from the beginning, there's really no reason for writing the poem. There's a poem in my second book called ‘Pharaoh's Daughter.’ It was triggered by going to a 4th of July parade in Craftsbury, Vermont—a tiny little town—and the parade in this town goes around and around the town green because there's no place else to go, there are no other streets. Wally and I were there watching and a float went by which represented Pharaoh's daughter. It was wonderfully silly, all these kids from the church youth group dressed up in Egyptian costumes and Pharaoh's daughter bending over the basket, the whole thing lurching and rocking while the truck is going past. I found it funny and I wanted to cry as soon as I saw it. The image wouldn't leave me alone—it insisted upon being looked at—and the poem is the process of unfolding the image. I discovered that it was not only about a childhood memory of that Bible story, hearing that story in Sunday school, but also about a fantasy of wanting to be found by the right parents—wanting to be rescued by the people who would really see you for the miraculous and marvellous child that you were, as opposed to the people who really couldn't see you—your real parents.
This deepening discovery—this being ‘seen’—is this what writing the poem is like for you?
Writing a poem is for me an act of unfolding. It sometimes feels like an archeological act—there are layers to be uncovered and found. There's some point in the process when I know what the poem is about, when I've discovered where I'm going and sometimes that's maybe two-thirds of the way through. A lot of the poem may exist on the page before I can really see that. Then of course things start to shift or change. I think that all good poems in some way preserve that sense of discovery for the reader—there's something contagious about the way the poem re-enacts it. Even though I'm crafting the poem to make it an experience for you, something like what the experience was for me—even though I am conscious at some point of where it's going—I want to preserve that feeling of not knowing so that the reader can be involved in the journey of that poem. That seems to be one of the hardest things for us to do, to be in our not knowing and stay in our not knowing and pay attention. So many poems stop or don't go far enough and I think that they don't go far enough because the writer gets to the point where he or she knows a little something more, has discovered a little bit, and quits.
I try to stay in the experience. Very often I'm working on a poem and a phrase or an image will come into my head, and I think, that's the end of the poem! But I haven't written my way to the end yet. I find what I have to do when that happens is to try to push on past it, and not accept the easy ending. Of course, like everybody else, I want to get out of that place of difficulty. I don't want to stay there. But maybe what I am thinking of as the end of the poem is actually the middle, maybe it's actually the beginning—where else can I take it?
I wonder, what is it about the language that you're using that emulates the state of not knowing—so that it doesn't lose readers or make them think you're in a flat-lining state of thinking without making discoveries?
It's important to divide this process into at least two phases, if not more than that. In the first phase where the writer does not know, I have to approach language as tentatively as I can. You know those old nuclear safety movies where you'd see people putting their hands in these enormous gloves through a big plexiglass shield, trying to manipulate something? Well, that's the way language feels to me—you've got these big over-sized gloves that are very clumsy and you're trying to touch something and you don't even know what it is you're trying to touch yet. And therefore you have to try everything. You have to keep trying out phrases—staying unsatisfied—have I got it yet? No, let me try a little more. Letting an unpredictable quality, respecting the slippery peculiarity, the unknowability of language, the unreliability of language—letting that serve you. Work with it, instead of over-controlling it. That's the first stage of the process. Once you have gotten it enough—once the poem starts to seem intact and you know what it is you're speaking about—then I think you absolutely have to take as much responsibility as you can to craft the language, to hone it and shape it so that you're making for the reader an enactment of your own process of discovery. I want to continue to keep that energy of inquiry so that the reader feels like his or her hands are in the gloves, reaching out for something unknown. Suddenly you feel it and you say, I didn't know that's what I was moving towards.
And that revelation comes during revision.
Which I love to do. I am jealous of artists who have tactile, real materials—fibre and paint—which artists with language don't get to have. We don't have all that stuff—the lovely, sensuous, colourful textures. But there, in revision, it's as if we do. There the language takes on qualities of texture and shape and the way you need to work with it and hone it emerges. Revision is also much less threatening because you've made the discovery and now you get to have fun. It's the being in the not-knowing state that is so risky because the poem may tell you what you don't want to know, or you may be invited to feel what you'd rather not feel.
Although your subject matter changed from book to book, one of the threads in all your work is the making, and then psychic dis-assembling of artifact. Instead of making artifacts objects of the past, you give them the energy of the present. You turn the memory into a discovery of what it is like to be in the present. Logically, it would follow that childhood is a great subject for you.
A common thread throughout three and now four quite different books is a sense of the rushing, hurrying flux of time and a desire to find fixed points; a desire to make or encounter a form which will resist loss and erasure. A poem is in itself that kind of artifact, and it reverberates with the energy of the moment in which it was made. It doesn't matter if that poem is an American poem from 1957 or a Chinese poem from 1140 or a sonnet of Shakespeare's from 1602, it has the energy of an individual spirit encountering the huge, unpredictable wash of time and somehow making a point of stillness inside that. Anything which does that has always been of enormous fascination for me: monuments, works of art, vessels of human longing, of human identity, of human memory. I am convinced the story of our lives is one of the artifacts that we all have. There was a point when it was very important for me to try to explain myself to myself in a kind of psychological way. I think that we all have that desire to make the story of our lives. Of our artifacts, it's one that's very fluid because you re-tell the story of your life in each new circumstance. As your life changes you need to understand the story from another perspective. I wrote perhaps two books about telling myself the story of my life. It was crucial to me. Beginning to view your history as a story is a work of interpretation, a way to wield some power over the past, gain authority over it. Rather than be controlled by my own history, I could say, this is how I will understand what memory is, this is how I will understand my life. At some point I got done with that—for now, anyway. Not to say that I would never write about my family or my childhood again, but I'm pretty sure I will never write about it in the same way because I began to experience a completely different kind of pressure in the present.
AIDS started informing the first book you wrote and much of your second book and most of My Alexandria. The pressure of AIDS has been constant, ever-present.
There are poems in Bethlehem in Broad Daylight that are about gay identity and about desire. Those poems come out of a grappling with the present as opposed to looking back and attempting to position oneself in the dynamic of the family. I started to think about what I am inside the dynamic of a culture instead. How does my individual desire align with or contradict the messages of the culture in which I'm embedded? By the time that I started to write the poems in My Alexandria, the knowledge of Wally's HIV status created an urgency to make some kind of meaning of a mystery. The image that comes into my mind is one of standing on a sandbar and having this undertow simply eroding the sand out from underneath you. While much was unpredictable, maybe more so than with any other disease, there was a feeling of our future together, which we had both come to view as a kind of given, eroding, being erased, as we stood and watched. When we knew that Wally was HIV-positive but wasn't sick, I experienced this strange combination of an urgency to confront that prospect and the leisure in which to do so. By the time he started to become ill, it was a very different situation that led to a very different life, as well as some different poems.
The story of you is becoming a story without you.
That's probably a movement many artists experience, moving from the need to get a kind of shape around your own story toward the freedom to look outside oneself. I am no longer compelled to explain the ways in which I was shaped by coming from an alcoholic family, for instance. I just don't need to do that. Which is not to say that the lessons and shaping forces which arise through one's background go away. It has more to do with them becoming the lens through which you see as opposed to the thing at which you are looking. I'm not looking at my childhood any more, but my childhood is an inseparable part of me through which I see everything.
In your poems about childhood, and later, there is a tenderness about gay life, a lack of self-depreciation. You put the homosexual in history in a way that is admirable and touching. You've always been out in your poems so it doesn't seem to me that you've used them as a way of coming out. You talked before about poems not going far enough. Do you think the reason you might be so attuned to that particular lapse has to do with being queer and therefore knowing how it feels to test the limits of a culture, translated by the poet into testing the limits of language?
The process of writing poems was a very important part of a coming out process. I started to ask, how does all my experience—my desire, my fear, my affection—how do these parts of my life that touch upon my sexuality—are fused to my sexuality—how do they get into the work in a way that feels responsible to them? That pushed the poems to become larger in order to hold more material, to be able to get more of the world in them. Way back in my earlier life when I was in the closet to myself, I wrote poems that were in the closet too and they were poems I have no allegiance to at all. The tough, contradictory, messy material of having a sexual and romantic life, having an identity in a culture that did not welcome that identity, made new demands upon the poems themselves. I also had a desire, early on, not to write a kind of poem which had already been charted out—a poem that reflected gay identity by focusing almost exclusively on sex. The point of difference between gay men and straight men was sexual behaviour. So the poetry celebrated that difference. I'm glad that work exists, but once it was done, it didn't seem like there was any-place else to go with it. My being queer has to do with history, with economics, with how I speak and what I wear. It has to do with what happens to me on the street. It has to do with my job. A poetry that didn't admit every aspect of my life would seem to me too limited.
Do you see different impulses in your new book?
The poems were written between the time Wally and I moved to Provincetown in the fall of 1990—at the same time you did—and just before his death this January. Among a lot of different things, the poems are very involved with trying to see Provincetown physically and psychically, as the inner and outer place in which I have been living. The working title for this manuscript was ‘Coastal Studies’, which didn't feel quite right, but is still in the back of my mind since it's a book about being on the coast between land and water, between living and dying, between now and forever, between here and there. How do we love a world that is always hurrying away from us? How do we love what we will inevitably lose? Love is a contract with loss. A friend of mine said, ‘A dog is a pact with grief.’ You don't get to sign on for the joy without signing on for grief, right?
Place, it seems, is what grounds you.
These are poems about being in a place saturated with light, beauty, possibility, grace, and being there during a time of feeling an intensifying pressure of potential loss. Things become so intermingled as to be inseparable. I guess that's still about the attempt to locate grace, but the poems feel different to me. Who knows how readers will see them.
You've named three books after places, but they're more than places, aren't they?
Bethlehem is a location of redemption, a point on the psychic map where one can be redeemed or resurrected, review or revise one's life. I chose the title because the poems are attempting to find that possibility in the ordinary, harsh, uncompromising world. Alexandria comes from Cavafy's poems. His city was Alexandria in northern Egypt, which was for him a great museum of memory and of desire. He has a wonderful poem called, I think, ‘The Old Neighbourhood’, where he talks about walking down a street and realizing that he's transformed everything into feeling: the houses, the street-corners, all of it, so that places, in fact, become oneself and become so involved in one's history that one can's separate time and space, one can't separate memory and space. Bachelard said somewhere, ‘space contains compressed time—that is what space is for,’ a typically French presumption, but it's a pretty interesting theory. Cavafy, too, saw Alexandria as a continuum and not only as a city where he had his moments of pleasure. I think he experienced himself as much in historical time as in the exact chronological span of his life. He could write these poems about the first century AD which sound as if they're being remembered, as something that happened to the speaker in the poem. So there's a sense of the poet coming to contain a history—as you put it, to make a universe. It becomes a fixture on the map. Cavafy is long dead, but the Cavafian world is available for us to enter. He shows up in so many of my poems because I find myself in moments that have been defined for me by the way that Cavafy could see. We could say this experience is Cavafian—it has the resonance given to it, lent to it, by a work of art. A work of art has taught us to see it. Alexandria, for me, is that city of art—that made place, which is both the given and the way that we transform the given.
Were there models for you when you started writing about Provincetown—poets who you read to discover landscape?
When I started to feel compelled to write about this landscape, to write about Provincetown, I turned to poets who were teaching me how to see the coast. One of them certainly was Elizabeth Bishop who has written the great poems of the North Atlantic shore. Poems like ‘At the Fish Houses’ which see New England and Nova Scotia with a very particular, careful regard, for instance. ‘The End of March’ is a great poem about walking on Duxbury beach. Her ability to describe what she was seeing, but through description to portray the self and to portray feeling, was enormously important to me because I felt like I had written a lot of poems talking about myself directly. There were parts of my experience that I couldn't get at that way, that had to be approached through metaphor or through submerging the self into the landscape.
Which I think goes back to the issue of autobiography we talked about, and the urge to move beyond autobiography.
Yes, after we've met ourselves directly, we have to meet ourselves though other things. We need vehicles in order to encounter who and what we are. And when we go out into the marsh, it's partly the marsh that we're going to see, but isn't it also ourselves in that world and how a different mirror gives us back to ourselves? Bishop was helping me to think about that. Marianne Moore also is a poet of exact, beautiful, quirky descriptions, of poems that are stubbornly language as well as portraits of the world. They're poems that are always reminding us they're poems. Those were the models that were floating around for me and influencing me. The title, Atlantis, suggests a place which is lost beneath the waves but which is at the same time a permanent city, a fixed world. It is both lost and remembered at once. I'm not sure I have finished unpacking that metaphor intellectually, but I feel that the poems explore a number of underwater places. In particular, Atlantis is the salt marsh, the moors at the west end of Commercial Street. It's a major presence in this book, a location which vanishes twice a day as it goes under the tide and then is revealed to us once again. Something about that alternation of being visible and invisible feels very related to the way that I experience time. The past is submerged and then re-appears, the future is hidden and then is revealed. The present is sometimes to me like that: that steely sheet of water covers the marsh and it's hard to see the present, but what the present obscures is the future.
This notion of the present—obscuring the future when describing it—reminds me of a poem in My Alexandria, ‘Fog’. How did it occur to you to make the world of the dead available in that poem?
I was absolutely compelled. The poem began pretty much at the place where it begins on the page. A couple of weeks after Wally and I had taken the HIV test I was working in my garden in Vermont and cut my finger with the garden shears. Blood came welling out and I found myself compelled and horrified by the sight of my own blood, of course because of the kind of knowledge and information which blood was about to provide. I felt a sense of things happening within our bodies—the blood being that part of us that the poem says ‘has no outside’. We can't see it without taking it out of its element. I feared something was happening that we could not know. We had an enormous sense of dread about what that might mean. The poem didn't get committed to paper until after we had learned the results of the test, but all of the elements were being juggled in that period of time. The poem doesn't make a discovery. It's a breathless, compelled recounting of a set of events and awful facts. I could have written that poem with simply the test, or the blood and the test, and leave out the world that surrounds the people in the poem—leave out the garden, the Ouija board, the television screen, all the things going on. But I think it's a poem about putting dreadful knowledge in the context of a life. The devastation exists inside the context of an individual, a couple, and even the culture that's around those people—the things that they do and think about. The experience is given more of its completeness by having more of a life around it.
Sarah Schulman said that AIDS is difficult to write about because we are finding out how to write about it at the same time. For you, has AIDS changed as a writing subject?
Of course the first thing that happened is that it shifted from being a subject. An early poem about AIDS, ‘Turtle Swan’, is basically about reading these terrible stories in the newspaper and feeling like this could happen in my life, my lover could have AIDS. I wrote that poem in 1984 and now it seems darkly prescient. It was a subject in a sense of something I apprehended at a distance. Gradually, it moved closer in, when I found myself writing elegies for friends or acquaintances. The real shift happened when it became not a subject for me, but a part of my subjectivity, a part of my daily life. To the point that I began to see AIDS almost not as a thing in itself. Is AIDS a thing? It means so much to me that it's not even a word, that it's an acronym and therefore has a larger negative capability, as Keats put it. We can imagine into it because the word is this vague shifting bunch of letters that stand for something scientific. I think people are therefore even more able to pack their own meanings and terms into it. And of course, how we define it individually and culturally keeps shifting and developing. For me, it began to feel like the great intensifier—that whatever the epidemic touched became more itself. And that was true for people with AIDS, whose lives were raised to the umpteenth power, so they became more intensely whoever it was they were to begin with, and for everybody else around them. My own fears, insecurities, what I loved, what mattered to me—all of that was so clarified and pushed by being present with Wally in his illness and that continued I think with greater intensity over the course of nearly five years. I was not necessarily writing poems about AIDS, but if I was writing a poem about the breakwater or about the colors of the boats at Flyer's Boatyard, there was a necessity, an urgency about being able to see; about being able to name experience to try to get it right; to think about what it means to love what is passing; to think about what it means to be temporary. That's true for everybody. We're all going to die. But having the sword which hangs above us all become that much lower and more visible changes everything completely.
In this context, I guess, everything you've written since 1989 is about AIDS, wouldn't you say?
Oh yes. Sometimes, many times the word is nowhere in sight, the expected details perhaps or the expected furniture of a poem about AIDS are nowhere in sight, but that is the dye in which the poem is steeped. It is the ground from which the poem begins. It's the condition of my life and I have no choice except to write out of it. I was really startled a few days ago when I got this review in the mail about My Alexandria—and I don't want to complain about reviews because I've had lots of very nice ones. But this particular reviewer said the poems weren't talking directly enough about AIDS. He said that there were many poems about people dying from an unnamed disease, as if I had to spell out those four letters and use the elements that he associates with AIDS in order to be talking about the reality. Or that I had to use the public definition of the disease in order to talk about it. It may be possible to see it more clearly without using those terms. There are poems that I have been unable to write because they are the more expected—the poems of being at the bedside. I don't think those are mine to write.
Do you see your queer identity poems changing?
Yes, actually I have a new poem that's a rant. I'm sort of excited about it. I was in Providence walking around and I saw a poster on the walls of this boarded up old movie palace which was a xeroxed ‘photograph’ of a face of Jesus and scrawled under it in magic marker was ‘Homo will not inherit, Repent and be saved.’ And I found that phrase, ‘Homo will not inherit’, coming up in my head again and again. I kept trying to avoid writing the poem and then I said, all right I'm going to do it and wrote a poem spoken to the Christian Right that is a speech about the beauty of desire, and the absurdity of ‘inheriting the kingdom’. I think I've gotten a little more in your face. In Wayne Koestenbaum's book The Queen's Throat, he talks about the diva—that diva-dom has nothing to do with one's gender, that it's an attitude, a kind of fabulousness, a grand vocal performance. And I find myself writing poems that are more the poems of a grand queen. There's a poem in this new manuscript called ‘Couture’ which is a celebration of the gowns in old master paintings—that's half the poem. The other half of the poem talks about autumn foliage as a drag costume, the woods getting themselves up in these gowns. It's a very heightened, lavish, over-the-top poem that feels to me like singing an aria. It's a more pronounced aspect of my queer character, written out directly.
Has Provincetown been like any other place for you?
One thing that it does is take me back to some of my growing up in southern Arizona, which is a very elemental landscape, like this one, both very austere and very alive simultaneously. I feel at home. In the marsh or in the dunes there is so little, yet so very much that is intensely itself and available. And those huge, wide-open horizontals, and endlessly shifting light. My Vermont experience left me wildly hungry for light and this place offers one centuries of light. And, if this town is not about permission, what is it about? After we had lived here for a few months, Wally and I were walking on the beach and a couple of men came up very close behind us. There were these loud footsteps getting closer and closer and I felt myself get really tight in my chest, starting to feel afraid, and I turned around prepared to defend myself—and they were holding hands. That made me see how much fear I was carrying around that was completely mine. Nobody was making me feel fear now. I had brought it with me and now I had the opportunity to start to set it down. Fear and tension is something that is always in the way of creativity. The less fear and tension you hold, the more you're able to respond to your experience, to respond freely and openly. I feel a permission here for my daydreams too.
I know that you teach and have been doing it for a long time. What is it that you teach? What do you teach writers?
I try to listen carefully and reflect back what I'm hearing, and then ask questions about it. I also point to possibilities for reading, which is an essential part of the teacher's work. The process of becoming an artist is ambiguous and mysterious and indirect. We know that you can't take poems by X and give some suggestions and X will then be a better poet. But I know that my work as a writer was furthered by finding those people and poems with whom I have a kinship. A lot of young people have no idea where to begin. They pick up something that doesn't speak to them, then abandon the project. I try to steer people to their poems. I try to help them think about the nature of their project and the questions they are struggling to solve. Younger writers have such a tremendous need to tell their own story that it's very difficult for them to pay attention to things outside of that story. Perhaps at that age, more than any other, maybe that's when you're reading for mirrors. You're looking for reflections of yourself and where you cannot see a reflection of yourself, you can't see, period. That was true for me when I was 20. I didn't know how to read. I didn't have a clue about how to read a poem, although I tried. I would look at poems and sort of have reveries about them.
Is teaching something you wanted to do?
I always look forward to teaching. There is an energy present with people as they figure out ways of telling their stories. Teaching has always felt to me like privileged work. Like anybody, I've felt really beaten down at times, teaching five composition courses, struggling to make a living. And there are times when I've also fallen prey to what I think is the worst hazard of teaching—becoming canned and responding in programmed ways because you've responded to the same thing so many times or you get tired and you're not able to be present with what's happening right now. That's the part of teaching that is the most difficult. It's also the part that will help to keep you alive as a writer. If you can be there with the person that you're with, paying attention rather than saying the thing you say to a sophomore who uses too many abstractions, if you can really listen to this particular student who has a desire to talk about this and to find her own way of doing that, you can stay fresh. For most teachers, because of the demands of the institutions in which they teach, that freshness, or quality of attention, gets drummed out. You just get too worn out—having classes with too many students in them or doing it over and over again.
How is your poetry changing?
There's an increasing engagement with formality of language, an increasing musicality. I've gotten much more concerned with the sheer fabric of language as a surface in itself and, therefore, there is much more play with versions of traditional form, with rhyme and blank verse, very loose kinds of metrical and syllabic structures and so on. I am not a formalist in the sense of having a real allegiance to fixed forms, but I am very interested in the tension between pattern and free speech, between form and freedom of expression. The real poem seems to live in the tension between those polarities. The real poem is not in the sonnet's form nor in the mere spilling out of your mind. It's in the shuttling dialogue between statement and music.
As a writer, what lesson or well do you return to?
The teachers who shaped my writing were poets I met through their work. One was James L. White, who is best known for a remarkable posthumous book called The Salt Ecstasies, published in the early 80s. He took some mannerisms of deep image poetry—the powerful and striking image—and allied that with a very heart-centred intensity, a great sadness, a great will to be loved and a real doubt that love was possible. He was the first poet who spoke to me as a gay man of the possibility of giving my own life its full resonance. His ways of thinking about memory were marvellously helpful. Some poets became teachers to me because they went so fully into their way of making meaning that they made a way of knowing the world. By becoming unmistakably individual, their work became a vehicle for encountering anything.
As Elizabeth Bishop has done.
Here's a poet who is basically shy, quite reserved about telling you very much about her life. Her particular interest is simply in describing things. She wants to do the most accurate description that she can of what's in front of her, but she pours her personality, her self-ness, her own quality of attention, her soul, so profoundly into her description that it is not just description anymore, it's self-portrait. The way she perceives is so completely stamped on the poems, they could be written by nobody else. That way of perception becomes something that a reader can step into. We are invited to see the world through her eyes and, as we were saying earlier about things that are Cavafian, we can now say that there are experiences or moments that are Bishopian, where you feel like you're living in an Elizabeth Bishop poem. Frank Bidart is another poet whose work has that kind of stamp of extreme individuality. He moves through his obsessions relentlessly focused, allowing nothing in except the examination of that obsessive territory, and he makes out of it a place that you just can't get out of once you get in.
Where are you in the process of becoming nobody but yourself?
My guess is that we can never really answer that about ourselves. You know yourself in mirrors, by how you see other things. It's very hard for me to say cogent things about my own poems. I can talk about one poem at a time, but trying to think about it as a poetry … It seems I've been given permission to be who I am. When I do that, people listen to me. I guess that's a lesson of this year.
What advice would you give to young poets?
Find your ways to balance faith and doubt, which I think are both our allies, ultimately. More writers in the process of trying to become themselves are immobilized by doubt than by anything else. Very few of us have too much faith. It doesn't seem to be characteristic of the breed. We seem, instead, to be very good at internalizing the messages we've gotten from outside of not valuing ourselves. We have to find ways to believe in ourselves enough to do the work. The only way I know of proceeding is to do your work, make things, and then to look at them and make them better or make the next thing. To keep making, you have to have enough faith. You also have to be able to make use of your doubt, because it will not abandon you. Since your doubt will not go away, as Rilke says in Letters to a Young Poet, it must become your ally. That means bringing your doubt in at the right time, at the place where it can help you question what you've done. Ultimately, there is no advice to give to young artists except keep working. If you listen to your work, if you live in it, it will deliver you to its destination. Abraham Maslow says somewhere, ‘Every is contains its ought.’ In that gestating poem you're making there is the kernel of the poem it could become. Here is the poem that it ought to be. In heaven, maybe it already is. But the act of translation, or the process of getting to heaven, requires the practice of living in your work.
SOURCE: Jenkins, Nicholas. “Some of the Museum's Glass Apricots.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4840 (5 January 1996): 22.
[In the following review, Jenkins finds shortcomings in My Alexandria, faulting Doty's literary allusions and trite descriptive language.]
The successes in My Alexandria stem from an outlook that is frankly Alexandrian; the failures from an outlook that is (for the best of all possible reasons) close to New Age mystico-humanist. As if it were a microcosmic embodiment of a Manichaean universe, neither side of Mark Doty's literary persona can destroy the other.
Doty muses with an appealing straightforwardness on contemporary literary-philosophical topics. In “Night Ferry”, for instance, a meditation on narrative is couched in terms of an account of a short journey by boat: “the night going forward, / sentence by sentence, as if on faith, / into whatever takes place”. In “Difference”, a drifting school of jellyfish, “sheer ectoplasm / recognisable only as the stuff of / metaphor”, provides Doty with an occasion for some Derridean perceptions about the fissures between language and vision. At such moments, he writes engagingly about subjects chanced on in odd corners of the world that, though slightly arcane or technical, genuinely interest him.
There is an Alexandrian flavour too in Doty's preoccupation with the dead. The scenery in his poems ranges widely: we find him here in San Francisco, Manhattan, Cambridge, upstate New York and elsewhere. But his sensibility remaps these far-flung sites as a single, phantom-packed, poetry-drenched city of the mind. Ghostly, distant voices abound in Doty's work—not just semi-anonymous voices sounding from across the ages, like those of the eighteenth-century theologian “John Brown” or of “Frank … a boy who lived / in our house in the thirties”, but also those of cherished (and perhaps overbearing) literary presences. Less than reluctantly, Doty takes over James Merrill's Ouija board; sees yellow diggers gouging old Boston apart and meditates on the Saint-Gaudens monument to Robert Gould Shaw, as Robert Lowell did in “For the Union Dead”; writes Cavafian poems of erotic nostalgia; addresses Rilkean (or Stevensian) angels. Who is more alive, one wonders in these cases, the ancestor or the descendant?
Whether these acts of homage make My Alexandria haunting or merely haunted depends partly on the reader's taste. But certainly they relate in an essential way to the book's main theme—the fragile, provisional nature of individual identity. Thus, what Doty calls “my” Alexandria is irrevocably intertwined with somebody else's city of the same name: “his”, Cavafy's. In many of Doty's poems, personal separateness becomes contingent, as even the once impassable frontiers of gender and mortality can be crossed, at least in the imagination. Doty listens to a drag queen singing, and he feels that “her lyric … becomes, now, my city: / torch, invitation, accomplishment”. The disabling corollary is that something which he claims as his might actually be yours, or mine, or just anyone's.
If love and art can be shared and appropriated, so too can other, less healthy aspects of life. One central spectre—absent but always subliminally present—hovers immanently throughout the book. In Ulysses, the “word known to all men” but not appearing in the text (at least not in the pre-Gabler editions of the text) is “love”. In My Alexandria, the word known to all men, though it is “something / we didn't even have a name for, / in 1978”, is the wasted, skeletal acronym “AIDS”. It appears nowhere but shadows everything. Such is its power that even its constellation of related terms, like “positive”, must remain superstitiously unvoiced. Of the fatal diagnosis given to a friend, Doty declares that “I would say anything else / in the world, any other word”.
In view of the word's ambiguities, though, it seems problematic that this book should be so hungry for a positiveness to counter the dreadfully negative implications of being “positive”. Through the alembic of art (another Alexandrian theme) Doty is determined to find that anything, however disastrous, can be transformed or transcended. Is it “anything but joyous”, he asks as he describes a man falling over in a painting of a small Vermont village, “the arc his red scarf / transcribes in the air?”
Given such an aesthetic faith, it is disappointing and undermining that Doty's attention to his own medium of language often feels cursory and unloving. In the “scintillant world” he creates, things remorselessly glimmer and shimmer time after time, as, like reflections generated by a circle of lexical mirrors, attributes repeat themselves. Those jellyfish are “undulant”, and so, further on, is the tail of a goldfish. Clouds “tumble”, just as, later, fiery bolts of silk do too, and music, elsewhere, is compared to the “tumble” of water.
The verbal sameness must be closely associated with a depressing proliferation of idle, and almost meaningless, terms like “astonishing”, “unbelievable”, “fabulous”, “wonderful”, “brilliant”, “beautiful”, “startling”, “stunning”. It's as if one found oneself at a back-stage party for the Adjectival Stock Company. We read here of a “splendid” plaster maquette, some “splendid” delphiniums, a “splendid” chanteuse. And, most awkward of all, the Joyce Kilmer-word replicates within the book's covers: in separate poems in My Alexandria, I suffered the “lovely” loops of skateboarders, the “lovely” smell of wood-smoke, and the “lovely” sound of music to come unto me.
Perhaps this pale diction is supposed to impart a colloquial flavour? Perhaps it's meant to play off against other levels of language? Perhaps. It might also be related to the vision of beauty enhanced by decay that the book develops. Maybe it's intended to be a mimetic version of the phenomenon? In the midst of a museum collection of glass fruit and flowers, Doty pays tribute to “an art / mouthed to the shape of how soft things are, / how good, before they disappear”. At home, the angel of the imagination bends over Doty's desk and tells him that: “The rule / of earth is attachment: here what can't be held /, is.” The impulses at work behind these attempts at a redemptive art are moving to contemplate, or at least to guess at. The results, though, can look as elegantly brittle as one of the museum's glass apricots.
Judging by My Alexandria, one suspects that Mark Doty's entirely laudable ambition is to be an expansive, celebratory writer. But his talent really seems to lie elsewhere, with a less loquacious, more cautious and moody rhetoric. There are signs that he sees this. “I realise my garden has no outside”, he writes at one point, “only is / subjectively”. When he represses that knowledge, his poetry falters.
SOURCE: Fenton, James. “On the Frontier.” New York Review of Books 43, no. 4 (29 February 1996): 52-3.
[In the following review, Fenton discusses the criteria for the T. S. Eliot Prize and offers a positive evaluation of My Alexandria.]
On January 15 this year, Valerie Eliot presented the third annual T. S. Eliot Prize to the American poet Mark Doty for his collection My Alexandria. The previous two winners, Ciaran Carson and Paul Muldoon, were from Northern Ireland, and many a British poet will be wondering when his turn will come. The fact is that several London literary prizes have an international definition of their scope of contestant. The Booker Prize for fiction defines its “community” as being any English-language novelist except the Americans. This may sound unfair but is probably practical. It also reflects, coincidentally, a legal definition found in literary contracts, which often include all the major English-speaking countries except the US.
The T. S. Eliot Prize is for a new collection of poetry, in English, published in the previous year in either the UK or the Republic of Ireland. This definition is very tactful, and practical. It means that a poet from Northern Ireland will be eligible, whichever community he or she comes from, and however that community is to be defined. The roots of this tact reach back to around 1983 when Seamus Heaney wrote “An Open Letter,” a 198-line poem addressed to Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison, attacking them for including his work in what they called The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry. He wasn't British, he said, he was Irish and always had been Irish.
Be advised My passport's green. No glass of ours was ever raised To toast The Queen.
Motion and Morrison were somewhat shocked and dismayed. For a start, Heaney's work was at the very heart of their anthology, at the center of their view of the contemporary scene. Less importantly, it had previously appeared in at least six anthologies with the word “British” in the title. Finally, they had probably assumed that the poets of Northern Ireland were loosely speaking British, in the sense that they came from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Heaney was saying, in somewhat rough language, that he refused to recognize this entity.
Still, the notion of Northern Ireland as being part of the same literary world as Great Britain, the feeling that we belong to the same community, has not died out on what is sometimes called the mainland. One would feel, as an English poet, rather queasy about accepting a prize for which only English poets were eligible. There would seem to be some sinister nationalism lurking in the background. As for a prize which was only for mainland Brits, that would seem unfairly exclusive of Ulster Protestants, or at least potentially so (one would have to ask them individually whether they felt excluded).
Over recent years, nationalism has become an increasingly nuanced business for all of us, and it is illuminating to see how it gets defined, and how community is defined, in cases where a legal or quasi-legal definition is needed. And where the issues are practical: whose book is to be considered for the Poetry Book Society Choice? The PBS, of which Eliot was one of the founders, administers the T. S. Eliot Prize, and its four annual choices are automatically included on the short list. Practically speaking, a member of the PBS would feel a bit swindled if he were never to receive a collection by, say, Derek Walcott or Les Murray, if he learned that these authors were being excluded on the grounds that (as it were) their papers were not in order.
What about America, then? At the level of rhetoric, it is possible to try erecting barriers. It is possible for Helen Vendler to introduce her anthology, The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry, with a declaration that:
The intimate linguistic charm of poetry stops at the frontiers of its original language; the intellectual and moral command of poetry survives translation. This anthology of American poetry will be able to extend its charm only to those who genuinely know the American language, by now a language separate, in accent, intonation, discourse, and lexicon, from English.
Although Vendler goes on to say that the poems she has collected “can extend their command to anyone able to read English,” she has nevertheless erected an obstacle here. Do I “genuinely” know the American language? Am I familiar with its “lexicon”? Its separate lexicon? Er, no. I don't think I am familiar with anything so grand as a separate American lexicon, and at a practical level I hardly care two hoots.
At the practical level, English is a world language, and anyone who reads or writes poetry in English will be happy to take advantage of the fact. More than that: the history of poetry in English is only comprehensible if you take into account what has happened in different countries. British poets of my generation looked to Eliot and Pound to learn how to write and what to read. This was not a matter of syllabus—most likely the influential books in question were not on any syllabus we studied—but of choice. This was in the culture, as was the taste for American poetry of the Lowell-Berryman generation. When a novelist friend rang me up recently recommending a certain collection of poems and said, “It's wonderful, it's like reading Robert Lowell again,” I took this as meaning: it's like being a student again, and reading Lowell's poems when they were new.
The book he was referring to was Mark Doty's My Alexandria, of which the first poem (“Demolition”) contains a homage both to Lowell the man and to individual poems, particularly “For the Union Dead.” And this homage is not encrypted—it is written out en clair. It is as if Doty were saying: You remember the way Lowell used to write in his best period—in Life Studies,For the Union Dead,Near the Ocean. Well, what's to stop us having a go at the same sort of thing? As long as we acknowledge our debts, why should we not go to school again with Lowell and see what benefit we can derive from it?
So it is that in “Demolition” we find the author reading a biography of Lowell, dreaming of him, dreaming of being him, then, coincidentally, running from a rainstorm, and finding himself sheltering near the plaster maquette of Saint-Gaudens's monument to Colonel Shaw and his black soldiers (the monument evoked in “For the Union Dead”).
We love disasters that have nothing to do with us: the metal scoop seems shy, tentative, a Japanese monster tilting its yellow head and considering what to topple next. It's a weekday, and those of us with the leisure to watch are out of work, unemployable or academics,
joined by a thirst for watching something fall. All summer, at loose ends, I've read biographies, Wilde and Robert Lowell, and fallen asleep over a fallen hero lurching down a Paris boulevard, talking his way to dinner or a drink, unable to forget the vain and stupid boy
he allowed to ruin him. And I dreamed I was Lowell, in a manic flight of failing and ruthless energy, and understood how wrong I was with a passionate exactitude which had to be like his. …
It's a gutsy act: appropriation, in a poem whose overall subject is the demolition of a concrete building in a New England town that could, for all we know, be Boston. At the heart of the matter is the idea that “We love disasters that have nothing to do / with us. …” We are fascinated to see a great building destroyed. Somehow implied is the thought that the destruction of a human being with whom we have everything in common, that is another matter. But that theme is left for other poems.
My Alexandria is a conscious evocation of a personal bohemia, with its culture of gay bars, drag queens, and performers. It is tenderly evoked—if Doty were a photographer he would be closer to Peter Hujar than to Robert Mapplethorpe—and allowed its Arcadian phases.
In a dress with a black tulip's sheen la fabulosa Lola enters, late, mounts the stairs to the plywood platform, and begs whoever runs the wobbling spot to turn the lights down
to something flattering. When they halo her with a petal-toned gel, she sets to haranguing, shifting in and out of two languages like gowns or genders to please have a little respect
for the girls, flashing the one entrancing and unavoidable gap in the center of her upper teeth. And when the cellophane drop goes black, a new spot coronas her in a wig
fit for the end of a century, and she tosses back her hair—risky gesture— and raises her arms like a widow in a blood tragedy, all will and black lace, and lipsyncs “You and Me
against the World.” She's a man you wouldn't look at twice in street clothes, two hundred pounds of hard living …
(from “Esta Noche”)
Living on the street, sleeping in the parks, can be for the characters in this bohemia a way of living in heaven. Casual sex, too, belongs to the Arcadian phase. Then along comes AIDS.
The best poem in the book is “Fog,” in which the author and his friend have both been taking blood tests, which eventually reveal the friend to be HIV-positive, and the scope of the rest of the collection is the period between the diagnosis and the onset of AIDS. So the subject is the disaster that has everything to do with us—learning of a loved one's imminent death and beginning the descent into grief. The poet's intention is to make his particular experience, in all its specificity, representative. He believes that the best way of making an experience representative is by that devotion to the particular, those lessons he has learned from his presiding spirits, Lowell and Cavafy.
Cavafy ends a poem
of regret and desire—he had no other theme than memory's erotics, his ashen atmosphere— by going out onto a balcony
to change my thoughts at least by seeing something of this city I love, a little movement in the streets,
in the shops. That was all it took to console him, some token of Alexandria's anarchic life. How did it go on without him,
the city he'd transformed into feeling? Hadn't he made it entirely into himself?
My Alexandria (1993) is Doty's third book. It was preceded by Turtle, Swan (1987) and Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (1991). Since then there has been Atlantis (1995). There were many satisfactions for the judges in being able to award the T. S. Eliot Prize to My Alexandria (which has also received much recognition in the States). The intention of the prize is to recognize an individual volume, not a lifetime achievement, and this individual volume hangs together so beautifully that it seems like a single orchestrated work.
But there is also interest—when a prize is new and relatively untried—in seeing how it is going to work in the long run, putting the prize, as it were, through its paces. The rules define the scope of the prize. The recipients of the prize provide a further definition. One wants this prize to become a record of the outstanding work within the international community of our poetry. Each award should tell us a little more about what that community is, what its limits, what its frontiers are, and whether indeed it is right to speak of frontiers at all.
SOURCE: Landau, Deborah. “‘How to Live. What to Do’: The Poetics and Politics of AIDS.” American Literature 68, no. 1 (March 1996): 193-225.
[In the following excerpt, Landau argues that My Alexandria offers an important revision and reinterpretation of AIDS suffering and homophobic stereotypes, providing a redemptive, consoling, and life-affirming response to the disease countering popular misconceptions and the effects of fear, anger, and despair.]
Senator Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who has vigorously fought homosexual rights, wants to reduce the amount of Federal money spent on AIDS sufferers, because, he says, it is their “deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct” that is responsible for their disease.
—The New York Times, 5 July 1995
Don't let anybody tell you death's the price exacted for the ability to love.
—Mark Doty, My Alexandria
What is the role of the poet in the time of an epidemic? Since AIDS was first identified, more than 360,000 cases have been diagnosed in the United States; over sixty percent of those affected are homosexual men.1 Many cultural critics have argued that widespread homophobia in this country hindered the initial response to AIDS and contributed to the epidemic spread of HIV. If public management of the AIDS epidemic has been tainted by biases against homosexuals, how can writers, critics, and activists effectively negotiate and revise American narratives about AIDS?
In an article titled “Of AIDS, Cyborgs, and Other Indiscretions: Resurfacing the Body in the Postmodern,” Allison Fraiberg considers the homophobic myths that have organized public response to the AIDS epidemic—Jerry Falwell's declaration that “AIDS is God's judgment of a society that does not live by His rules,” for example, and William F. Buckley's proposal that people with AIDS “should be tattooed … on the buttocks to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.”2 Fraiberg cites Donna Haraway's account of “‘being in the belly of a monster and looking for another story to tell’” as an appropriate response to such demonizing discourses. In light of the ideology that surrounds the AIDS epidemic, Fraiberg stresses the importance of “alternative AIDS discourses and strategies” that “revise versions of the body offered by mainstream media, humanism, and postmodernism.”3
What kinds of stories are poets telling about AIDS? How are they seizing language to write about this plague? What are the possible effects and implications of AIDS poetry? In this essay I consider the work of four poets—Timothy Liu, Thom Gunn, Paul Monette, and Mark Doty—to theorize their distinct aesthetic responses to the AIDS crisis. The poems emerging from this epidemic perform a variety of functions: they provide a historical record, commemorate the dead, console readers directly affected by HIV, encourage empathy from those not yet touched, rage against public mismanagement of the epidemic, and forge alternative narratives. Timothy Liu depicts a deteriorating American landscape in which young men are wastefully dying; Thom Gunn chronicles the progression of AIDS-related illnesses in harrowing detail; Paul Monette demands radical social change; and Mark Doty transforms oppressive discourses about AIDS, enabling redemptive transport to a place beyond pain and misery.
All four poets do the vital work of excavating the personal, social, medical, and political implications of the AIDS epidemic. Thom Gunn and Timothy Liu make the suffering of people with AIDS acutely visible; Paul Monette's enraged, polemical poems about the homophobic coding of HIV have significant revolutionary potential. For the purposes of this paper, however, I am particularly interested in Mark Doty's ability to revise and transform dominant cultural narratives. Like Liu and Gunn, Doty confronts loss, grief, and devastation; like Monette, he exposes the homophobic social order that exacerbates the suffering of people with AIDS. But Doty's poems also provide an antidote to an oppressive world by offering readers access to a transformed space beyond brutality. Doty has said of My Alexandria, “Alexandria … is that city of art—that made place, which is both the given and the way that we transform the given.”4 I will argue that Doty performs a crucial function in this desolate era not only by providing a record of massive destruction but also by reimagining the terms used to describe such destruction and envisioning possibilities for political, sensual, and spiritual redemption. …
TRANSFORMATIONS: MARK DOTY'S “RISKY GESTURES”
Although Monette's poems make a substantial contribution to the fight for more humane treatment of people living with AIDS, the question of audience makes clear the need for a broad spectrum of poetic strategies in writing about this epidemic. While rage serves an important political function, it may in some cases limit the impact of the poetry; many of Monette's readers are probably fully aware of the urgency of the situation, but those who are most in need of enlightenment might find his poems inaccessible or offensive.
By deploying different means towards similar ends (a more inhabitable world for people with AIDS), Mark Doty's work complements Monette's poetry in important ways. The poems of My Alexandria transform homophobic narratives about the disease, offer comfort to those living with HIV, and encourage empathy from those whose lives have not yet been affected by the virus. In “Dante on Fire Island: Reinventing Heaven in the AIDS Elegy,” James Miller praises poems that offer a “blessed moment of recovery when the dead rise from the mass graves dug for them by the fatalistic discourse of public health and join forces with the living against the World, the Flesh, and the Virus.”5 Mark Doty is a poet who envisions sustaining moments despite great suffering and offers his readers a “way to continue.” Although Doty's poems are not polemical, they counter reductive representations of people with AIDS, are accessible to a wider audience, and have the potential to improve public response to the epidemic.
Doty's My Alexandria, a collection of poems about mortality in the age of AIDS, fulfills Wallace Stevens's dictum that the poet's role is to “help people to live their lives.” If Auden was wrong and poetry can on occasion “make something happen,” Doty's visionary rewriting of oppressive myths about AIDS may help people live their lives in a more literal way than Stevens intended. Through discursive and ideological revisions, Doty's poems produce humane and comforting narratives that stand in sharp contrast to the hostile socio-political climate of the contemporary United States. His poems expose the codes that map meaning onto the HIV-positive body, destabilize the complex cultural networks that construct gay male identity in the context of the AIDS epidemic, and forge a transformed and transforming language in which to articulate love and loss.
My Alexandria enacts a semiological reframing of the AIDS epidemic. The book begins with “Demolition”—a fitting introduction to a volume of poems about mortality in a time of plague. A group of people gather on a city street “joined by a thirst for watching something fall,” as a bakery and florist shop topple leaving only “the ghost of their signs faint above the windows / lined, last week, with loaves and blooms.”6 In an image that uncovers the signs that stand in place of substance, “Demolition” exposes the gap between discourse and the material world and (although the poem contains no specific references to AIDS) initiates the thematic concerns of My Alexandria—a book largely about the rift between the ideology that surrounds the AIDS epidemic and the specific experiences of people living with HIV.
As the “brutish metal” eradicates the building and its signs, the speaker muses on how “in a week, the kids will skateboard / in their lovely loops and spray / their indecipherable ideograms” (2-3). Nothing can remain blank, but the progression from an ordered, stable structure to this improvisational scribbling suggests hope for a new, fluid language that will shape this space less rigidly. Indeed, by the end of the poem all that remains of the once-solid structure are “gaps / where the windows opened once.” Reveling in the freedom of unbounded space, Doty writes: “It's strange how much more beautiful / the sky is to us when it's framed by these columned openings someone meant us / to take for stone” (3).
By challenging the stability of structures that are meant to be taken for stone, “Demolition” sets the stage for later poems in the collection that discursively demolish constraining structures. The “articulate shovel” of “Demolition” functions as a metaphor for the poetry of My Alexandria, which “nudges the highest row of moldings” of an oppressive social order so that—at least in the world of the poems—“the whole thing wavers as though we'd dreamed it, / … and … topples all at once.”
In “Fog,” a poem about the three-week period during which Doty and his companion of twelve years, Wally Roberts, waited for HIV-test results, the speaker stands in his garden filled with “blood color” flowers and laments: “three weeks after the test, / the vial filled from the crook / of my elbow, I'm seeing blood everywhere” (33). While “Demolition” evokes the redemptive power of poetic language, “Fog” enacts such redemption by transforming the cultural coding of AIDS and situating the lovers' dreadful discovery in a world animated by compassionate spirits:
The thin green porcelain teacup, our homemade Ouija's planchette,
rocks and wobbles every night, spins and spells. It seems a cloud of spirits
numerous as lilac panicles vie for occupancy— children grabbing for the telephone,
happy to talk to someone who isn't dead yet? Everyone wants to speak at once, or at least
these random words appear, incongruous and exactly spelled: energy, immunity, kiss.
Then: M. has immunity. W. has. And that was all.
The poem exemplifies Doty's ability to perceive animation in the midst of a dying world and to contextualize grief within a spirit-filled garden.7 The speaker tells how “one character, Frank, … who lived in our house in the thirties, … asks us to stand before the screen / and kiss. God in garden, he says” (34). Doty's spirituality is unconventional and iconoclastic; his spirits request homoerotic union, and in place of a patriarchal “God” it is an invisible presence that moves in the garden:
Sitting out on the back porch at twilight, I'm almost convinced. In this geometry
of paths and raised beds, the green shadows of delphinium, there's an unseen rustling:
some secret amplitude seems to open in this orderly space.
Maybe because it contains so much dying, all these tulip petals thinning
at the base until any wind takes them. I doubt anyone else would see that, looking in,
and then I realize my garden has no outside, only is subjectively. As blood is utterly without
an outside, can't be seen except out of context, the wrong color in alien air, no longer itself.
Although Doty does not write explicitly about the political world, his transformations are ideological as well as spiritual. Much as the speaker's garden is an “orderly space” in which design is imposed on wilderness, so his blood is coded by the medical establishment when tested for HIV. In the context of the discourses that define the AIDS epidemic, the speaker's blood—or his body—cannot be simply “itself.” As Douglas Crimp writes, “AIDS does not exist apart from the practices that conceptualize it, represent it, and respond to it.”8
In the midst of this “alien air,” Doty's speaker describes the process of HIV testing in which their blood
submits to test, two to be exact, each done three times,
though not for me, since at their first entry into my disembodied blood
there was nothing at home there. For you they entered the blood garden over
and over, like knocking at a door because you know someone's home. Three times
the Elisa Test, three the Western Blot, and then the incoherent message. We're
the public health care worker's nine o'clock appointment,
she is a phantom hand who forms the letters of your name, and the word
that begins with P.
Because the terminology of an anonymous bureaucrat is painful and alienating, Doty seeks another language to assimilate this information that will elude—or at least loosen—the grip of the “phantom hand” of systemic discourse. Knowing that the cultural significance of his lover's HIV status is fixed by the word “that begins with P,” the speaker resists that language, and will not say the word positive:
Planchette, peony, I would think of anything
not to say the word … … … … Every new bloom is falling apart.
I would say anything else in the world, any other word.
The speaker's wish to “say any other word” reflects a fierce need to deny his lover's HIV status, as well as a desire for a language that would enable him to narrate this experience in his own terms: a “secret amplitude” to enable breathing room amidst—and despite—the discourses that script the cultural meaning of AIDS.9 Like James Merrill, who often used the ouija board as a tool for composing poems, Doty takes the ouija board in “Fog” (like Merrill's, “homemade”) as a figure for the process of generating alternative narratives and exploring uncharted territory. And, indeed, he does succeed in saying “other words”: the word “positive” does not appear anywhere in the poem.
Although Joseph Cady might read the speaker's refusal to say HIV positive as a problematically “counterimmersive” moment that echoes public denial of AIDS, from another perspective Doty can be said to resist oppressive cultural responses in “Fog” by forging alternative narratives to those of public health discourse. The test results are devastating, yet Doty contextualizes Wally's HIV status within a spirit-infused garden and narrates the situation in tender, compassionate language to affirm love and spirituality.
“The Wings”—a poem of anticipatory grief for an HIV-positive lover—is another text in which Doty forges alternative ways to speak about love and loss in the context of the AIDS epidemic. Reflecting on a fall landscape, he writes:
There were geese. There were: the day's narration is simple assertion;
it's enough to name the instances. Don't let anybody tell you
death's the price exacted for the ability to love;
couldn't we live forever without running out of occasions?
In contrast to Liu's portrayal of same-sex couplings as lethal, Doty rejects the link between love and death and challenges narratives that portray homoerotic love as self-destructive.10 While Paul Monette's poems forcefully refute homophobic myths, Doty goes beyond refusal to transform oppressive ideology (“death's the price exacted / for the ability to love”) into a celebration of love between men (“couldn't we live forever / without running out of occasions?”).
James Miller describes a similar moment in an earlier poem, “Tiara,” in which Doty's speaker tells of overhearing a damning stereotype at a friend's funeral: “And someone said he asked for it. / Asked for it.”11 In an interview, Doty summarized the events that occasioned the poem: “‘Tiara’ is an elegy for a friend of mine who was a drag queen, always out in clubs. … After he died someone said at his wake, ‘Well, he asked for it.’ I was filled with rage at that ridiculous notion that we invite our own oppression as a consequence of pleasure.”12 In “Tiara,” as in “The Wings,” Doty does not merely refute this myth but transmutes it into what Miller describes as “a collective defense of our stampeding life in the body”:13
given the world's perfectly turned shoulders,
the deep hollows blued by longing, given the irreplaceable silk of horses rippling
in orchards, fruits thundering and chiming down, given salt and a tongue to long for it
and gravity, what could he do, what could any of us ever do but ask for it.
These lines exemplify Doty's ability to take a derogatory phrase as an occasion to affirm homoerotic love and desire—what he describes as a “redemptive re-evaluation or revisioning. To say, well, there is a way in which we ask for it! We love the world! We want to have sex! We desire beauty! We love whatever it is that we love.”14
“The Wings” moves from the myth that HIV is a by-product of gay love to another cultural text, the AIDS Memorial Quilt:
In the Exhibition Hall each unfurled three-by-five field bears in awkward or accomplished embroidery
a name, every banner stitched to another and another. They're reading the unthinkable catalog of the names,
so many they blur, become a single music pronounced with difficulty over the microphone, become a pronoun,
become You. It's the clothing I can't get past, the way a favorite pair of jeans, a striped shirt's sewn onto the cloth;
the fading, the pulls in the fabric demonstrate how these relics formed around one essential, missing body.
An empty pair of pants is mortality's severest evidence. Embroidered mottoes blend
into something elegiac but removed; a shirt can't be remote. One can't look past
the sleeves where two arms were, where a shoulder pushed against a seam, and someone knew exactly
how the stitches pressed against skin that can't be generalized but was, irretrievably, you, or yours.
In contrast to the homophobic ideology that represents AIDS as deserved retribution for sex between men, the quilt offers a compassionate, elegiac narrative for those lost to the epidemic. While the passage foregrounds the specificity of those memorialized, the two moments at which the poem pauses on the pronoun “you” blur the distinction between the dead and the reader to emphasize that those lost to AIDS could be anybody—not only the speaker's beloved but the reader, or someone he or she has loved. Through this blurring, Doty brings his readers into the poem in a way that dissolves the boundaries between one body and another and counters the prevalent tendency to see people with AIDS as Other.
Meditations on the loss brought on by this plague—and an awareness that his lover's name might soon also be embroidered into the fabric of the quilt—inspire the speaker to “make an angel” by planting a garden that enables “buried wishes” to
become blooms, supple and sheened as skin. I'm thinking
of the lily-flowered kind on slim spines, the ones that might as well be flames,
just two slight wings that will blaze into the future; I have to think they have a will,
a design so inherent in the cells nothing could subtract from them the least quotient of grace. …
This garden is the birthplace of Doty's angel and suggests the reincarnation of the speaker's lover into a “human profile / … all berry and leaf.” The image of winged, flame-like flowers evokes a fluid and elusive sphere of physical experience, as if the beloved has been resurrected in a medium that defies all physical and cultural constraints. By claiming irreducible grace for these metaphoric blooms, the poet envisions a redeemed world untouched by the rhetoric that makes “death the price exacted / for the ability to love.”
The image of winged blooms leads into a passage celebrating homoerotic desire:
I dreamed the night after the fall planting, that a bird who loved me
had been long neglected, and when I took it from the closet and gave it water its tongue began to move again,
and it began to beat the lush green music of its wings, and wrapped the brilliant risk of leaves all around my face.
Doty's attachment to the regenerating power of the erotic contrasts sharply with the mutilated genitals of Liu's “Eros Apteros” and Gunn's relegation of sexuality to the irretrievable past. By affirming sensuality despite—and in the midst of—risk, “The Wings” defies what Douglas Crimp identifies as “the comfortable fantasy that AIDS would spell the end of gay promiscuity, or perhaps gay sex altogether.”15
Although Doty's speaker finds himself holding a book entitled A Literal, Critical and Systematic Description of Objects, he turns away from that text to articulate experiences that elude rigid coding:
all the rich commingling of leaves hurry downward into latent shades too subtle to ever name, colors
we perhaps can't register even once, and they wonder why the poet we're reading's so insistent on mortality. I want to tell them how I make the angel, that form
between us and the unthinkable.
If no one can articulate the “unthinkable,” Doty gestures towards unbounded experience by locating himself in an epistemological space between the boundaries of the social order and the unimaginable. The angel enables the poet to speak of experiences that cannot be neatly categorized and certainly would not appear in A Literal, Critical and Systematic Description of Objects.
As in Tony Kushner's Angels in America, unconventional spirituality emerges in My Alexandria as a salve for the suffering associated with the AIDS epidemic; Doty's angels, like Kushner's, are healing, redemptive, libidinous, and visionary. While for Timothy Liu AIDS brings the extinction of angels (“We often made angels on your lawn, watching the bodies fade a little more / each day, until the wings were gone” [“Last Christmas,” Vox Angelica, 55]), for Doty, the AIDS epidemic necessitates the creation of angels:
I make the angel lean over our bed
in the next room, where you're sleeping … … … … … … … I am willing around you, hard,
the encompassing wings of the one called unharmed. His name is nowhere in the concordance, but I don't care; he's the rationale for any naming.
Angel-making is Doty's metaphor for the poetry-making process that enables him to speak, at least for a moment, “in a voice so assured you wouldn't know / that anyone was dying” (50). If mainstream discourses script people with AIDS as alone and despondent, Doty's angel-laden poetry forges a language that deems his beloved friend “unharmed.” Certainly Stevens's necessary angel is behind Doty's angel, but in contrast to Stevens's central man who singularly “sums us up,”16 Doty's angel stands on the margins of American culture, searching for words that elude systematic terminology and cannot be found in any concordance.
The angel's narrative about mortality gives closure to the poem:
You die by dying into what matters, which will kill you, but first it'll be enough. Or more than that:
your story, which you have worn away as you shaped it, which has become itself as it has disappeared.
Doty's angel endows the dying man with the power to narrate his own life and death and enables him to retain his autonomy and integrity despite the “alien air” of public rhetoric.
“Brilliance” also revises stereotypes about people with AIDS. “Maggie's taking care of a man / who's dying,” Doty writes in the opening lines of the poem, which tells of a man with AIDS who has given up, “paid off his credit card,” and “found a home for” his pets since “he can't be around dogs or cats / too much risk”:
I can't have anything. She says, A bowl of goldfish? He says he doesn't want to start
with anything and then describes the kind he'd maybe like, how their tails would fan
to a gold flaring. They talk about hot jewel tones, gold lacquer, say maybe
they'll go pick some out though he can't go much of anywhere and then abruptly he says I can't love
anything I can't finish. He says it like he's had enough of the whole scintillant world.
The passage above fits Douglas Crimp's description of the cultural stereotypes of people with AIDS—“that they are … debilitated by the syndrome … generally alone, desperate, but resigned to their ‘inevitable’ deaths”—stereotypes that Crimp argues fail to empower people with AIDS to fight to improve the quality of their lives.17 But “Brilliance” goes on to counter such reductive representations:
Later he leaves a message:
Yes to the bowl of goldfish. Meaning: let me go, if I have to, in brilliance. . …. So, Maggie's friend— is he going out
into the last loved object of his attention? Fanning the veined translucence
of an opulent tail, undulant in some uncapturable curve, is he bronze chrysanthemums,
copper leaf, hurried darting, doubloons, icon-colored fins troubling the water?
The last lines of the poem present the fusion between the sick man and the scintillant fish as a subversive and defiant response to an oppressive world. Doty's story of a man who retains pleasurable attachment to the sensual world despite his rapidly approaching death contrasts dramatically with Gunn's depiction of dying as a “difficult, tedious, painful enterprise” because the two poems serve contrasting purposes. Gunn's is a cathartic lament in which both speaker and reader are immersed in the details of AIDS-related illness, while Doty's poem is a soothing reverie that counters mainstream representations of people with AIDS and gestures towards a world beyond brutality and suffering.
“Bill's Story” is another exploration of alternatives to conventional narratives about death and dying. The poem is about the speaker's sister Anne, who returns from Africa with dementia—“the first sign of something / we didn't even have a name for, / in 1978.” When Anne is hospitalized years later, Doty's speaker recalls:
my mother needed something to hold onto, some way to be helpful. so she read a book called Deathing (a cheap, ugly verb if ever I heard one) and took its advice to heart;
she'd sit by the bed and say, Annie, look for the light, look for the light. It was plain that Anne did not wish to be distracted by these instructions; she came to, though she was nearly gone then, and looked at our mother with what was almost certainly
annoyance. It's a white light, Mom said, and this struck me as incredibly presumptuous, as if the light we'd all go into would be just the same. Maybe she wanted to give herself up to indigo, or red. If we can barely even speak
to each other, living so separately, how can we all die the same?
Much as the man in “Brilliance” chooses “jewel tones” and “gold lacquer” over muted tones of desperation, here the speaker rejects the mythical white light and muses instead on the transportative power of other colors. “Maybe her light was all that gabardine / and flannel, khaki and navy / and silks and stripes,” he says, referring to Anne's preference for eccentric costumes in her work as a performance artist. By writing poems about individual people with AIDS and their own particular acts of expression and triumph, Doty responds to Crimp's call for “counter-images, images of PWA [people with AIDS] self-empowerment”18
Doty's narratives are consoling as well as revisionary. In “Becoming a Meadow” the speaker takes refuge in a bookstore during a snow storm and muses on the words “becoming a meadow,” a phrase that he finds particularly beautiful because
a meadow accepts itself as various, allows some parts of itself to always be going away, because whatever happens in that blown,
ragged field of grass and sway is the meadow, and threading the frost of its unlikely brilliance yesterday
we also were the meadow. In the bookstore while you are reading and I am allowing myself simply to be comforted by the presence of stories,
the bound, steady presences on the shelves, fixed as nothing else is, I am thinking of my terror of decay, the little hell opening in every violated cell,
the virus tearing away—is it?—and we are still a part of the meadow because I am thinking of it, hearing
the bell-phrase of it: Head of the Meadow in my head. The titles of books, the letters of the writers' names blow
like grasses, become individual stalks, seedheads, burrs, rimed swell of dune on which the beach grass is writing its book
in characters unreadable or read: the meadow-book you are writing, and which you read.
The speaker's anxiety about his own HIV status is at the center of this passage, but Doty recontextualizes that pressing question in a calm and fluid world. The meadow is a place in which conventional narratives about mortality dissolve so that—at least in the realm of the poem—the world itself is utterly transformed:
And if one wave breaking says You're dying, then the rhythm and shift of the whole says nothing about endings, and half the shawling head
of each wave's spume pours into the trough of the one before, and half blows away in spray, backward, toward the open sea.
This is another of Doty's revisionary moments. The shift from a single, fixed narrative (“you're dying”) towards unbounded space is comforting and decentralizes the question (“the virus tearing / away—is it?”) that threatens to define a person's entire identity on the basis of his HIV status.
For Doty, poetry is a medium for imagining temporary exemption from history, from the physical and cultural constraints that circumscribe sensation and experience. By revealing the myths and politics that construct the AIDS epidemic and by depicting individual acts that defy the pressure of those constructions, My Alexandria transforms the terms that limit the lives and deaths of people with AIDS. Doty tells of letters from readers that confirm the consoling and redemptive power of these poems: “Some who found their own experience of a lover's illness mirrored or defined; … straight readers who … wrote to tell … about arriving at a new understanding of homosexual relationships.” Doty cites these letters as tangible evidence of the transformative potential of poetry: “Wouldn't it be wonderful if poetry could have … broader impact. … I no longer agree with Auden's famous formulation, since I have seen such potent connections between people formed because of poems. I know that these do not in themselves constitute social change, but I have been lucky enough to be on the receiving end of some remarkable communications from readers.”19
Many readers have written to Doty to acknowledge the extent to which his poems have helped them cope with the illness or loss of a lover:
I want to thank you for your collection of poems, My Alexandria. A beautiful, beautiful book.
Lately I have been mourning the death of my lover. I have been trying to understand what I have lost, what exactly I have gained, (ache), how to forgive and how to ask for forgiveness. Your poems opened me and stilled me. Thank you.
Another reader, describing his growing apprehension about the future in light of his partner's worsening health, writes:
Reading your book of poems heightened and focused my feelings to a degree little else has done in a long time; what had seemed like a whirlpool of emotions and ideas, as I look both back and ahead, has calmed—I might say has been refined by the clarity of your vision and your ability to convey that vision in beautiful form and language.
Others write to express gratitude for Doty's ability to articulate what has not been adequately voiced elsewhere in American culture: “As a young gay writer, I find myself casually marginalized everywhere I turn … so what a relief it is for me to turn to your words.” Another reader writes, “I find a new world in your work. … I walk down a street and hear your words. You have made something that exists outside itself. Something that lives and is there because you have made it possible.” Still another shares his reaction to encountering Doty's words: “I had to stop every few minutes to scribble madly in my journal and I kept saying to myself ‘Yes! Yes!’”20
Although the impact of poetry on the social order may be indirect and obscure, these letters suggest that if Doty's reimaginings of this epidemic were to permeate social conceptions of AIDS, they might make the world a less brutal place. As William Carlos Williams writes:
It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack
of what is found there.(21)
Commenting on this passage, Doty affirms the relevance of Williams's words: “I believe that ‘what is found there' might alleviate misery, if not postpone death. … If ‘what is found there’ might help us all to re-imagine the disease, and rewrite the repetitive texts of homophobia and fear of otherness, then in fact poetry might keep people from dying. Let's hope that whatever contribution we can make is one more shoulder put to the wheel.”22
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report 5 (February 1994): 8. While AIDS now affects many groups, this paper will focus on poetry that reflects the impact of AIDS on the gay community.
Under the Clinton administration and with the ubiquitous red lapel ribbons, compassionate responses to people with AIDS have been more visible than they were during the Reagan-Bush years. However, as the recent “compromise” on lifting the ban on gays in the military and the preoccupation of research scientists with finding genetic “causes” of homosexuality demonstrate, biases against homosexuals are still rampant.
Allison Fraiberg, “Of AIDS, Cyborgs, and Other Indiscretions: Resurfacing the Body in the Postmodern,” Postmodern Culture 1 (May 1991): paragraphs 4, 6; also available on diskette and microfiche or by e-mail from email@example.com. For further analysis of cultural constructions of the AIDS epidemic, see Simon Watney, “The Spectacle of AIDS”; Leo Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?”; Paula Treichler, “AIDS, Homophobia and Biomedical Discourse: An Epidemic of Signification”; and Jan Zita Grover, “AIDS: Keywords, and Cultural Work,” all in AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism, ed. Douglas Crimp (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988); see also Douglas Crimp, “Portraits of People with AIDS,” in Discourses of Sexuality: From Aristotle to AIDS, ed. Domna C. Stanton (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1992); and Donna Haraway, “The Bio-politics of Postmodern Bodies: Constitutions of Self in Immune System Discourse,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991).
Michael Klein, “‘That Which Is Left Is Who I Am’: A Talk with Mark Doty,” Provincetown Arts 10 (1994): 21.
James Miller, “Dante on Fire Island: Reinventing Heaven in the AIDS Elegy,” in Writing AIDS, 266. Miller's analysis of AIDS elegies includes Mark Doty's poem “Tiara,” which appears in Poets for Life, 66.
Mark Doty, My Alexandria (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1993), 1. Page references for subsequent quotations from this volume are given in the text.
Perhaps the tonal contrast between Doty and Monette can be attributed to the fact that Love Alone was written in the months after Monette's loss of Rog, whereas the grief in My Alexandria is anticipatory; the book was written during the period between testing and the onset of Wally's illness. My Alexandria is the work of a writer who still has the resources to console, while Monette writes that “the ashes of too much grief have choked the song / of mountains in me” (“New Year's at Lawrence's Grave,” Love Alone, 25).
Crimp, AIDS: Cultural Activism/Cultural Critique, 3.
Judith Butler offers a persuasive analysis of the discursive industry that surrounds this epidemic. Arguing that the “power/discourse regime that regulates AIDS” necessitates revision of Foucault's theory of the history of sexuality, Butler asserts that in late-twentieth-century America “‘sex’ is not only constructed in the service of life or reproduction but … in the service of the regulation and apportionment of death”—in contemporary American culture, death “has its own discursive industry.” Butler disputes Foucault's assumption that the rise of technology would prevent the possibility of epidemics, and argues that Foucault fails to account for the politics by which technology is “differently deployed to save some lives and condemn others.” “We must not think that by saying yes to technology, we say no to death,” she writes, “for there is always the question of how and for what aim that technology is produced” (“Sexual Inversions,” in Discourses of Sexuality, 346, 345, 358, 361).
Judith Butler cites the memorial story about Leonard Bernstein in the New York Times of 21 October 1990 to demonstrate the stereotyping of the homosexual subject as a “bearer of death” within “the medico-juridicial discourse that has emerged to manage and reproduce the epidemic of AIDS.” Although the cause of Bernstein's death was lung disease, the Times article suggests an implicit link between his death and his homosexuality: the journalist contends that throughout Bernstein's life “‘death was always standing in the wings,’” and “‘his compulsive smoking and other personal excesses certainly could be interpreted in classic death-wish terms’” (“Sexual Inversions,” 346, 359).
Mark Doty, “Tiara,” in Poets for Life, 67.
Klein, “‘That Which Is Left Is Who I Am,’” 20.
Klein, “‘That Which Is Left Is Who I Am,’” 20.
Crimp, “Portraits of People with AIDS,” 387.
Stevens, “Asides on the Oboe,” Collected Poems, 250.
Crimp, “Portraits of People with AIDS,” 367.
From my own correspondence with Mark Doty.
Mark Doty has contributed these excerpts from readers' letters to this essay.
William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams: Volume 2, 1939-1962, ed. Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1991), 318.
Personal communication from Mark Doty, 1994.
I am grateful to Mutlu Blasing for her attention to this work, and to Mark Doty for his generosity in sharing letters from readers. Sections of this paper were presented at the 1995 Twentieth-Century Literature Conference and the 1994 NEMLA Convention.
SOURCE: Marks, Jim. “In the Country of Grief.” Washington Post Book World (7 April 1996): 11-12.
[In the following review, Marks praises Heaven's Coast, asserting that the book is a powerful work of reminiscence in the canon of AIDS memoirs.]
Inadvertently, and quite unwillingly, I've become a connoisseur of AIDS memorials. The most beautiful was a recent concert given by a choral society for one of its members. But I left the service angry and depressed because neither the word “AIDS” nor my friend's lover of over five years appeared in the four-page biographical program. Beauty, I concluded, was no substitute for honesty and integrity.
Unique among AIDS memoirs, Mark Doty's Heaven's Coast raises the question of whether beauty, even when coupled with honesty, is an appropriate response to the continuing tragedy of AIDS. Books like Paul Monette's Borrowed Time and David Feinberg's Queer and Loathing are too conscious of time's fleeting passage, too angry at lives cut short, for the luxury of honing an exquisite prose style. Even Abraham Verghese, a heterosexual doctor able to attain some measure of emotional distance, makes narrative the first concern of his fine My Own Country.
A straightforward narrative is not the main concern of Heaven's Coast. Doty has no qualms about breaking E. M. Forster's rule, “Show, don't tell,” and he frequently interrupts his story for snatches of poetry, transcripts of letters to and from friends, and analysis of how he felt at the time and feels in the telling. Events are fractured like diamonds in the rough, polished and set about in the memoir's ebb and flow, each time revealing a little more of their significance, their inner fire. For its first half, Heaven's Coast could just as well be subtitled “Meditations” as Doty wanders the shores of his beloved Cape Cod with his dogs like a contemporary Thoreau, finding in the sea life washed ashore emblems of mortality and the universe's eternal processes of change and renewal.
Doty is a gifted poet whose books (My Alexandria,Atlantis) have won numerous prizes, but even his considerable reputation could not have prepared readers for the astonishing beauty of these opening pages. “Spring has opened its big green hands,” begins one section. Surely there are echoes here of a thousand poets, yet in its sturdy, utter simplicity, it makes an apt beginning for observations about nesting house finches, which become an image for domestic life. At every turn, there are marvels: a gorgeous description of jellyfish stranded on the beach, another of light in a pocket of trees in the dunes that seems to open out into another world.
Yet out of the fragments emerges a story of life as “a citizen of grief's country.” By book's end, readers will have the sense of knowing Mark Doty and his lover, Wally Roberts, in the same, intimate way that we came to know Paul Monette and his lover, Roger Horowitz. There are unexpected bits of humor in the jokes the couple exchange and a funny moment at Wally's memorial service: “When the born-again gay Christian biker who'd gone to elementary school with Wally began to sing all the verses of ‘Precious Lord’ a cappella, I began to think that things were seriously out of control.”
And despite his penchant for beauty, Doty takes us into the most intimate moments of sickness and dying. Bedridden, Wally finally becomes incontinent, and Doty acknowledges the messy reality of caring for someone too sick to care for himself. He takes us into the moment of death itself, a moment both powerful and hopeful, in language that, purged of anger and grief, comes close to being transcendent.
Doty's refusal to become dominated by his anger is what most differentiates this book from the writing of Paul Monette or David Feinberg. On the face of it, it is unkind to compare Doty's memoir with Monette's. Doty is never less than in total command of his language; he can ring exquisite changes on a metaphor—the opening walks along the beach haunt the book's end and inform its title. Monette can be at his worst when he's being “literary,” his metaphors unguided missiles that can end up fizzling out with a card-shop sentiment. The opening of his memoir Becoming a Man is a textbook example of purple prose run riot.
Yet Monette has the strength of his failures: The occasional lapses serve to lessen the distance between the writer and the reader. Doty has the weaknesses of his virtues. He confesses that he needs “an aesthetic interest, if you will, in perception and language, a professional interest.” Combine this aesthetic distance with the removed and insular world of teaching and writers conferences in which Doty moves, and at times Heaven's Coast will seem to inhabit a realm of its own, as removed from most readers' experience as the shepherds and maidens in a Renaissance pastoral romance.
What keeps it from falling over the edge into preciousness is Doty's hunger for authenticity. The beauty he seeks is “not in any sense ornamental but the way that all things which are absolutely authentic are beautiful.” Reading Heaven's Coast, I kept being reminded how much our judgment is affected by what we bring to a book. Had I first encountered Heaven's Coast and Borrowed Time 20 years ago when I was a newly minted Ph.D. steeped in my teachers' formalism, I would have embraced Coast and dismissed Borrowed Time. Yet if Coast had appeared simultaneously with Borrowed Time in 1988, I'd have chosen Monette's book for telling the story we needed and regarded Heaven's Coast as a brave experiment that failed to capture the urgency of the epidemic.
Reading Heaven's Coast now—as politicians in our dominant party are pledging to do everything in their power to make it impossible for people like Wally and Mark to live ordinary lives, and as the best we can hope for when Congress passes a bill punishing people for having AIDS is that the president has the decency to be ashamed when he signs it into law—I'm conscious of how fragile the happiness is that Mark and Wally found, and how rare the strength, as well as talent, that brought this book to fruition. If one book survives the AIDS epidemic, it will be this one.
SOURCE: Cooper, Bernard. “What the Waves Take Away.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (14 April 1996): 2.
[In the following review, Cooper extols the sense of urgency and despair evident in Heaven's Coast.]
“I can imagine the moment before he dies,” confided a friend of mine whose lover languished in the last stages of AIDS. “I can even imagine the moment of his death. What I can't imagine is the moment afterward.” This vast and seemingly uninhabitable “afterward” is the territory charted by Mark Doty in his powerful memoir, Heaven's Coast.
Doty's story is catapulted into motion by the results of an HIV test; the author tests negative and Wally Roberts, his lover of 12 years, positive. The terror and injustice of this sudden rupture takes an immediate physical toll on Doty, whose lower back is wrenched out of alignment, leaving him with the apprehension that he will be unable to bear the weight of this new knowledge, unable to impel his body onward. A New Age physical therapist tells the author that the vertebra giving him the most discomfort represents “faith in the future.” What ensues is the story of a man who must renegotiate his belief in the future, who must regain the narrative continuity of his life, a life upon which AIDS will impose its grim revision.
“The world doesn't need us to continue,” writes Doty in his prologue, “although it does need us to attend, to study, to name.” Consolation is possible for the author largely through the act of observing and articulating the particulars of nature, specifically the salt marsh and coastline of his Cape Cod home.
Doty, one of the country's foremost poets, ruminates on flora and fauna with a care and acuity that makes his environment palpable, a complex presence that can both inspire and overwhelm. He describes the “bronzy, barbaric-looking claw of beach pea unfurling, and the bee-pestered wedding lace of beach plum.” Of Herring Cove he writes, “It is a whole shifting confluence of aspects … a continuous apocalypse; Sahara becomes sea becomes sand again, in a theater of furious mutability.” But the furious mutability of nature, and our lack of control over it, lead the writer to acknowledge that, often, the only antidote to despair is to feel despair more keenly. “Sometimes, all that helps,” he writes, “is a deep, bracing breath of emptiness.”
Almost immediately, sections of the memoir begin to leap forward and back in time—Wally's decline is imminent or glanced at in retrospect. This jumbled chronology intensifies the mood of crisis and uncertainty, of one's universe being, by turns, demolished and reconstructed. All the while, the piecemeal indignities of Wally's illness, as well as the deaths of other friends (most notably the poet Lynda Hull), are accompanied by visitations from the natural world. Seals appear on the shore, cast their gaze toward the author, then vanish into the water like souls into an afterlife. The author's dogs scout the beach, coming upon the remains of a dolphin. “Walking on the shore,” Doty laments, “what do I stand on but the vast, accumulated evidence of death? What do I confront, day after day, but death and death?”
Doty's voice, driven by a restless, elegiac impulse, veers between reflexive praise and plain hurt, and finds the right notes for both. Often he locates an equipoise between the two emotions: Describing the viral brain infection that eventually claimed Wally's life, Doty asks, “Was it a kind, compensatory mechanism of the disease, that took his nervous system's ability to control his legs away, but gave him childlike pleasure in return, allowed him to keep his delight in the world?”
As Doty's grief over Wally's death intensifies, so does the pain in his back. The only way out of this pain, the author concludes, is through it. And so begins “Through,” the last and more harrowing half of the book. Here again Doty acts upon his imperative “to attend, to study, to name”; he turns the focus of his craft, unflinchingly, toward his lover. “That face. The pure self which looks out into the world. … Self-consciousness, doubt, circumstances, even history stripped away, he's that awareness, that quality which is most essentially Wally.” In this section, a passage about, say, Wally's craving for an ornately shaped licorice candy is followed by a graphic account of tending to him during his bouts of uncontrollable diarrhea. Ostensibly disparate aspects of physical being are treated with equanimity; appetite and excrement—the lover's body is raised, as it were, by the survivor's enduring regard.
Recollection—in the literal sense of gathering broken pieces—is the engine that powers many literary memoirs, and yet what makes this memoir exceptionally touching is that one can detect, beneath Mark Doty's burnished prose, the heat and urgency of his task. In page after page, the process of finding words to embody the unbearable is, for author and reader alike, a “coming to terms.” And yet this book is far from a private exercise in catharsis. Doty escapes solipsism by way of his reverence for nature, by embracing fates besides his own and Wally's, and by his ability to seamlessly introduce broad-ranging observations about domesticity, fidelity and even clothing, into his narrative. And always, his exacting, sensuous language resonates far beyond, as well as deeply into, the personal sphere.
The exigencies of this book have resulted in some fragmented patches of text. Chapters were written, the introduction explains, both during and after Wally's illness and death. Although Doty uses the brilliant device of beginning a new section with a phrase from the preceding section, thereby accentuating the human drive for “ongoingness,” the final section, “Consolations,” is unapologetically collaged from friends' letters, literary excerpts, Doty's journal entries and records of his dreams. How else, except with tentative, borrowed strength, can one grapple with the indifference of death? How else, except with a kind of ragged grace, can one accept the loss of his beloved and construct a future alone?
SOURCE: Doty, Mark, and Jonathan Bing. “Mark Doty: The Idea of Order on Cape Cod.” Publishers Weekly 243, no. 16 (15 April 1996): 44-5.
[In the following interview, Doty discusses his literary career and life upon the publication of Heaven's Coast.]
Some weeks after the death of Wally Roberts, his partner of 12 years, the poet Mark Doty found himself wandering ruefully through Beacon Hill, the Boston neighborhood where he and Wally first lived together more than a decade earlier. Revisiting his old, moldering, rent-controlled brownstone, once home to numerous friends, Doty found it empty of all but two of the original tenants. “Where had they all gone?” he mused. “Disappeared, moved away, and mostly, of course, died; this was a house full of gay men, in 1981, and now it's a house full of no one.”
That encounter forms one of several lambent, haunting set pieces from Doty's new memoir, Heaven's Coast, marking the poet's harrowing, slow passage from sorrow to a kind of catharsis in the wake of his lover's diagnosis of HIV in 1989. (Doty tested negative simultaneously.) That diagnosis, Doty writes, “blasted the world apart,” imbuing much of his subsequent poetry with imagery of impermanence, mortality and loss. For a time, it robbed him of his ability to write. Heaven's Coast—out last month from HarperCollins—is the story of his love affair with Wally and the unravelling of the world they shared, tracing Wally's gradual decline and Doty's own spells of despair, self-doubt, rage and fleeting hints of transcendence.
His white, clapboard house in Provincetown, Mass., is walking distance from the crashing surf, sand dunes and salt marshes, whose stark presence frames much of Heaven's Coast. But for three days a week, Doty lives in New York, teaching writing at Columbia and Sarah Lawrence College. It is there, in an apartment off Gramercy Park, a cozy nest of antiques, books and overlapping carpets, that PW catches up with him one blistering cold February morning.
Having published four books of poetry in less than a decade and received a slew of honors, including a Whiting Writer's Award and a T. S. Eliot Prize (of which he is the first Stateside recipient), Doty has risen among the ranks of the most acclaimed young, American poets. “Over the last two years,” he says, “I've realized I can easily spend a lot of time being a poet, not writing poetry, but being a poet. And that can sort of be a job in itself.”
At 42, his handsome, boyish angularity has softened. Dressed entirely in charcoal and black wool, one slender black boot resting on his knee, his thinning hair impishly balanced by long sideburns and a goatee, Doty's 6'2” frame is draped on a couch beneath a portrait of James Joyce. As he walks us through his “long, checkered background,” the veins on his wide forehead bunch up and his long fingers take flight from his lap, gesturing in the air or teasing the fabric of his wool trousers.
In Heaven's Coast, Doty traces his WASPy ancestry to the “archetypal American scoundrel” Edward Dotey, who arrived in Provincetown on the Mayflower in 1620, fought the first duel on American soil and filed the nation's first lawsuit. His more immediate forebears, he says, were “a ragtag batch of poor Southerners.” Doty's father, an army engineer, dragged his family from suburban Tennessee to Florida, Southern California and Arizona. His boyhood feelings of deracination and difference, he says, may engender a subsequent book of prose. “I've been playing a little bit with some short pieces that have to do with having been a sissy,” he says. “I remember very distinctly hiding during kickball to work on my embroidery.”
Doty was married at 18, “in flight from both my family and a sexual orientation that scared me half to death,” he writes. Moving to Des Moines, Iowa, he finished his B.A. at Drake, divorced his wife and arrived in Manhattan “in my little yellow Chevette” in 1981, with ＄600 to his name. Temping in New York, he took an M.F.A. in part-time stints at Goddard College in Vermont, where he met Wally, a department store window dresser with “tobacco-leaf brown eyes.”
As Doty tells it, his first volume of poetry, Turtle, Swan, was initially turned down by David R. Godine despite a plug from fellow Godine author Andre Dubus. “He said, ‘Well, it's very nice, but publishing a book of poems is like dropping a rose petal in the Grand Canyon,’ which is apparently something he says to everybody. It's like one of his lines.” A year later, however, Doty's friend Roger Weingarten, also a Godine author, convinced the publisher to reconsider that manuscript. Godine released the book in 1987; a second collection, Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, followed in 1991.
Pursuing an option in his contract to enter competitions, Doty submitted his next book of poetry, an early draft of My Alexandria (1993), to the National Poetry Series, which honors five poetry manuscripts annually with publication by a small press. It was chosen from roughly 1200 submissions by Philip Levine and published by Richard Wentworth, editor-in-chief of the University of Illinois Press.
Now the recipient of many more laurels, Doty, who judged the National Poetry Series in 1995, concedes that poetry contests don't matter a great deal to the commercial mainstream. ‘They can feel incestuous—it's of course a temptation for a judge to choose a favorite student or someone whose work he or she already knows.’ But in his view, poetry prizes are invaluable engines for launching new talent in a poetry scene that's grown increasingly decentered and heterogeneous. “We're in an age where there's an explosion of poetry readings, creative writing programs and opportunities to publish, relative to, say, 20 years ago. This is a good healthy fecundity. What prizes do is point to interesting books. A first book of poems which appears without some kind of push behind it is fairly likely to disappear these days,”
Doty nevertheless views with some ambivalence the hoopla surrounding National Poetry month. “Anything which holds up the reading of poetry as a worthwhile activity is good for us,” he says. “But one can't help but feel it's like having a poetry unit in school, which makes that topic seem like something that can be compartmentalized, when it should remain a part of life, a part of every month.”
My Alexandria (1993) was a watershed for Doty. A series of luminous studies of urban and natural flux, it highlighted the influence on Doty of the poet C. P. Cavafy (to whose eroticized, native cityscape the title pays homage) and pondered, in tender, orderly stanzas, the metaphysical meaning of such evanescent things as a building being demolished; a jellyfish; a drag performance; a dog left to die by the side of the highway; an HIV-positive blood test.
“I felt My Alexandria was a real change,” says Doty. After two poetry collections that focused primarily on his suburban upbringing, “I was casting around for what would come next. And what came next for me was looking around at the present and adult life, in a different way. It wasn't long after that change that Wally's HIV diagnosis underlined the need to pay attention to now.”
My Alexandria, which received the NBCC poetry prize, also caught the attention of HarperCollins editor Robert Jones, whom Doty met in 1994 at a dinner in New York with James Merrill, following an Academy of American Poets reading. “I was thinking very seriously about the prose book at that time,” Doty recalls. “And I wanted someone to work with me who would not be just a receptive editor, but who would actively help me give shape to the book because I was very uncertain about its final form.” Jones bought Doty's prose work in progress, as well as his next poetry collection, Atlantis (1995), which last month earned the Boston Book Review Poetry Prize. “My only trepidation,” says Doty of signing with a commercial house, “was that I was moving from a small press where poetry was a staple and a center of their activity to a large corporate publisher where poetry was a sort of lovely ornament.” Those anxieties were quickly allayed, he notes. “Everybody that I've dealt with at HarperCollins has been enormously responsive and serious and really cared about the work. And Robert was willing to take the sprawling manuscript of Heaven's Coast and both respect it and help push it into shape.”
Emotionally adrift after Wally's death in January of 1994, Doty stopped writing for a month. Eventually, sparked by a friend's solicitation to contribute an essay to an anthology on gay men and religion, the memoir began to percolate. “I went to the computer and found that one sentence followed another. And this was at a time when I couldn't even read. That kind of focus hadn't returned to me. So it was a real gift to be able to write it.”
POTENTIALLY AN INFINITE BOOK
Never having felt much of a facility for prose, Doty discovered that the inclusiveness and open-endedness of nonfiction allowed him “to meditate, to describe the experiences of everyday and investigate them for what kind of meaning or metaphor they might yield.” He pauses, his hands grasping the air, as if molding a ball of putty. “I think that it would have felt in some way dishonest to the gravity and intensity of this time of grief to attempt to order it, to shape it in that very controlled way that poems are shaped. Potentially, it was an infinite book.”
What finally emerged was a patchwork of often incandescent essays spanning the year that followed Wally's death—a period of great turmoil, during which Doty was immobilized by a long-neglected back injury and lost another friend to a car accident. Framing his reminiscences of Wally, the homes they shared and the onset of AIDS are in, ages drawn from the beach near his home—including encounters with seals and a coyote, in whose otherworldly gazes he imagines Wally's presence. While lacking the assurance and unity, of Doty's verse, the memoir unveils the experimental process from which the language and tropes of his poetry spring. Full of references to Job and Dante, Doty's prose follows the same encircling, inquisitive rhythms that distinguish his poetry, putting the ailing Wally at the center of a kind of pietà.
“I felt that if I just used one voice, my own explanatory voice, the book would be too thin,” says Doty. “So I wanted to let in the less refined voice that shows up in my journals and some of the more refined voices from letters from my friends or from other poets.
“My working method is to wander about in the world, looking for what strikes me. The object which is going to contain for me or represent or convey a question or an emotional state is a given,” says Doty, dropping his voice in a kind of hushed reverence. “And writing a poem becomes a process of trying to understand what it is about that image that is compelling to me, because it's always more than beauty or novelty. If I'm moved to write about those jellyfish in the water or the mackerel in the supermarket, it's because something that I need to understand is coming to light through that vehicle. I think of it myself as leaning against the given. I'm given an image, and my job is to push against what I'm given until I understand it.”
In Provincetown, with his two Labradors, Beau and Arden (“one golden and one beautiful, black, curly-coated creature”) behind the confines of a white picket fence and a “lush tangle of climbing antique roses,” he spends most mornings at his desk. “I need to work while I'm fresh and before my head has been stuffed with other language and business,” he says.
Doty confesses to “an absolute need for the work. It's what I have to find some sense of order in the flux and wash of things. If I'm not writing, I don't feel good. I feel as if I'm going through the motions of living but not really engaging with things fully, not living deeply enough.”
SOURCE: Upchurch, Michael. “Recovering the Past.” Chicago Tribune Books (5 May 1996): 5.
[In the following excerpt, Upchurch praises Heaven's Coast and Bernard Cooper's autobiography Truth Serum, noting that both works make powerful statements about loss, the gay experience, and dealing with AIDS.]
“Death requires a new negotiation with memory,” writes poet Mark Doty (Atlantis) early on in Heaven's Coast, disclosing one reason he embarked on this, his first major prose work. Doty's words could just as easily apply to Truth Serum, the fine new memoir by novelist Bernard Cooper (A Year of Rhymes).
But while these two writers have much in common—both are gay writer-teachers in their 40s, living in gay-friendly communities hard hit by AIDS—their books offer rich contrasts in tone and approach. Doty's is a feverish case history, focusing on the death of his lover, Wally Roberts, in early 1994. Cooper's is a more varied, collage-like book, a full-fledged autobiography written with extraordinary economy. Though its focus isn't initially on AIDS, the epidemic inevitably crashes into it, usurping center stage.
If Doty is more selective than Cooper in the ground he covers, however, he is also more intent on finding a universal resonance in its specifics. He brings an early fundamentalist influence to his understanding of life-and-death struggles, and though he is no longer affiliated with any particular church, a keen spiritual instinct colors his readings of love and landscape. Occasionally Doty's cosmological speculations are more grandiloquent than persuasive, especially in the book's opening section, but his natural description is superb throughout, whether he's conjuring the sight of a seal peeking out from ocean surf (“a wet black marble bust”) or the grimmer spectacle of seagulls hungrily pecking at a seal carcass (“white engines, all wings and throat”).
Doty, whose verse has won numerous prizes, including a National Book Critics Circle Award, is word-perfect, too, in tracing the harrowing decline in his lover's health and the confusion surrounding medical diagnoses and treatment. Anyone who has lived through the loss of a loved one to AIDS will recognize the doctor who hates to admit how little he knows, the counselor who thrives on tidy platitudes, and the sinister caprice of the disease itself, which, with its preposterous panoply of opportunistic infections, seems never to take the same path twice.
In Wally's case, instead of pneumonia, Kaposi's sarcoma, retinitis or dementia, the trouble was progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, or PML, a viral brain infection that leads to paralysis (Doty duly notes how AIDS introduces its familiars to a whole new vocabulary of acronyms).
Heaven's Coast goes beyond medical detail to capture the greater upheavals brought on by terminal illness: the changes to household arrangements, relationships, job routines and the very concept of “future.” He also reminds us that just because a lover's terminal illness deserves full-time attention, life doesn't oblige by coming to a standstill; an AIDS-stricken friend turns up on the doorstep with nowhere else to go, another friend dies in a car wreck, a hurricane threatens Provincetown. It all has to be dealt with.
The physical sensations of bereavement—as real, when they come, as the arousals of love—are rendered with utter precision. Doty is especially conscious of the way “evidence of the past keeps floating up, new ways to see, new prompts and reminders.”
“We couldn't keep the dead out of the present if we wanted to,” he concludes, and Heaven's Coast, despite its concentration on a landscape “varnished with death,” offers an austere serenity along with its anguish. …
Eventually Cooper, like Doty, met the love of his life and, after years of holding the idea of mortality at bay with “the sheer, unwitting strength of our contentment,” Cooper was faced, as Doty was, with his own impending AIDS loss (his lover, Brian Miller, is still battling the disease).
Where Doty speaks of the “disfiguring pressure” of AIDS on friendship and love, Cooper brings a nervous bravado into play: “Fine, I would think, drinking Brian's kiss when he walked through the door, if this is lethal, it's how I want to go.” Both books quietly amplify the effects of loss with incidental mentions of men claimed by the epidemic: a gym acquaintance, a casual business contact.
Both Heaven's Coast and Truth Serum are attempts to recover the past, to tap the power of memory, to clasp between covers an “absence so forceful it is itself a daily, hourly presence,” as Doty puts it. Both books speak eloquently for their authors, and for a whole generation of gay men trying to find their bearings in an era of loss.
SOURCE: Glover, Michael. “Sea Changes.” New Statesman 125, no. 4294 (26 July 1996): 47.
[In the following review, Glover lauds the brash, defiant language in Atlantis, contending that Doty is one of the “finest American poets of the last 20 years.”]
It was one of those rare moments of delight when, in the spring, the American poet Mark Doty won the T S Eliot Prize for the year's best collection with My Alexandria. Arizona-born Doty was unknown to English readers until the middle of last year. Now, with the publication of Atlantis, his second book within 12 months, he is getting the attention he deserves.
Why should we read Doty? Because he is the finest American poet of the last 20 years, the most forceful and inventive versifier to appear in print in America since the death of Robert Lowell in 1977. He published his first book, Turtle, Swan in America in the early 1980s, but it was what happened in his life from 1989 onwards that has shaped the last two books. For it was in 1989 that Doty's partner Wally Roberts was diagnosed HIV positive. He died in January 1994.
Not long ago Doty was asked how the Damoclean Sword of Aids had informed his poetry. “For me,” he replied, “it began to feel like the great intensifier … I was not necessarily writing poems about Aids; but if I was writing a poem about the breakwater or about the colours of the boats at Flyer's Boatyard there was a necessity, an urgency about being able to see; about being able to name experience to try to get it right … to think about what it means to be temporary.”
There could be no better introduction to Atlantis than that statement. The book's working title was Coastal Studies and, in a literal sense, that is what it is about. In 1990 Doty and Roberts moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, a coastal town whose natural and manmade features seem to act as a mirror to Doty's preoccupations with mortality, transience and the beguiling surface glitter of that which disappears all too soon.
Here are poems of the salt marsh, for example, which appear and disappear as the tidal waters shift in and out. Here are the visual rewards of the sea-going life: the wreckage of boats; that green crab shell; the replicated perfections of a display of mackerel lying in parallel rows, each one a display of luminosity.
Doty's poems are minute points of descriptive attention given to a world that seems to have a natural penchant for ornamentation. They are alive with all the brilliant, showy particulars of things. In one heightened and lavish poem, “Couture,” Autumn comes on all tricked-out like some marvellous drag queen: “Autumn's a grand old drag / in torched and tumbled chiffon / striking her weary pose.” Does nature mimic man—or man nature? The poems begin in detail—but they don't end in it. As with Elizabeth Bishop, what matters is what the regarding eye distills from the detail.
Doty's use of language—at certain moments inclined towards preciosity, and at others reminiscent of Lowell's loud, barging, muscular rhetoric—almost represents a frustration with the monochromatic medium of mere words on a page. As he has said: “I am jealous of artists who have tactile, real materials—fibre and paint.”
The book itself is a kind of shout against the diminution of life; a poetry written, like Wilfred Owen's, in extremis, a defiant, extravagant celebration of everything that passes and endures and passes again.
SOURCE: Scull, Andrew. “Losing the One You Love.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4885 (15 November 1996): 15.
[In the following excerpt, Scull alleges that Heaven's Coast is a wrenching, detailed description of loss and Doty's reengagement with the world after the death of his partner, Wally Roberts.]
Losing the one you love hurts—hurts more deeply and profoundly than almost anything else in our experience. It claws and tears at the soul—most savagely, it would seem on Brodkey's account, when the object of one's love is oneself. Perhaps not, though, among those less relentlessly self-centred than he, a fact brought home in another memoir by a writer haunted by the AIDS virus, the award-winning poet, Mark Doty. Unlike Harold Brodkey, Doty is part of an extended community to whom he matters, and who matter deeply to him. There is, first and foremost, his long-time lover, Wally Roberts. But there are also a whole array of others—straight and gay—whose existence is of profound import to him, and whose lives, sorrows and happiness are inextricably bound up with one another in mutually enriching ways. Like other gay men in the last decades of the twentieth century, Mark and Wally live in the shadow of AIDS. Even while asymptomatic, they are aware that the infection may already have struck and blighted their lives, as it has so many people of their acquaintance. And in late May 1989, it does: testing for HIV reveals that Wally (but not Mark) has acquired the virus.
Heaven's Coast is a deeply affecting lament for a lover, a disturbing description of the ravages of an awful disease, and finally a man's moving account of his passage through grief to a renewed engagement with the world. It reveals, as This Wild Darkness [by Brodkey] never succeeds in doing, some of the human costs of this tragic epidemic—which for some of us seems to be “endlessly consuming my generation and the one before and the one after me”.
AIDS, as Doty makes rivetingly clear, is no metaphor. Its depredations are many and various, unpredictable in any given case, but always cruel. It is also, he discovers, “an intensifier, something which makes things more firmly, deeply themselves”. Mark and Wally learn their fate while living in Vermont, a solitary, openly gay couple isolated within a sea of faintly disapproving Yankees. The perceived need for friends and like-minded community induces them to move to Provincetown, a decision that makes their last years of life together brighter and more bearable, at last part of a community in which they can openly express their affection for each other. But the disease closes in, implacable, inescapable and unpostponable.
Blinding headaches, the psychic terror of uncertainty, the fear of what lay before them, all accompanied the relentless decline of Wally's immune system. No pneumonia, no lesions, no retinitis, but an ever greater weariness, a gradual loss of bodily substance, a steady, inexorable decay. Privately, Mark confesses in his journal “I'm terrified of being alone—sometimes I think I won't be anyone without him—and terrified of his suffering, of being unable to be there with what he needs.” In a way, as he comes to see, this period before the full onset of AIDS was the worst: “There was so little I could do. Later, I could at least attend to the countless little needs of a man who couldn't walk, but now his difficulties, his growing sense of diminishment, were things neither of us seemed able to do a thing about … he was steeping in his illness, taking on its color, the way fabric steeps in dye.”
Death ultimately was kind, but it was also “utter, unbearable rupture”. Grief, too, contained its own contradictions, numbness somehow intertwined with excruciating pain, lying in wait to ambush Doty at odd moments, making it “impossible, for a while to go on”. There is, as he recognizes, no consolation. And the world contains yet more pain. “Wild arrogance, to imagine there won't be more to feel because you won't be able to feel it. To think no more loss can happen because you can't hold it.” Mourning the death of Wally, Mark learns he must simultaneously absorb the loss of a close friend, a woman poet killed in a car accident. Briefly flirting with suicide, he literally pulls himself back from the brink. Slowly, he discovers that “there was too much in the world to see, too much I wanted to pour myself into, to encounter and absorb, too much I wanted to do”.
No one who reads Heaven's Coast can doubt the depths of Mark Doty's devotion to his lover. It captures with uncommon precision the physical and emotional texture of their world, and the wrenching reality that to love is to court grief. If one is tempted at times to avert one's eyes, in the end one is led to rejoice in his renewed sense of the possibilities the future presents, in his determination “to know how the story of my life will turn out”.
SOURCE: Canning, Richard. “A Dying Art.” New Statesman 125, no. 4311 (22 November 1996): 47-8.
[In the following excerpt, Canning discusses the descriptions of nature in Heaven's Coast as well as the critical reception of the work.]
Aids literature needs no aesthetic. Theories about art can come later; and must, if they are to take into account the subgenre of Aids memoirs (some fictionalised) emerging out of the epidemic. To postpone conclusions about Aids and art should not mean suspending judgment, however. Aids literature will not achieve greatness through pity alone.
Naturally, aesthetic judgments feel inappropriate. It is hard to keep in mind the dynamics of prose when a writer—or his lover, in Doty's case—is dying. Objecting to a turn of phrase feels bogus, or surplus; like criticising a man's handwriting as he writes his will. Perhaps this is why critics have said little of importance about Aids art—and why what has been said is often veiled in postmodernist-speak, as in Paul Treichler's coinage, the “epidemic of signification”.
Fortunately a sizeable canon of significant and moving Aids texts now exists. Among their number must be counted Heaven's Coast and This Wild Darkness [by Harold Brodkey]. Mark Doty has already captured the exigencies of nursing Wally through HIV-related infections in two poetry volumes, My Alexandria and Atlantis. Bizarrely Doty's verse has been turned against Heaven's Coast by some reviewers. The book's poised rendering of these events and Doty's grief after Wally's death has been condemned as prosaic if set against the poems, and as aspiring to a lyricism too cogent to render loss properly.
In fact Doty's dexterity impresses, while leaving this reader in no doubt of the abjection behind what he writes. Heaven's Coast gains a compelling, tide-like momentum from its fragmentary structure, too. This highlights its view of grieving as an episodic journey whose pilgrim-like narrator is altered through time. As Doty asks: “What is healing, but a shift in perspective?”
Doty masterfully works new detail, thought and metaphor into a loose-knitted tapestry of loss—whose pattern, nonetheless, is discernible in the repetition of themes. Of these, nature stands pre-eminent: this writer draws a cornucopia of symbolism from a mere shell. The comparison with nature has a literal cogency, as when Doty scatters Wally's ashes on Herring Cove, where he had earlier observed a whale carcass decaying. Waves sweep away the chips of bone among Wally's ashes, just as they had piecemeal devoured the whale.
SOURCE: Tóibín, Colm. “A House Full of No One.” London Review of Books 19, no. 3 (6 February 1997): 3, 5-6.
[In the following review, Tóibín provides a favorable assessment of My Alexandria and Heaven's Coast, but finds shortcomings in Atlantis.]
The words ‘HIV Positive’ and ‘Aids’ do not appear in the poems in Mark Doty's My Alexandria (1995); instead, they hover in the spaces between the other words, and they govern the tone of almost every poem. Now, with the appearance of Heaven's Coast: A Memoir, we know that Doty's boyfriend Wally Roberts was dying slowly from Aids when these poems were being written. Doty also kept a diary during that time, some of which he quotes in the memoir. Heaven's Coast deals with each change in Wally's illness; the book is a charting of the mixture of the mundane and the miraculous, if I can use that word, in the manner of Wally's dying. Thus the poems don't need to tell the story, they don't depend on the medical details or the days when things happened. They seek instead, desperately, to find images and rhythms which will make sense of this illness, a scheme which can accommodate this illness, however fitfully and sadly. They seek to describe the world in all its wonder, as though it were the world which were being slowly eaten away by this disease, as though it were nature itself that would soon disappear and would not come back. In the first poem in My Alexandria, ‘Demolition’, Doty invokes the ghost of Robert Lowell: many of the poems take their bearings from Lowell's clotted diction, from what Doty calls his ‘ruthless energy’, from Lowell's interest in burning the poem onto the page, heaping on adjectives to fuel the fire, invoking the Old Testament; writing, if he possibly could, his own Old Testament.
Doty's is a land of plenty, his poems celebrate abundance. In ‘The Wings’, he and his companion find an abandoned orchard, ‘the long flattened grasses’ are ‘gorged’ with windfalls; in the same poem
the auctioneer holds up
now the glass lily severed from its epergne, now the mother-of-pearl lorgnette.
‘Some days,’ he writes,
such grace and complexity that what we see seems offered.
The landscape of these poems is over-rich, almost sated, with images of redemption and beauty; the material world is for Doty ‘a permanent harvest’. In another section of the same poem he and his companion see an Aids quilt exhibited which bears ‘the unthinkable catalogue of the names’; some panels display items of clothing, jeans or a shirt stitched onto the quilt:
One can't look past
the sleeves where two arms were, where a shoulder pushed against a seam, and someone knew exactly
how the stitches pressed against skin that can't be generalised but was, irretrievably, you, or yours.
Here the voice stops oddly, almost catches, on the ‘were’ and the ‘was’; in these poems Doty lets the pain of what is happening to him over these two or three years write itself into the structure of the lines.
At times he puts moments from the story into the poems: his own first homosexual experience in ‘Days of 1981’; Wally's testing positive (‘I would say anything else / in the world, any other word’) in ‘Fog’. But most of the time, the references to his lover's dying are oblique, buried in the text, and more powerful for that. At times it helps to know the story, to have read Heaven's Coast and thus know the context for a poem like ‘The Ware Collection of Glass Flowers and Fruit, Harvard Museum’, which ends with an image of glass-blowing as
an art mouthed to the shape of how soft things are, how good, before they disappear.
To know the facts which underlie the manic melancholy of these poems, the reason for the creation of images of pure, shared, intense, private happiness and the constant search for transcendence, does not rob the poems of their mystery as much as emphasise how artful and trusting in the processes of poetry they are.
In My Alexandria, the garden in September is ‘this ordered enactment of desire’: in the first poem in Atlantis, Doty asks: ‘What is description, after all, / but encoded desire?’ And now he can equate ‘the ferocity of dying’ with ‘the luminosity / of what's living hardest’. The tone here has become very much more relaxed:
Autumn's a grand old drag in torched and tumbled chiffon striking her weary pose.
This is a looser music, at times almost slack. (‘All afternoon the town readied for storm, / men in the harbour shallows hauling in small boats / that rise and fall on the tide.’) The echoes of early Lowell and Keats and the Old Testament have given way to echoes of Elizabeth Bishop and William Carlos Williams. (In one poem, ‘Grosse Fuge’, perhaps the least successful in Atlantis, there are direct references to lines from Bishop and Williams.) Some of the sentiments here are too easy; in ‘Description’, he writes: ‘I love the language / of the day's ten thousand aspects.’ In ‘At the Boatyard’:
What I love at the boatyard, at the end of Good Templar Place, is the scraped, accidental intensity
In ‘To the Storm God’: ‘I love the wet ideograms / scrawling the houseboat.’ In ‘Fog Argument’:
What I love
is trying to see the furthest grassy extreme …
In ‘Wreck’: ‘I love this evidence.’ In ‘A Letter from the Coast’:
I loved the flash of red excess, the cocktail dress and fur hat.
In some of these poems Doty is more explicit about what is happening in his life, not just in the dealing with death and wreckage, with regret (‘I wish you were here’) and being a lone observer, but in ‘Grosse Fuge’ with the arrival of a friend who is suffering from dementia. Finally, now, the word can be mentioned, the spell broken:
In one of these, he says, is the virus, a box of Aids. And if I open it …
In the title poem he writes directly about Wally dying:
and I swear sometimes when I put my head to his chest I can hear the virus humming
like a refrigerator.
He writes about the dogs which he and Wally owned, and the landscape around Provincetown where they lived. The poems are competent and interesting, but the intensity and the fierce concentration are gone, and it is easy to understand why when you read Heaven's Coast: all the genius which Doty displays in My Alexandria has been transferred to this memoir, to prose rather than to the poems in Atlantis.
Heaven's Coast tells the story of Doty's life with Wally and then of Wally's death: the tone is meditative, comforting, uplifting, almost religious throughout. It is hard to think of another book outside straightforward religious writing which approaches memory, death, disease, love and nature in tones of such respect and forgiveness and awe. There is something very fundamentally American about Doty: he is never prepared to give up hope that there is meaning in all of this; again and again he is prepared to ask the landscape around Provincetown to throw light on what is happening to him, to offer redemption to him and his lover. He is ready to write beautifully if he must, ready to risk everything in the distance he will push his language.
At low tide it's entirely dry, a Sahara of patterned sand and the tough green knots of sea lavender, beach grass around the edges of the beds of the tidal rivers gleaming as it bends and catches light along the straps of its leaves. As the tide mounts, twice a day, this desert disappears beneath the flood. It is a continuous apocalypse; Sahara becomes sea becomes sand again, in a theatre of furious mutability.
Some moments like this are repeated in the poems, but are almost always better in prose. One Christmas in Boston, for example, they open the window and the wind blows the tiny flakes on the Christmas tree all over the room. In the poem ‘Chanteuse’ this becomes:
We were awash in
a studio-sized blizzard, snow on your sleeves and hair, and anything that divided us then was bridged
by the sudden graceful shock of being inside the warmest storm.
In Heaven's Coast:
We were englobed, inside the shook heart of a paperweight. Our room, which already felt outside the rush and pour of things, seemed still further set aside in space and time. In memory, that snow spins still; our laughter and our wonder in the storm's interior, lovers suddenly stunned into recognising how small what's divided and troubled them has been, how lovely their singular, flake-streaked moment is.
Although the prose book is in search of transcendence, there are also sections of plain, well-written narrative, including an account of Doty and Wally meeting and then living together in Boston, in a building which Doty revisits after Wally's death and finds almost empty (‘this was a house full of gay men, in 1981, and now it's a house full of no one’), making a home together in rural Vermont against all the odds, moving to Provincetown, in love with interior decoration and planning the future. And then, in May 1989, they both took the test, Wally tested positive and began to die. ‘At nine o'clock on a weekday morning, late in May 1989, the public health care worker who'd come to tell us our test results blasted the world apart.’ Doty writes with great subtlety and care about the process of dying, seeking to surround every possible moment with a halo. ‘Provincetown, 1990. The universe, God, the essence of benevolence gives us the unmatchable autumn of our lives: brilliant days brimming with warm October light that seem never to end.’ Wally is slowly becoming paralysed; he does not suffer from most of the illnesses normally associated with Aids. A few times Doty is in a rage with doctors; he writes well about the innumerable helpers who come. Always the dogs and the salt marsh and the sea offer him great comfort; but there is something intensely fragile about the solace he gets from writing itself, or from being in New England, or from reading Rilke or Cavafy or the Book of Job. There is a continuous striving in the book to keep blackness and despair at bay, and thus the reader feels their proximity. That nature is blank and offers no comfort, that the virus has no meaning beyond causing meaningless suffering, that death is a black hole, these possibilities remain all the closer to the page for not being entertained.
SOURCE: Doty, Mark, and Michael Glover. “Poetry, Mark Doty Says, Is the Only True Guarantor of Individuality.” New Statesman 126, no. 4336 (30 May 1997): 44-5.
[In the following interview, Doty discusses his work as a teacher, the social role of poetry, his formative experiences and life before and after the death of his long-time partner, and his political orientation.]
It was two years ago that I first read a book by a remarkable young American poet called Mark Doty. He was completely unknown in this country. His poems had a compassionate, lyrical urgency, a descriptive and metaphorical power that was more exciting than anything I'd read from America since the death of Robert Lowell in the 1970s.
Last month Doty came to Britain to lodge in a converted pigsty at the Arvon Foundation in Totleigh, Devon, and do what he regularly does at the University of Utah: teach poetry to aspiring poets. He is one of a species that is common in the United States, but rare and often regarded with some suspicion over here: the professional, tenured poet.
His schedule at Utah is relatively light—he teaches two days a week from January to June. But the rest of his income comes from workshops and fees for his many poetry readings, as well as from grants and book royalties. In Devon, he says, it was “very intense”. With 16 student poets, he “spent all day, every day, doing workshops and writing exercises, talking about poems, reading poems—theirs and mine.”
Isn't it bad for poets to spend so much of their time thinking and talking about the art? Shouldn't they have some life outside poetry so that, when they return to it, they have something to write about?
“What's good is that I get to participate in a conversation about the art,” he said, when we met at the Poetry Society in London's Covent Garden. He speaks in a gentle, insistent voice. “Of course, talking about poetry and writing it are two very different things, but there's something about that dialogue between teacher and student that is nurturing for me as a writer. I enjoy that kind of structured contact with other people and their stories, with their struggles to shape themselves on the page.”
Reading poetry to audiences, he says, helps his writing. “I learn about new poems in the process of reading aloud. You listen differently when you're reading to an audience—it's as if part of you is in that audience listening to that new poem. You hear weaker lines, glitches, rhythmic problems, and that helps in the revision process. Of course, the real work of poetry happens when one reader is alone with one book because, when we read a poem by ourselves, we can stop and start, daydream about what we've just read, take time to examine. What you hear in a poetry reading is always the skin of a poem. You can't apprehend the depths and complexities of a good poem when it's simply read to you once.”
He thinks of himself “as a literary writer with roots in a tradition that values complexity and a certain sort of thickness of language; a poetry I hope that can't be gotten in one hearing.”
But why was poetry worth listening to anyway? Why was it so humanly valuable? “Poetry is a kind of distillation of individuality amidst a world where the unique, the one-off, is at some risk. Driving through Devon this morning, I was startled to come upon a branch of Staples, an American office supply chain, a store that you can walk into in almost any medium-sized city in the States. Let that stand for the universalisation and standardisation of so many kinds of experience. Poetry is absolutely resistant to that …”
So poetry is a bulwark against consumerism? “It is in a way. Of course there is a tiny degree in which poetry can be commodified and sold, but it can also of course be endlessly xeroxed, published on the Internet, memorised and possessed by many people. And what is a poem but a sort of replica or model of an individual process of knowing, and since each of us knows a little bit differently, and each of us has that combination of voice and internal rhythm and ways of seeing which are capable of making something idiosyncratically and unmistakably ours, then the poem keeps putting the self into the forefront in a way which is profoundly valuable …”
Poetry, then, establishes a kind of world-wide community of interior lives?
“That would be my hope, yes, that it continues to put interiority into the foreground. Also, happily, a poem can't just live in the interior. If it did it would be perhaps just a journal entry. It might just be solipsistic. Or purely private. The best poems, real poems, reach out to include readers, and so they model the process of interiority meeting the exterior, the self in a community. Hooray for that …”
Doty's voice sounds Southern—and that's where his forebears come from. His mother's family, Irish immigrants who left during the potato famine, settled in Sweetwater, Tennessee. “My great-grandmother remembered riding in the back of a covered wagon from Georgia to Tennessee, fleeing Sherman's return march. They were dirt-poor millet farmers.”
Doty's parents left the rural South at the beginning of the second world war. His father was an army engineer, so they moved from town to town, sometimes in the South, sometimes in the West, from one anonymous place to another. “I grew up with a sense that home was something one constructed or carried around inside. I grew up loving books because they were reliable company. You could take them with you …”
Aged 16, Doty met a poet, realised that “poetry might be a way to live” and enrolled at the University of Tucson, Arizona. He then dropped out, married at the age of 18, got into school teaching, graduated and took an intensive poetry course.
He didn't begin to accept that he was gay until 1981. He gave up on a bad and stultifying marriage and, with ＄600 in his pocket, headed to Manhattan. “I got a job as a secretary,” he says, “and began what seemed to me a real life because in my early twenties, like many gay men of my generation, I had been in flight from my sexuality. I had issues of identity to work out before I could begin to live a life that was founded in something more authentic …”
He had two poetry collections published. Then his life and work were dramatically changed by the discovery that his lover, Wally Roberts, was HIV-positive. Wally's subsequent decline, culminating in his death in 1994, transfigured Doty's art rather as the intimate and terrible experience of war transfigured Wilfred Owen's 80 years ago.
In two poetry collections—My Alexandria and Atlantis—and a prose memoir entitled Heaven's Coast, Aids became, in Doty's words, “the great intensifier”, and the poetry itself an increasingly anguished and complicated negotiation with imminent death. During Wally's decline, the couple settled in Provincetown at the very tip of Cape Cod; in the poems that little town, with its salt marsh and shifting dunes, seems to embody the very idea of transience.
I asked Doty how his poetry—and his image of that coastal town (he still lives there for six months of the year)—had changed since Wally's death. After the removal of the Damoclean sword, what next? “Well, the poems I have found myself writing over the last two years are much less about grief than they are about a passage back to participation in the world, about the renewal of that contract that we make with life to be a part of things. In some ways I think these new poems are more public because they are less involved with some desperate negotiation with mortality. I am turning my attention out to other things. I think they have some different sorts of colour to them, too, a different music, and a different harmonic character maybe …”
But did he see Provincetown differently now? “I've spent much less time there over the past two years. In part, that was because I wanted to clear the slate, to get away from its intensity and small-town character. It's a place that's so fraught with history for me—not only my life with Wally, but so many people I knew there have died in such a short period of time. In some ways I feel like I've lived there for decades even though I've in fact only lived there for about seven years.
“The character of the community's changing, too. When I first came there, it was very much a refuge for people who didn't expect to live long. Now, because of new drugs and the sort of strange new hopeful position of the epidemic, suddenly people aren't moving to Provincetown planning to die any more …”
When I asked him about his politics Doty replied with an uncharacteristic lack of assurance and fluency. He said that he had consistently voted Democrat but that, in his heart, he was something much closer to a libertarian. “The places where I've been most politically engaged have been with gay issues, but I think that the best use of my energies is not in organising but through writing …
“That does not mean necessarily writing overtly political poetry, though. The reason for that is as follows. I've mostly written from the principle that I wanted to make a discovery in the course of writing a poem. If I knew what I thought or felt, I would be less likely to write because I depend upon the energy of uncovering what I think and feel about any subject. Which makes political poetry—overtly political poetry—particularly difficult.”
What next? A new collection of poems is due out in America next spring; he plans to write a prose memoir on his earliest years in the autumn. “It's a story about childhood and the love of poetry,” he told me. “I bet you didn't know I used to do interpretative dances to Stravinsky at the age of ten, Michael …”
No, I hadn't known, but I could easily have imagined it.
SOURCE: Jarraway, David R. “‘Creatures of the Rainbow’: Wallace Stevens, Mark Doty, and the Poets of Androgyny.” Mosaic 30, no. 3 (September 1997): 160-83.
[In the following essay, Jarraway examines the discourse and poetics of androgyny found in Doty's writing, drawing direct parallels between Doty's exploration of gender and sexual identity and that of Wallace Stevens, particularly as revealed in Stevens's correspondence with José Rodríguez Feo.]
In his landmark The Trial of Curiosity: Henry James, William James, and the Challenge of Modernity (1991), Ross Posnock advances the claim that, in remarkably parallel ways, novelist Henry James and philosopher George Santayana undertook throughout their writing careers “to create new forms of sexual identity, new configurations of mastery and passivity, femininity and masculinity.” Noting how in their work “the androgynous becomes an alternative model of behavior,” Posnock further observes that the inspiration for James's and Santayana's “recovery” of androgyny was 19th-century poet Walt Whitman—“the great mother of poets, who renovates the claustral self and expansively embraces polymorphous sexuality” (194-95). In the 20th-century, Wallace Stevens more and more appears to be the poet to have assumed Whitman's gender-mantle. Well-known American gay poets such as Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, and Richard Howard are some of the important moderns to have acknowledged an early debt. Nor, as I have argued in my essay on “Wallace Stevens and Queer Discourse,” should contemporary writers of gay fiction be overlooked in this regard.
Currently, however, it may well be gay author Mark Doty who provides the most inspiring case in point. His Atlantis (1995), winner of the LAMDA award for an “Outstanding Work of Poetry,” bears an opening epigraph from Wallace Stevens, and there may also be a further subtle linkage in the way that this book—and the previous collection, My Alexandria, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry in 1994—is dedicated to “Wally,” Doty's lover of twelve years, whose passing, due to complications arising from AIDS, is movingly elegized in his most recent work, the majestic prose-memoir, Heaven's Coast (1996). All three books, moreover, also bear the androgynous impress of those earlier Stevensian poets—writers, as Posnock puts it, whose “artistic practice … at the highest level of intensity erodes the distinction between doing and feeling, male and female,” and sets before us a “multiplicity” that in Santayana's words “bespeaks the ‘variety, the unspeakable variety, of possible life’” (200, 209).
My objective in the following essay is to suggest that it is only by devising an androgynous poetics along these lines that one comes close to explaining how an ostensibly heterosexual canonical male writer like Stevens could have had such a clear impact on a legion of contemporary gay authors. Thus before turning specifically to the example of Mark Doty, I wish first to consider generally how a “discourse” of androgyny serves to mediate poetic projects as radically disjunct as those apparently demarcated by straight as opposed to gay authorship, here enlisting as a model text Stevens's 1945 poem “A Word with José Rodríguez Feo,” and the correspondence between Stevens and Rodríguez Feo that constitutes its background.
Published in 1986 under the title of Secretaries of the Moon, the correspondence between Stevens and the Cuban-born Rodríguez Feo began during WWII, when the latter was an undergraduate English student at Harvard (Stevens's alma mater), and where he first began to translate some of the poet's early work. Even after Rodríguez Feo's return to Havana in 1943, where he founded the ground-breaking literary arts journal, Orígenes, the letter-writing continued for a dozen more years, ending just short of Stevens's death in 1955. According to Beverly Coyle and Alan Filreis, editors of Secretaries of the Moon, “A Word with José Rodríguez Feo” can be read as “a reminder of the general difficulties attending those who would like to call themselves keepers and servants of the arts,” and à propos certain derogatory critics of Stevens (like Yvor Winters), as a specific caution against “let[ting] your ideas get fixed or associated in permanent groupings” (16, 17). Read in this light, the message of the poem would seem to be that Rodríguez Feo, as “one of the secretaries of the moon, / The queen of ignorance,” must make allowance for how “The night / Makes everything grotesque,” since “Night is the nature of man's interior world.” Night, in other words, makes that with which we are familiar “unfamiliar,” and especially when it portends a voyage into those most unfamiliar recesses of the androgynous self that a more normatively “knowing” subject is likely to find “grotesque.” Nonetheless, the poem emphatically adjures: “We must enter boldly that interior world / To pick up relaxations of the known” (333).
Today, more theoretically emboldened by the discourses of gender and sexuality, an editorial entry into the interior of the Stevens-Rodríguez Feo correspondence is likely to yield an alternative line of interpretation, one calculated to pick up on more relaxations of “the known,” and less inclined to observe merely that “All such relationships are fictions that suffice for a time” (17). An editor today would be keen to observe the less “known” fact, for instance, that the gay Cuban activist and exile, Reinaldo Arenas, writes at length, in his lively memoir, Before Night Falls, about his former lover, Virgilio Piñera, and explains that it was the redoubtable Rodríguez Feo, along with Piñera, who left Orígenes a decade after its founding, and “started another [magazine], almost entirely oriented to homosexuals and much more irreverent, right under the eyes of Batista's reactionary and bourgeois dictatorship” (82). Called Ciclón, Rodríguez Feo's new magazine, which he worked on for three years before abandoning it in 1957, became notorious for putting the writings of the Marquis de Sade into Cuban circulation.
From this more sexually animate perspective, therefore, it seems almost impossible to miss the intensely “camp” style in many of Stevens and Rodríguez Feo's previous exchanges—an “elaborate style,” according to David Bergman, “which while seemingly superficial, reveals to the initiated an unspoken sub-text” (99). Consider for example the camp sub-text “unspoken” by the several references to “pink” shirts, “blazing” colored ties, and “purple” birthday parties, not to mention, at times, the frank cruisiness of the exchanges: “Take my friend Patricio. He has a beautiful build and the most amazing green eyes. Just to look at him you tremble with fascination” (129, 130, 148, 132). Like “other creatures of the rainbow”—Stevens's endearing term from their ardent correspondence (193)—both he and Rodríguez Feo shared an interest in a not inconsiderable number of homosexual authors, including Walter Pater, Arthur Rimbaud, Andre Gide, Djuna Barnes, Osbert Sitwell, T. E. Lawrence, Ronald Firbank, and Truman Capote (67, 84, 64, 171, 194, 203, 200). Moreover, their peripheral interests—“the ‘queerness’ of St. John Perse's poems,” the “queer style” of Marianne Moore, the “queerest writ[ing]” of Jorge Luis Borges, etc. (60, 134, 175)—often seemed intended to return them, again and again, to this sexually dissident pantheon.
It would be a grave error, however, on the basis of this epistolary record, to impute to either Stevens or Rodríguez Feo, any determinate sexual identity, dissident or otherwise, despite how much they found each other to be “quite alike” outside mainstream society's “secluded little world” (63, 176). What seems so central to their correspondence, and central as well to the discourse of androgyny, is precisely the “relaxations of the known” of any kind. On this point, and as “creatures of the rainbow,” they also join the moon in that poem as “queen[s] of ignorance” (333). For Stevens especially, the point was crucial, as he makes clear in a letter written to Rodríguez Feo dated the same year as that eponymous poem:
… I have been thinking a bit about the position of the ignorant man in what, for convenience, may be called society and thinking about it from this point of view: that we have made too much of everything in the world and that perhaps the only really happy man, or the only man with any wide range of possible happiness, is the ignorant man. The elaboration of the most commonplace ideas as, for example, the idea of God, has been terribly destructive of such ideas. But the ignorant man has no ideas. His trouble is that he still feels.
It is possible to read “the ignorant man” in this important passage as a kind of code-word for “homosexual,” and this would seem to be the way that Rodríguez Feo interprets the term. “I have many such ignorant men for friends,” he divulged to Stevens in a follow-up letter a few days later, “and I have been criticized bitterly by some of my literary friends who consider it a waste of time and a contamination” (74).
In the case of Stevens himself, however, I am inclined to think that the model of the ignorant man that he had in mind was more likely a man of feeling like George Santayana, a thinker with whom Stevens first became intrigued—as revealed in an exchange of poems with the famous professor of philosophy—while Stevens was an undergraduate at Harvard, and in whom a welcome interest had latterly been revived in correspondence with Rodríguez Feo (22). Relaxing all categorical ascriptions of gender like heterosexual and homosexual, a man of feeling like Santayana perhaps taught Stevens the greater virtue of androgyny as “more a dimension of sensibility and psychic economy than of actual behavior,” and thereby, sensitized Stevens, and writers like him, “to a variety of possibilities and options [as replacements for] the absolutisms that sanction gender polarities as if they were wholly natural” (Posnock 200, 209). Hence, if Santayana was “the only really happy man” resulting from a “wide range of possible happiness,” it was the discourse of androgyny that quite likely made him so. Such a discourse also helps us to understand how Stevens, near the end of a long and deeply troubled marriage, could express toward Santayana the “feeling that he made up in the most genuine way for many things that I needed” (36, emphasis mine).
The epigraph from Wallace Stevens that Mark Doty has chosen to head Atlantis essentially rehearses, in miniature, the argument for androgyny that we find extended throughout the Stevens-Rodríguez Feo correspondence, and which is synthesized in the poem that Stevens composed in its honor. The epigraph's two lines are from the opening of Stevens's 1942 poem “Montrachet-le-Jardin”: “What more is there to love than I have loved? / And if there be nothing more, O bright, O bright …” (260). By the end of Stevens's poem, however, just as by the end of Doty's volume, we realize that the opening question of “Montrachet” is flatly rhetorical. That is to say, we realize that when the affairs of the heart are fitted to the rhetoric of androgyny rather than to the conventional binaries of essentialist logic, there will always be something more to love than we should at first have thought. Rather than “nothing more,” then, it is the “something more” that causes the “O bright, O bright” in Stevens's next line suddenly to dim, returning us once again, to the “queen of ignorance” featured in the Rodríguez Feo poem and to that happy range of amorous possibility troped by “Night [as] the nature of man's interior world” (333). In Stevens's “Montrachet,” the poetics of androgyny are thus infused with shadows:
A shadow in the mind, a flourisher Of sounds resembling sounds, efflorisant, Approaching the feelings or come down from them These other shadows, not in the mind, players Of aphonies, tuned in from zero and Beyond, futura's fuddle-fiddling lumps
These “other shadows” thus permit the sexual transvaluation of the lunar queen of ignorance in this poem into “something” more recognizably masculine:
Out of the hero's being, the deliverer Delivering the prisoner by his words, So that the skeleton in the moonlight sings, Sings of an heroic world beyond the cell,
… to make the cell, A hero's world in which he is the hero.
In Doty's “Nocturne in Black and Gold,” the poetics of androgyny follow a remarkably similar nighttime argument:
No one's here, or hardly anyone, and how strangely free and fine it is
to be laved and extended, furthered in darkness, while shadows give way to other shadows
and the bay murmurs its claim: You're a rippling, that quick, and you long to be
loose as air again, unfettered freshness, atmosphere and aria, an aspect of fog. …
In an important sense, all of Doty's Atlantis may be construed as “an aspect of fog”—a “Fog Argument,” as it were—picking up on the title of one of the volume's concluding poems (83). Yet to understand that “aspect” of the complete volume, and the poetics of androgyny underwriting it, we need to take some account of the ways in which his new prose-memoir, Heaven's Coast, helps to illuminate his gender-bending project as a whole.
One of the many anecdotes included near the end of Heaven's Coast recounts a case of mistaken identity involving Doty's dear friend, Lynda, the night that he, and his longtime partner Wally, took her to a drag show in Provincetown, where they had just moved. As he tells the story,
Lynda is greeted with great regard by the “hostess”. … It takes me a minute to get it that the reason my friend's getting this extra attention is because the queen on stage thinks she's a man. I'm not sure at first Lynda knows this, or how she'll feel about it. … And then I realize Lynda's utterly delighted, in a sort of heaven: between the two of us, also in disguise as butch men, she is being seen as “in drag” too … in her finery, wearing her vocabulary of style and gesture, wearing herself.
(275, emphasis mine)
If the discourse of androgyny, in the run of human experience, bespeaks a uniquely gendered space fraught with relaxations of the known, the text presented here could hardly be more over-determined: Lynda's not knowing that she may be perceived as a man, the hostess not knowing that Lynda may be a woman, and Doty at first not knowing their not knowing, and then later, not knowing how they may feel about not knowing, and so forth. Yet how delighted we are made to feel about the indeterminacy of this drag-space. Whereas in the Rodríguez Feo poem Stevens had described a “nature that is grotesque within / The boulevards of the generals”—a kind of trope perhaps for the policing of androgyny within “general” heteronormative culture (334)—what we have in this anecdote about gender confusion is an unexpectedly pleasing revelation: “a sort of heaven” (275).
Much earlier in Heaven's Coast, in the context of Wally's mysterious condition resulting from AIDS, Doty is given similarly to reflect: “Is that our work in the world, to learn to dwell in such not-knowing? … doesn't doubt always stand at the ready, prepared to undo the articles of faith?” and he then goes on to conjecture:
Doubt's lesson seems to be that whatever we conclude must be provisional, open to revision, subject to correction by the forces of change. Leave room, doubt says, for the unknowable, of what it will never quite be your share to see. The only thing we can say with great certainty about human perception is that it is partial.
The drag queen in the previous anecdote thus seems to provide the perfect emblem for that partiality of human perception foregrounded by Doty's androgynous poetics, particularly when we note that both his and Wally's “disguise as butch men” also falls within the range of that poetics' revisionary rhetoric.
The appearance of the drag queen in Doty's earlier book of poetry, My Alexandria, underscores further the provisionality of gender categories, ones which Judith Butler has so tirelessly persuaded us to read as the facta of performance rather than the data of expression (Gender Trouble 16-25, “Melancholy” 31). Thus, in a poem entitled “Chanteuse,” “a beautiful black drag queen—perched / on the edge of a piano, under a spot” conveys “all the sheen artifice / is capable” within the highly symbolic “Alexandria” by means of “the radiance of her illusion” (26, 24, 29). Her “illusion” further links up to “la fabulosa Lola” in “Esta Noche,” another poem in My Alexandria:
In the dress the color of the spaces between streetlamps Lola stands unassailable, the dress in which she is in the largest sense fabulous: a lesson, a criticism and colossus of gender, all fire and irony.
Lola's “criticism” of gender, accordingly, steers us back to the words that Doty finds appropriate to sum up “the drag queen's perennial message” in his mistaken-identity anecdote in Heaven's Coast: namely, “we're all self-made here” (275). To construe gender in any other but these provisionally performative and self-authenticating terms would expose us to what Stevens, in his correspondence with Rodríguez Feo, calls the “great danger” of a certain “disposition to act up to the type,” thereby compelling us to languish within the constraint of conceptual categories: “to live in clusters: unions, classes, the West, etc.” (Secretaries 177, 137). The drag-rhetoric of Stevens's own “queen[s] of ignorance,” an androgynous discourse that, like Lola's above, is “ironic” enough to include himself and Rodríguez Feo as “secretaries of the moon,” therefore, privileges the relaxation of clusters and classes within an “interior world” that will perhaps never be known. On this particular point, Posnock—who has similarly noted a certain “relaxation of the will” in the fictional characters of Henry James “that permits them to open themselves up to others as well as to their own internal otherness”—cites Christopher Newman from The American as saying: “You may depend upon it that there are things going on inside of us that we understand mighty little about” (316n2). But “Isn't that the point, not to know?” as Doty remarks in his “Epilogue” to Heaven's Coast, for surely, “In not-knowing, hope resides” (295, 296).
Doty's epistemology of elective ignorance in Heaven's Coast brings forward two further issues from this memoir that help to clarify the poetics of androgyny in his other work. One has to do with a more innovative approach to conceptualizing subjectivity in the terms suggested by the drag queen, that is, as a self-made rather than a self-present phenomenon of human experience. Once again, it is the author's good friend, Lynda, and her sometimes feeling as if she were “a gay man trapped in a woman's body” who teaches Doty much about “the vulnerability and porosity of the self, [and] the power of its costuming gestures” (97). In this factitious formulation, the self's porosity gestures towards what Robert K. Martin importantly identifies as “the absence at the heart of a socially constructed sexuality,” a notion suggested to him through a meticulous scrutiny of Roland Barthes's “exploration of the fluidity of sexual definition” (285). For Doty, much of that sexual fluidity is imparted to him through his very close attachment to nature; hence, “the very fluidity of the landscape gets inside us, and encourages our own ability to slip our fixed bounds and feel ourselves as extended, multiple, various” (31).
By slipping the fixed bounds of selfhood in this way, we endeavor to match up the absence at the core of our own sexuality with that which greets us everywhere in nature: a huge tree, for instance, “unseeable in its entirety, knowable only in its parts, each viewpoint yielding a different version”; or, a mysterious coyote whose “gaze across the gulf of otherness” suggests something “beyond [and] unpursuable”; or, even the deathly syndrome of AIDS overtaking its host as one might “imagine his body filling with an absence” (128, 305, 150). The net effect of all these aporetic occurrences—“aphonies, tuned in from zero,” perhaps, that we recall from the earlier extract from Stevens's “Montrachet-le-Jardin” (260)—maintains nature in a state of perpetual flux. Scaled down to the dimensions of a similarly fluid subjectivity, the effect of absence contrives to make Lynda seem “a fragile surface constructed above an abyss,” and also assures that “Nothing can fill the space Wally occupied in [Mark Doty's] life” (103, 205). Exempla of a selfhood that bears no promise to complete itself either in life or in death, each reminds us of “the angel” in a poem from My Alexandria entitled “The Wings,” whose self-made form willfully interposes itself “between us and the unthinkable” (49). Like the drag queen, Doty's mediating angel would tend to corroborate Theodor Adorno's emphatic observation that “Without exception, men [and women] have yet to become themselves” (qtd. in Posnock 128).
A second and final issue in Heaven's Coast, shedding further light on Doty's androgynous poetics, has to do with the general status of desire in his discourse. In the poem “Chanteuse,” we notice that “the radiance of [the drag queen's] illusion” is coupled with “her consummate attention to detail” (29). This coupling suggests that an absence within subjects, as within objects, does not deprive them of any kind of existential reality. As in the discourse of Jacques Lacan, reality is not absent. The critical theorist Slavoj ZiZ̆ek states the case expertly in elucidating Lacan's debt to Immanuel Kant on this point:
we know and we can prove that the phenomenal universe is not reality in itself, that there is “something beyond”; but neither Reason (metaphysics) nor Intuition (ghost-seeing) can provide access to the Beyond. All we can do is delineate its empty place, constraining the domain of the phenomena without in any way extending our knowledge to the noumenal domain.
As Jerry Aline Flieger further observes, “The Lacanian object of desire” proves to be “incommensurate [only] with our vantage point, our current plane of experience,” and it is precisely this incommensurability which binds reality and experience inextricably to each other in a perpetual dance of desire, “like Achilles and the hare, forever inaccessible one to the other, circling around each other in a series of missed appointments” (100).
In Heaven's Coast, therefore, desire functions as that “ineradicable force that binds us to the world” (17). In so doing, it points us in the direction of that general “absence in [rather than of] reality” that Stevens also noted in his poems and which in “Montrachet-le-Jardin” specifically serves as the provocation for the “free requiting of responsive fact” (176, 263). Hence, as he puts it in his correspondence with Rodríguez Feo, “Reality is the footing from which we leap after what we do not have and on which everything depends,” and it is out of that “reality” that we find ourselves “making … a gayety of the mind” (128-29).
Queer theorists today would perhaps object to the term “gayety” in this characterization of the modern subject's absence in reality, since what such theorists are presently after is “a new kind of sexual identity, one characterized by its lack of a clear definitional content”:
The homosexual subject can now … make use of the vacancy left by the evacuation of the contradictory and incoherent definitional content of “the homosexual” in order to take up a position that is … constituted not substantively but oppositionally, not by what it is but by where it is and how it operates. Those who knowingly occupy such a marginal location, who assume a deessentialized identity that is purely positional in character, are properly speaking not gay but queer.
“The danger of the label queer theory,” however, as Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner point out, “is that it makes its queer and nonqueer audiences forget [their] differences and imagine a context (theory) in which queer has a stable referential content and pragmatic force” (344-45). Hence, to “occupy such a marginal position,” even knowingly, may not be radical enough for the poetics of androgyny.
In this kind of discourse, Doty's Heaven's Coast seems to suggest, the willfully “ignorant” subject—“Wally,” say, or the “Wallace” who stands behind him like a shadow—finds himself “reaching toward a world he cannot hold and loving it no less, not a stroke less.” In any case, as Doty scruples to explain, “Desire … has less to do with possession than with participation, the will to involve oneself in the body of the world, in the principle of things expressing itself in splendid specificity, a handful of images … which enlarges us, which engages the heart, which takes us out of the routine limitations of self” (20). To “know” more than this androgynous desire would be to “affirm,” as Stevens points out in the final lines of “Montrachet”—to affirm, that is, some kind of foundational truth about androgynous subjecthood whereupon, as his poem mockingly concludes, “at midnight the great cat / Leaps from the fireside and is gone” (264). Indeed, Doty provides an excellent gloss on this queer conclusion in Stevens when he writes: “Perhaps that is one thing the soul is: our outward attention, the energy and force in us that leaps out of the self, almost literally, into the life of the world” (34). Yet who can really know for sure?
The leap of Stevens's midnight cat returns us, once more, to Doty's epigraph in Atlantis, and affords me the opportunity to say some final words about that remarkable prize-winning collection. For it, too, like Stevens's cat, is in a sense attempting to dodge a fairly autocratic presence like the one at the end of “Montrachet” who, in face of “life's latest, thousand, senses,” nonetheless wants to declare: “But let this one sense be the single main [one]” (264). If in the gender context of Doty's epigraph, there is always more to love, then sexuality can have no single or main sense. Desire, like the sexual subjects and objects it mediates, is boundless, and imbues the cat with an “androgynous comic spirit [that] challenges gender as absolute, self-identical, and static essence,” thereby surrendering the categories of masculinity and femininity to a drag volatility that refuses to be “reined in by a cultural ‘harness’ disguised as natural truth” (Posnock 213), or in this case, single sense. Were it possible to chase after that comic spirit, Stevens's cat, we would no doubt be led into something like that which Doty envisions in “Fog Argument”:
into the void a page on which anything
might be written though nothing is. What I love is trying to see the furthest grassy extreme,
that fog-marbled horizontal … Rippling strokes, a few high dunes
hung on the edges of the page like Chinese brushstrokes,
barely there, and out on the far shore … … … … … love, I know it ends,
you don't have to remind me, though it seems a field
of endless jade.
The prospect of “a field / of endless jade,” in this text, presents itself at that “precise limit / where salt marsh gives way / to fogged water's steel” (83)—at that juncture, in other words, between land and sea, perhaps the most important setting in all of Doty's work. I would suggest that this particular setting is so important to Doty precisely because it is at the seashore or by the coast that the poetics of androgyny accommodate themselves so well to “the creature which embodies the two worlds, unlike us,” as Doty puts it in Heaven's Coast:
To be of a coast, a mer-being, is to partake of the liminal, that watery zone of possibility where one thing becomes another, where the rules of one world are suspended as we enter into the next. The coast is the shifting zone of change and transformation. A coast is not a line really but a borderland, site of a continual conversation between elements which transforms both.
If it is a “watery zone of possibility” into which Stevens's cat has led us, then the liminal void or fog into which we have been plunged is surely what Martin calls “a fluidity not of meaninglessness but of endlessly expanding meanings” (287)—i.e., “a page on which anything / might be written,” or “a field of endless jade.” In Atlantis, that androgynous sense of betweenness or liminality serves everywhere to remind us just how far our meanings can(not) go: “the forest and the trees” in “Grosse Fuge,” “the flesh and the word” in “Homo Will Not Inherit,” “now and ever” in “Aubade: Opal and Silver.” All of these are figures, as “Nocturne in Black and Gold” puts it, for “Fogged channels, a phantom glow … midway between form and void” (24, 78, 101, 94; emphases mine). As we might expect, in Atlantis this continuous oscillation between equally meaningful terms—“Go. / Don't go. Go.” (98)—sustains a similar vision of “a wide and unknown world of possibility” in Heaven's Coast, the very possibility through which we experience “a shift in the quality of being from ordinary life,” and experience as well what “suggests and supports a future” (50, 62, 293). “Having been a thousand things,” such possibility seems finally to be asking the same question posed throughout the androgynous poetics of Atlantis: “why not be endless?” (95)
The key, of course, to the endless rhetoric of androgyny is its resistance to discursive closure—a resistance that queer theorists usually talk about in terms of the effects of “distance”: “the distancing of straight reality,” for instance, that Sue-Ellen Case finds Oscar Wilde bringing to the stage by means of his “artifice, wit, [and] irony” (298); or, the “distance inherent in language,” according to Elspeth Probyn, that Michel Foucault exploited in order to “break with any linear and causal model of the association of the words and things, statements, and their positivity” (445; see also Foucault “Distance”). In Heaven's Coast, in a brief meditation on the cremation of the body, Doty, too, is observant of the way that language serves “to distance us … from the fact of the body's burned residue,” even though “there is about the material itself a kind of distance, a lack of relation to what it was” which when lost, could very well be fatal to the gay man, if like the severely ailing Wally, he “can't stand at a distance from himself—not in the way to which we're accustomed” (33, 227). All of these observations on distance would underscore, once more, that gendered absence or space at the very center of the poetics of androgyny. In what is perhaps the finest poem of Atlantis, the long and elegiac “Grosse Fuge,” Doty pays homage to Beethoven and his Opus 130 string-quartet. Here he offers the most resistance to closure and also refurbishes that androgynous space with further hope for the possible:
In the wet black yard, October lilacs. Misplaced fever? False flowering, into the absence the storm supplied? Flower of the world's beautiful will to fill, fill space always to take up space, hold a place for the possible? A little flourish, a false spring? What can I do but echo myself, vary and repeat? Where can the poem end? What can you expect, in a world that blooms and freezes all at once? There is no resolution in the fugue.
I like to imagine that this poem, particularly in its choice of “Fuge” title to set the tone at its beginning and its lack of resolution at the end, is designed to cast an especially ironic light upon the “generals” who reduce the nature of humankind's interior world to “an absolute grotesque,” in Stevens's “A Word with José Rodríguez Feo” (334). The irony also intensifies, I think, when we recall how the nice, neat dream of “Terra Paradise” in “Montrachet” is so rudely broken open by “a heavy difference” and “the grace … of responsive fact” (263). In the androgynous work of Mark Doty, heaven's coast is as close as we are ever likely to get to the closure of such a paradise, and the “alien grace” he envisions in a poem from Atlantis, significantly entitled “Difference,” becomes as comforting (or non-comforting) as an eternal reward (54).
An alienating difference, I would therefore conclude, is itself a good distance from suggesting that the poetics of androgyny are necessarily agnostic, or bereft of any possible spiritual dimension. “I say it / without arrogance,” Doty confesses in “Homo Will Not Inherit,” that “I have been an angel / for minutes at a time, and I have for hours believed … that in each body, however obscured or recast, / is the divine body—common, habitable—” (77). If in Heaven's Coast Doty finds that he “cannot be queer in church” (17), it is not that he has too little faith in a higher power but perhaps too much, too much, that is, to be at all happy about where a transcendent idea of this kind might inevitably be leading him. Here, we recall, and perhaps only now begin to understand Stevens's remark earlier to Rodríguez Feo about how “The elaboration of the most commonplace ideas as, for example, the idea of God, has been terribly destructive of such ideas” (72). Since for Stevens, “it is the belief and not the god that counts,” as I have argued at length in my discussion of him as a “Metaphysician in the Dark,” a poet is “most likely to recover the loss of conventional forms of belief in his own art” (2). In the case of Doty in particular, the question of belief, to the truly androgynous poet, is rather like trying to listen to Beethoven's “Grosse Fuge”:
… how hard it is, to apprehend something so large in scale and yet so minutely detailed Like trying to familiarize yourself exactly, with the side of a mountain: this birch, this rock-pool, this square mosaic yard of tesserated leaves, autumnal, a jeweled reliquary. Trying to see each element of the mountain and then through them, the whole, since music is only given to us in time …
Stevens would hardly object to this formulation. In fact, since to him “Reality is the great fond,” the problem of being both worldly and other-worldly at once may indeed be midway to presenting a solution. At least, according to Stevens, that would be the view of Henry James, whose own androgynous rhetoric, like that of the “ignorant man” Santayana, had succeeded in putting him “in the world of actuality” and “a little out of it” at the same time. As James is quoted as saying in one of the most memorable of Stevens's letters to Rodríguez Feo: “To live in the world of creation—to get into it and stay in it—to frequent it and haunt it—to think intensely and fruitfully … by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation this is the only thing” (62). In the actuality of Doty's poetry and prose, the majestic wisdom of this extraordinary citation from James becomes translated itself, over the span of Doty's own three remarkable books, into three riddling simple words: living in difference. It is, therefore, “toward a great, benign indifference which is the force of life itself,” as Doty says in Heaven's Coast (300), that we expect his future work to continue to move, since, like Job exhorted by the Voice from the Whirlwind, this most recent work seems to have Wallace Stevens's poetics of androgyny lodged so firmly in his ear, if not the Word of God himself: “Who is this whose ignorant words / smear my design with darkness?” Doty asks at the end of Heaven's Coast, citing the Book of Job (301).
Arenas, Reinaldo. Before Night Falls. Trans. Dolores M. Koch. New York: Penguin, 1993.
Bergman, David. “Strategic Camp: The Art of Gay Rhetoric.” Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality. Ed. David Bergman. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1993. 92-109.
Berlant, Lauren, and Michael Warner. “What Does Queer Theory Teach Us about X?” PMLA 110.3 (1995): 343-49.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
———. “Melancholy Gender/Refused Identification.” Constructing Masculinity. Ed. Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis, and Simon Watson. New York: Routledge, 1995. 21-36.
Case, Sue-Ellen. “Toward a Butch-Femme Aesthetic.” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin. New York: Routledge, 1993. 294-306.
Doty, Mark. My Alexandria. Chicago: Illinois UP, 1993.
———. Atlantis: Poems. New York: HarperPerennial, 1995.
———. Heaven's Coast: A Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
Flieger, Jerry Aline. “The Listening Eye: Postmodernism, Paranoia, and the Hypervisible.” diacritics 26.1 (1996): 90-107.
Foucault, Michel. “Distance, Aspect, Origine.” Dits et Écrits. 4 vols. Ed. Daniel Defert and François Éwald. Vol. 1. Paris: Gallimard, 1994. 272-85.
Halperin, David. Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.
Jarraway, David R. “‘The Novel That Took the Place of a Poem’: Wallace Stevens and Queer Discourse.” English Studies in Canada 22.4 (1996): 377-97.
———. Wallace Stevens and the Question of Belief: “Metaphysician in the Dark.” Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1993.
Martin, Robert K. “Roland Barthes: Toward an ‘Écriture Gaie’” Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality. Ed. David Bergman. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1993. 282-98.
Posnock, Ross. The Trial of Curiosity: Henry James, William James, and the Challenge of Modernity. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.
Probyn, Elspeth. “Suspended Beginnings: Of Childhood and Nostalgia.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian & Gay Studies 2.4 (1995): 439-65.
Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. New York: Random, 1954.
———. Secretaries of the Moon: The Letters of Wallace Stevens & José Rodríguez Feo. Ed. Beverly Coyle and Alan Filreis. Durham: Duke UP, 1986.
ZiZ̆ek, Slavoj. Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.
SOURCE: Braham, Jeanne. “The Power of Witness.” Georgia Review 52, no. 1 (spring 1998): 168-76.
[In the following excerpt, Braham explores the value of being witness to grief and of examining death in Heaven's Coast.]
The Wounded Storyteller, Arthur Frank's well-known 1995 study of “illness narratives,” charts the difficulties a storyteller faces when, in the face of traumatic illness, he or she tries to construct a “coherent sense of life's sequence.” Caught in a static and frequently painful present, the narrator attempts to fuse the past with the present, supplying a created coherence in the place of chaos. Frank argues that “what makes an illness story good is the act of witness that says, implicitly or explicitly, ‘I will tell you not what you want to hear but what I know to be true because I have lived it.’” Eyewitness testimony converts the narrator into a kind of truth-teller, one whose experience is instructive even if not identical to the reader's.
Eyewitness accounts are suspect these days, and literary “truth-telling” is as much challenged by the furor over false memory syndrome as by the debates that circle, sniff, and bark around the “constructed reportage” of memoir. …
Wally Roberts, who died of AIDS in late 1995, is lovingly and achingly present throughout Heaven's Coast by Mark Doty, who was Roberts' lover for twelve years and the primary care giver during his illness. The narrative moves gracefully between the past—sojourns in Boston and then in Vermont while Doty teaches at Goddard College, the couple's decision to move to Provincetown after Roberts is diagnosed as HIV positive—and the present, with the gradual and agonizingly steady deterioration of Roberts through progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML), a viral brain infection attacking people with compromised immune systems and leading to paralysis and strokelike conditions.
As does [Alan] Shapiro [in Vigil], Doty alters the chronology of the story, beginning the memoir after Roberts' death and circling back to the galvanizing moment that altered their lives forever: the HIV test the couple took in the spring of 1989, the results of which indicated that Wally was HIV positive and Mark was not. “I remember the stunned aura around him, the sense of an enormous rupture—not a surprise, but nonetheless a horror. … I remember thinking it didn't matter which of us it was, that his news was mine.” Whether or not one finds that last statement emotionally convincing, Heaven's Coast is at its very heart the story of a relationship. Doty explains his task in this way: “Because the story of Wally's life came to a conclusion, at least those parts of the story in which he would take an active role, the experiences of our past needed to be re-seen, re-viewed. Not exactly for his story to be finished, but in service of the way his life would continue in me, braided with the story of mine.” Wally's death requires a “new negotiation with memory.”
And what a rememberer Doty is. If Shapiro works filmically, developing coherence from sequenced scenes, Doty's is a poet's technique, a linking of nugget scenes associatively rather than linearly, seeking the congruence between the part and the whole. The story unfolds via poetic synecdoche, a process Patricia Hampl has described memorably in “The Need to Say It,” her essay on writing memoirs. She suggests that memory moves from the keen contemplation of a “single detail” to a reconstruction of “the world,” remarking how uncanny it is “to go back in memory to a house from which time has stolen all the furniture, and to find the one remembered chair, and write it so large, so deep, that it furnishes the entire vacant room.”1
Doty continually finds the crucial chair that furnishes the entire room. One such wrenching scene occurs when Doty and Roberts temporarily lose their dog, a beloved black Lab named Arden. The still ambulatory but barely independent Roberts is taking the dog for a walk while Doty is in New York City honoring a teaching commitment. Arden bolts after a rabbit; there is the sickening sound of brakes squealing in the distance and, despite a frantic search, the dog cannot be found. After Roberts calls Doty back to Provincetown the two search long into the night, covering and re-covering their neighborhood's tiny crosshatched streets between Commercial and Bradford. Although Doty himself is seriously concerned by nightfall, he describes Roberts as displaying “some panic and terror more primal than mine, a pain that seems to go all the way to the root of him.”
Arden is found the next day, disoriented but unhurt, yet the incident becomes a burning metaphor for the progression of the disease, a haunting harbinger of what is to come: “Arden and Wally both struck, everything out of control, everything veering into his life, unstoppable, an event from which he couldn't be rescued. … Arden was our future's dark vessel.”
Roberts' descent into AIDS temporarily widens the cast of characters: doctors who help and who hinder, support groups, a compassionate therapist, a resourceful home-healthcare worker. Some friends and family turn up who can deal with the illness; others turn up who cannot. But as death approaches the cast thins, and with the arrival of Christmas, 1995, “Wally doesn't want anyone else around.” “Outside it snows and snows, deeper and deeper; we seem to live in a circle of lamplight. … All week I feel like we're taking one another in, looking and looking.” When death is near, Roberts' mother visits to say goodbye and he “opens his right eye just a tiny bit; we can tell that he sees her.” So, into that line of vision Doty brings their two cats and two dogs, and then he writes, “I sit there myself, all afternoon, the lamps on, since the house is circled in snow and early winter darkness. The afternoon's so quiet and deep it seems almost to ring, like chimes, a cold, struck bell. I sit into the evening, when he closes his eyes.”
Doty's luminous, rhythmic language raises the events leading to and away from Roberts' death into a radiant hymn. As the book closes he walks the coastline of the Outer Cape, his beloved “heaven's coast,” a landscape he thickens with metaphors—his way of knowing the world. Gradually he concludes that in trying to “save” Roberts' life through narrative he has, in fact, saved his own. …
Given the ubiquity of suffering and the popularity of eyewitness accounts in contemporary letters, how we come to understand the benefits and burdens of suffering may well become, in Elizabeth Spelman's words, “the housework of humanity.” The stories of Shapiro, Doty, and Brodkey are inscribed with the effort to transform witness into insight: illness generates pain, pain converts to loss, and grief comes round to comprehension by listening to its own testimony.
From The Writer on Her Work, vol. 2, edited by Janet Sternburg, New York: W. W. Norton, 1991: 29.
SOURCE: Herd, David. “Cooked or Over-Cooked?” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4979 (4 September 1998): 23.
[In the following review, Herd examines the poems in Sweet Machine, alleging that Doty's verse is polished, confessional, and reminiscent of other poets such as Robert Lowell, Paul Muldoon, and Frank O'Hara.]
In “Murano”, Mark Doty's poem about a Cornell box and the Venetian glass industry, the poet reflects on how the artist and the city shed light on one another. “I'd never have understood / the Cornell”, he remarks
if I hadn't seen it in Venice: he's made
this city's reliquary, perfect jewel-case to hold an empire's knuckle bone. …
By the same token, the achieved delicacy and inlaid power of the box furnish Doty with a way of describing the city:
capital of the made, dear, where the given's smoked and polished, plucked
from the ovens' chemical heats, beaten and gilded to glory …
This, in turn, is what Doty's poetry is like: wrought, elegant, formal; concerned with artifice, ornament and style. It is made, as the Cornell analogy has it, rather than found; oven-baked, as they used to say, rather than raw. Its favourite meditative structure is the essay. It has titles like “Favrile”, “White Kimono”, “Thirty Delft Tiles” and “Emerald”.
All of which, you might think, adds up to something just a little too “polished” and “plucked”. Doty's tastes are certainly rich, and high; but just as (or rather just after) the volume begins to cloy, his artful attention to the surface of things twists into a strenuous commentary on the manufactured quality of modern life. The result is a polemical formalism, a political camp. Sweet Machine becomes a compelling read.
The book is divided into five sections of five poems each. The sections recall the compartments of one of Cornell's boxes. They are also the form into which Doty pours his argument. The first section introduces his fascination with surface and layer. “Favrile” is a poem about the art of glass-making, and in particular about the names the craftsmen developed for their “coolly lustrous” products: “Quetzal, Aurene, Favrile”. “Favrile”, “Tiffany's term / for his coppery rose”, becomes Doty's word for the “lustre / of things which insist / on the fact they're made”. The poems in the first section aim for just such a “lustre”. “White Kimono” enfolds itself in the heavily worked linings of the garment it contemplates. “Fog Suite” produces an image of fog so “lacquered” and “varnished” that the object itself is lost behind the mists of its representation.
By way of antithesis, the second section of Sweet Machine is a critique of the aesthetics of surface. “Metro North” finds the poet travelling out of Manhattan—city of glass, as Paul Auster calls it—and through the Bronx where, like Murano, luxury products are actually made, and where, as a consequence, surfaces are “yellowed / by atmospheric sulphurs / acid exhalations”. The self-criticism implicit in this poem is given explicit expression in two poems entitled “Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work”, the first of which opens by echoing a critic: “Glaze and shimmer, / lustre and gleam, // can't he think of anything but all that sheen?” Smarting at the rebuke, Doty is campily defensive here—“No such thing / The queen said / as too many sequins”—but he is too smart a poet not to take a serious criticism seriously, and the rest of the volume is a conscious deepening of his engagement with surface.
Emphasizing an elegiac tone which runs throughout Sweet Machine, the third section is explicitly concerned with mourning: “One of the Rooming Houses”, “Emerald”, “Murano” and “Thirty Delft Tiles” remembering Robert Shore, Franco, James Merrill and Lynda Hull. The fact of death, however, tends to increase rather than diminish Doty's interest in matters of style. His friends are remembered through their artefacts: Franco through his art deco bureaus, Merrill through his Spode and his Delft. This is partly because, as Doty suggests, one cannot get closer to those for whom one grieves than through the objets d'art through which they articulated their desires. And partly because, as his defiant metaphysics has it, “What's identity but a forged glamour? / Isn't it style that mocks death?”
Reviewers have labelled Doty the new Robert Lowell, commenting on both his formal control and his tendency towards confessionalism. He has, however, read much more widely, and is therefore a much more various poet, than this obsessively repeated comparison implies. Early in this volume, the gesturing lines of “Lilies in New York” (Isn't the city flower and collision?”) show that he has read and appreciated John Ashbery. While the citizen in the trash in “Metro North” shows that he has registered the downside of Wallace Stevens. It is, however, in the final section of Sweet Machine, that the wilder side of his reading really makes itself felt.
The most prominent surface in this final section is skin. In “My Tattoo”, tattooing becomes a metaphor for the socially inscribed body, Doty remarking that “It's too late / to be unwritten, / and I'm much too scrawled / to ever be erased”. “Lilacs in New York City” finds the poet in bed with a man, and striving to arrive at an account of his love-making which will evade connotation, and so escape the second-skin of language:
but what else to call it—to penetrate to fuck to be inside of none of the accounts of the body were ever really useful were they tell the truth none of them. …
“Sweet Machine” presents a young crack-addict, half-naked on the subway, trying to rub his own skin away, “the outest layer of himself / rubbed to palest chalk”. Doty's achievement in these poems is to establish that his brand of self-consciously formal poetry is not an inappropriate medium in which to express the trappings and inauthenticity of modern urban existence. His contribution to formalism thus recalls the Paul Muldoon of “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants” (as opposed to the over-cooked later Muldoon of, say, “Sushi”). But significantly, Doty's formalism owes a debt to the great informalists of American poetry; a debt which is nowhere more apparent than in the volume's best poem, “Mercy on Broadway”.
Caught in the swirl of that most mediated of environments, the poem is alive to every element of the street's performance: from the “hip hop kids disappearing // into huge jackets and phatt jeans”, and “Latin girls with altarpiece earrings” to “you and I … boy”, laughing and strolling and taking part “in its plain vulgar gorgeousness, / its cheap and shining aspirations”. Recalling Frank O'Hara on “Second Avenue”—“I'm breathing here, / A new man next to me”—and Whitman “Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry”—“somebody, if I'm still lucky / years from now will read this poem and walk on / Broadway”—Doty's poem dares to measure itself against the best Manhattan has given rise to. Such an ambition is by no means always justified by the writing in this collection. The shorter lyrics can be just too bijou, and the cooler essayistic meditations can lack the necessary element of surprise; while the fourth section, with its poems spoken by dogs (meant to indicate the difficulty of articulating the non-linguistic) feels like a diversion from the more important matters at hand. But at various moments in this book, and particularly in the final section, Doty's poetry feels thoroughly attuned to both the situation and the tradition in which it finds itself.
SOURCE: Brouwer, Joel. “Desire's Power.” Progressive 62, no. 10 (October 1998): 43-4.
[In the following review, Brouwer addresses Doty's focus on moving forward after the loss of partner Wally Roberts in Sweet Machine, lauding Doty's emphasis on living a life no longer defined by AIDS.]
Sweet Machine is Mark Doty's fifth book of poems, and his first since he published his powerful memoir Heaven's Coast (1996). That book told the story of Doty's relationship with his longtime partner Wally Roberts, who died of AIDS in 1994. Doty's two previous books of poems, My Alexandria (1993) and Atlantis (1995), were dedicated to Wally. In them, Doty chronicled his personal losses to the AIDS epidemic through poems that were brutally direct in their descriptions and gorgeous in their language.
Sweet Machine announces its difference from its predecessors on the dedication page. There is no “for Wally” here, and the book's epigraph, from Hart Crane's poem “Reply,” is not a lament for desire's passing, but an affirmation of desire's power: “Thou canst read nothing except through appetite.”
Doty has said that Sweet Machine “represents a turn toward participation in the world—agreeing, as it were, to be here, to desire, to love, even in the aftermath of loss.” In poems like “Lilacs in NYC,” where the extravagant beauty of spring flowers and the hectic activity of life in the city lead to an erotic tableau, Doty seems to be not just “agreeing” to love, but leaping at the chance.
Though Doty is clearly trying in Sweet Machine to write his grief into the past tense, his losses are nevertheless present. The book's most moving poem for me is “The Embrace,” where Wally appears to Doty in a dream, in good spirits and “almost energetic.” The poem is suffused with tenderness, but not with longing:
So when I saw your unguarded, reliable face, your unmistakable gaze opening all the warmth and clarity of you—warm brown tea—we held each other for the time the dream allowed.
Bless you. You came back, so I could see you once more, plainly, so I could rest against you without thinking this happiness lessened anything, without thinking you were alive again.
Doty has always had a fondness for lush, sumptuous diction. In these lines from “Retrievers in Translation,” for example, his description of a Renaissance tapestry risks sounding like the available shades of sweaters in a J. Crew catalogue:
Coral pupils center that buttery ivory, parchment deepening to tones of varnish
and ocher, shellac and bronze …
In “Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work,” Doty seems to be on the defensive against critics who claim his work is merely decorative:
—Glaze and shimmer, luster and gleam,
can't he think of anything but all that sheen?
—No such thing, the queen said, as too many sequins.
And in “Dickeyville Grotto,” about a Wisconsin priest who “built around / [his] plain Wisconsin / redbrick church” a fantastical coral and seashell grotto, Doty appears to celebrate art for art's sake, suggesting that “sly sparkle” is far more important than its “purpose”:
… the very stones
gone lacy and beaded, an airy intricacy of froth and glimmer. For God? Country?
Lucky man: his purpose pales beside the fizzy, weightless fact of rock.
Yet in the book's title poem, as he describes a young crack addict on the subway who is itching himself convulsively, Doty seems to become suddenly disgusted with the way poetic language effaces the boy's pitiful reality: “Moth, plum—hear how the imagery aestheticizes?” In “Metro North,” we find a similar resistance to the practice of reducing the real world to a set of metaphors. Doty notices a homeless man's crude shelter from a train window each morning on his way to work. Over time, as the poet observes more and more details of the man's dwelling—a dog, a set of white plates—he is less and less able to make a symbol of him:
He had a ruined car,
and heaps of clothes, and things to read, was no emblem,
in other words, but a citizen …
Like so many others who lost loved ones during the height of the AIDS epidemic, Doty is now beginning to imagine a life (and a poetry) no longer defined by AIDS. “Somebody's going to live through this,” he writes, “Suppose it's you?” Even as he is reconsidering what poems he will write in this new world, Doty also reconsiders the style in which he will write in this new world, Doty also reconsiders the style in which he will write them. Throughout this collection, Doty both celebrates and questions his aesthetic, as if he is trying out different positions to see which fit him best.
In Sweet Machine, we see an already masterful poet refusing to lapse into nostalgia or to unthinkingly reuse the poetic strategies that have served him so well in the past. Instead, we find Mark Doty exploring new territories and questioning himself at every turn.
SOURCE: Review of Sweet Machine, by Mark Doty. Virginia Quarterly Review 75, no. 1 (winter 1999): 31.
[In the following review, the critic examines the recurring themes in Sweet Machine, noting that the collection shows a definite focus on such issues as redemption and joy.]
In this collection, Doty returns to themes familiar to his readers—art, the physical world, city life—even as these poems extend his formal range. Many of the narrative lyrics which comprise Sweet Machine span several pages—unusual for such a self-contained, compressed form as the contemporary lyric poem—and one wonders if the ferocious intensity and elegiac tone of these poems can be sustained, if they won't break apart from the internal pressure created by their own lavish, often startling imagery. They rarely do. While Doty has consciously chosen to make the question a familiar gesture in his poetry (which occasionally has the effect of its seeming merely gesture), one senses in his questions a genuine wonderment and urgency that goes beyond rhetorical flourish, into the realm where the poem becomes a mode of confronting the human mysteries. So Doty, in “Murano” (a defiant and moving elegy for friend and poet Lynda Hull) can ask of the contents of a Cornell canopic jar he encountered in Venice: “What's gold / but a physical species of joy?”; or of an evocative de Kooning painting, “Door To The River,” in a poem of the same name: “Haven't you walked / into something like happiness but larger?” While many of these poems deal with loss (the loss of loved ones to the AIDS plague, the lack of community and compassion in post-industrial America), they all seem in some way to be about redemption, happiness. As Doty himself asks in the final lines of the final poem of the collection—a poem about the playfulness of a humpback which the poet feared would come to harm: “What did you think, that joy / was some slight thing?” These poems certainly are no slight things.
SOURCE: Doty, Mark, and Michael Giltz. “This Boy's Life.” Advocate (12 October 1999): 78-9.
[In the following interview, Doty discusses the success of Heaven's Coast and the recollections of his formative years recorded in Firebird.]
When poet Mark Doty was a little boy, he sneaked into his sister's room to play model. “I put the glass on top of my head, pulling myself up straight, the glass wobbles, I lift my arms up for balance, that's better, I'm getting it now,” Doty writes in his slyly comic memoir Firebird, out this month from HarperCollins. “Another wobble, so I try moving my head from side to side like a Balinese dancer, and that's it, slip and disaster, the glass crashes to the floor and shatters, unnaturally loud.”
The aftermath of that little accident spells out the dynamics of his family: a scary father, an eccentric mother who's drinking more and more, and an absent sister who will later become a prostitute. “I felt like I was getting to make a kind of opera out of my life, which I enjoyed,” Doty tells The Advocate. After writing Heaven's Coast, a searing 1996 account of his lover Wally's death from AIDS-related complications, he welcomed the relief of recording less immediate grief.
“The first memoir was a grave meditation about love and death,” says the 46-year-old Doty about Coast, which received a glowing review from The New York Times. “I wanted to write a very earthly comedy—even though it's a comedy about serious things a lot of times. And dark things too.”
Indeed. Doty writes about moving from town to town—largely, he now believes, because his father couldn't get along with coworkers and quit jobs before he was fired—and watching his mother sink from eccentric to alcoholic, culminating in a terrifying scene in which she points a gun at her son but is too confused to release the safety latch.
“I've given galleys of the book to a few friends,” says Doty, who lives with his partner, writer Paul Lisicky, and teaches at the University of Houston. “I ran into one friend the other night, and the first thing he said was, ‘God, I know you so much better now!’”
“I wanted to talk about kids who experience themselves as outsiders,” says Doty, whose books of poetry include the award-winning collection My Alexandria. “I did on many levels: as a gay kid, as a sissy boy, as a chubby boy, as a smart kid, as a kid with glasses, as a kid who moved all the time, as a kid with a Southern accent. I always felt like I was on the periphery of whatever community I was in.”
Ironically, detailing his own sense of isolation in Heaven's Coast and now Firebird has made Doty feel part of a larger community than ever before. “The most wonderful thing about the publishing of Heaven's Coast was the outpouring of response from people who had experienced all sorts of losses,” Doty says. “That was so moving to me.”
Perhaps the most unexpected contact came from his own father, who wrote to Doty after years of little or no contact. “We were so estranged that I did not ever imagine him reading that book. His response to it was a real gift to me, something that changed our relationship.” Now, says Doty ruefully, things have changed again. “He's read Firebird, and he's not at all happy about it. In fact, he's so unhappy about it that he's not speaking to me.”
SOURCE: Reichard, William. “Portrait of the Young Artist as a Survivor.” Lambda Book Report 8, no. 5 (December 1999): 20.
[In the following review, Reichard compliments Firebird as a “beautifully wrought” recollection of Doty's early life experiences.]
Award-winning poet and memoirist Mark Doty, in choosing to center his new autobiography Firebird on his childhood and young adult experiences, has taken a risk, and the risk has paid off. Firebird is a beautifully wrought recollection of Doty's early life as the son of an increasingly disturbed and alcoholic mother and a distant and sometimes violent father. Told in a linear yet fractured narrative style that mirrors the illogical, associative movements of human memory, Doty's memoir offers a series of recollections that reveals the complexities and contradictions of any childhood, and particularly those of a queer childhood—the furtive, awkward, and often terrifying search for identity that most queer readers will recognize.
What saves Firebird from the trap of similar, sometimes self-indulgent, memoirs is both Doty's ability to admit the “lies” we all construct in order to build the story we call our lives, and his refusal to tie things up into tidy packages. When he admits that he hates his father for mourning the loss of a gun over the potential loss of his son to that weapon (Doty's mother, in an alcoholic rage, tried to shoot the poet when he was a teenager), he doesn't backslide or seek a literary redemption for his father. The two men do come to terms with each other, and even visit each other, but the gulf remains. “The older I get,” Doty explains, “the more I distrust redemption; it isn't in the power of language to repair the damages.”
The book's title is borrowed from Stravinsky's Suite from the Firebird, and it's while dancing wildly and unselfconsciously to this music that the child Doty experiences a freeing revelation. “I … am effortless,” he says of his otherwise uncomfortable, overweight body, “something written quiddy in the air … Haven't I always been fire, and never known it?” Doty, like so many queer children, finds refuge in the unrestrained world of art, a world that appeals because it offers, via imagination, a way out of current, often unbearable circumstances and into a world filled with prospects.
David Bergman, in Gaiety Transfigured, describes the manner in which many queer children, lacking visible role models, first discover a sense of self in literature. Doty's experience supports this theory, and when he states, at the end of his memoir, “I believe that art saved my life,” it's almost impossible to deny the claim. Indeed, art carries him out of the bitter world he inhabits, away, finally, from a mother who says, upon discovering her son dressed up like Judy Garland and joyfully lip synching to “Get Happy,” “Son, you're a boy!” This revelation, “hissed” at the boy “with shame and with exasperation,” pulls him out of childhood's world and “into an adult world of limit and sorrow.” However, Doty doesn't remain there. After a series of lucky breaks and big mistakes (including an early marriage and two unsuccessful attempts to run away from home), the author overcomes the hardships of his early years by simply moving on with his life, and comes to recognize that “human love is always imperfect, carries within it some degree or other of darkness.”
Readers familiar with Doty's poetry will recognize much of what he recounts here: slide sets from the Louvre and the National Gallery, his young friend Walter (not to be confused with the Wally of Heaven's Coast), the Object of the Month Club. Many of the characters and incidents that people his first four collections of poetry appear here, so much so that Firebird and Doty's earlier poetry collections, particularly Turtle, Swan,Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, and My Alexandria, form a symbiotic whole, one text informing and even enhancing the other, much in the way Heaven's Coast and the poems in Atlantis explored similar territory.
The book, which opens and closes with Dory's observations of a seventeenth century Dutch “perspective box,” is itself a kind of perspective box. It is a work designed to allow the viewer to see into the manufactured world of the artist's making, to see the tricks of perspective, light, and invention that combine to create the semblance of a singular, contained world. After coming upon the box while wandering through the National Gallery, Doty gazes in upon the artificial world of small rooms through small lenses in the box's side. There, in one of the rooms, Doty spies “a boy lost in a book,” and the boy and his book serve as Doty's central metaphor. The world Doty describes exists inside the box of the author's memory, the book the boy holds is Doty's own. “The book he's reading configures this space: house and mother, sister and closet and father, endless hallway, tumult of wings. His book angles and skews them by artifice, and then tries to use artifice to set them right.”
SOURCE: Kennedy, Sarah. Review of Turtle, Swan & Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, by Mark Doty. Shenandoah 50, no. 4 (winter 2000): 130-33.
[In the following review, Kennedy offers a positive assessment of Turtle, Swan & Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, a jointly republished volume of Doty's first two poetry books, arguing that the second collection is stronger than the first.]
The most recent addition to the University of Illinois Press's series of reprinted first and second books is Turtle, Swan & Bethlehem in Broad Daylight by Mark Doty. With the publication of My Alexandria and Sweet Machine, Doty has established himself as a poet whose work, grounded in the material of current American culture, is leavened by an almost ecstatic spiritual and aesthetic searching. Without sacrificing clarity or narrative control, Doty's poetry interrogates the possibilities of language as a medium to make sense of the complexities of millennial America while its richness forestalls the potential fin de siècle angst.
“There are buried cities, / one beneath the other” Doty writes in “A Replica of the Parthenon,” the first poem of Turtle, Swan, originally published in 1987. The poem's concern with memory and the made object reflect Doty's abiding interests in the role of remembering in the making of art, and in turn, art's role in the making of truth. Many poems in this first volume (such as “A Replica of the Parthenon,” “Rocket”) are clearly located in a place in the past, and “In the Form of Snow.” The danger for misremembering always exists, but that very possibility is one of the necessary components of art, of refiguring what we know into what we can use. “Rocket” ends with speculation about the boy, John, whom the narrator cared for in pre-school: “I assume it is still there—and if so // perhaps strikes him now, as we say / things magnified in memory do, as smaller / than he remembered, less dangerous.”
Forgetting, in fact, can be more dangerous than imperfect memory. The title poem, “Turtle, Swan,” introduces the horror of AIDS, a subject Doty has explored in both his later poetry and prose. The possibility of losing a lover to the epidemic centers the poem, as the narrator, searching for his partner in a dark theater, thinks “of a book / I read in seventh grade … / in which a man simply walked away, // at a picnic, and was / … / gone.” the vicarious grief engendered by the memory haunts the rest of the poem, as the narrator, having located his partner but unable to concentrate on the movie, tells us, “I read / every week of some man's lover showing / the first symptoms. …” Anticipatory grief for the lover spills over into the rest of the poem's images: “I don't know / where these things we meet and know briefly // as well as we can or they will let us, / go.” The only hope for retention seems to be in art.
Even art, however, magnifies and distorts. “Gardenias” tries to capture the narrator's parents, although “What [he] can construct / of this scene rises from snapshots and the recollection / of snapshots.” His own boyhood, in fact, seems made up, in “Horses,” of attempts to be someone else. Art remains the only solution to the problems of memory on which these poems dwell; in “Nancy Outside in July,” the speaker and his partner try on the identities of the painter's subject and their own parents, and he concludes, “You have my permission: / to draw, to color and discolor, shape / and redefine—just as this, erased / and awkward as it is, spells out nothing / if not your name.” In “Paragon Park,” the speaker knows his memory is faulty, “It seems / we visited a hundred times, though probably / it was only twice,” but remains dedicated to the notion that the idea of “Paragon Park” is important: “I'm not sure / I have anything important to say / about memory or history, only how well / the park contains them. …” In “The Pink Palace,” he reinforces this: “… nothing will ever / be finished except the past, which is too large / to apprehend at once. All that changes / is the frame we choose.”
Although Turtle, Swan is a remarkable first book, and shares with the second book concerns about art, reading, physical love and memory as the necessary step to personal and cultural history, the poems in Bethlehem in Broad Daylight are a bit surer of themselves, less given to over-explanation. They also make a step toward the ecstatic cadences of My Alexandria and Sweet Machine. In Mark Doty's work, however, unlike that of many other poets, “development” seems less an issue than further exploration of the serious topics of his earlier poems. In “Against Paradise,” he states, “I couldn't love any world but this.” The line, followed by “It's almost dark,” captures the tensions that inform many of Doty's poems: art and transcendence, memory and truth, parents and children, love in all its manifestations, physical desire and social imperative. “Against Paradise” speaks back to the first poem, “Harbor Lights,” in which the speaker sees a “stone face / in the shop window.” “I'm calling her // the angel” he says, “the mother of angels,” and watching her becomes “like watching your mother sleep, / minutes after you have been conceived.” In “The Ancient World,” he reads again The Wonders of the World because “I wanted the density of history, / which I confused with the smell of the book.” This confusion is central to Doty's vision, love of the “form we cannot separate / from the stories about the form,” but the poems themselves are anything but confused; they are densely rich evocations of late twentieth-century America, where Anna Karenina, a “leaning circus tent,” Pharaoh's body in a child's Easter egg, the “Moorish arches of the Y” and the porn flicks at the Adonis Theater all coexist in an uneasy but bright mosaic.
These poems do not flinch from their gaze at the uglinesses of contemporary life—a mother's alcoholism, a lonely old woman calling for a dead cat from her porch—but the prevailing emotion is, surprisingly, joy. The insistence on joy in the face of poverty and sadness is a singular note in recent poetry, and owes much to Doty's blending of physical and transcendent love: “Divinity includes desire / —why else create a world / like this one, dawn fogging / the park in gold. …” In “Tiara,” the death of a young man is transformed when, “at the wake / the tension broke / when someone guessed // the casket closed because / he was in there in a big wig / and heels.” It's funny, but a greater transformation is needed; someone has said that the dead man “asked for it,” and the poet takes on the task of remaking hate-language: “… And given // the world's perfectly turned shoulders, / the deep hollows blued by longing, / given the irreplaceable silk // of horses rippling in orchards, / fruit thundering and chiming down, / given the ordinary marvels of form // and gravity, what could he do, / what could any of us ever do / but ask for it?”
The “essential / matter of flesh” is entangled with deity again and again: “how could one ever be done with a god?” How indeed? The speaker in “Art Lessons” tells his mother and father, “I was not born, but made.” Gods, sex, love, history and culture are all part of the “world // constructed to be read,” which Doty struggles with in poem after poem in Turtle, Swan & Bethlehem in Broad Daylight. It's astonishing, beautiful work, exemplified by the quilter, in “An Exhibition of Quilts,” who cuts apart “anything discarded, / … / hurrying to fit them all in, / to get it right: / just beyond the day's veil, // her gospel's variable heavens.” The poet's, too, we suspect, for whom “the dead look back / to the watered green silk of Earth / and name it Desire's Paradise.”
SOURCE: Freeman, Chris. “Art that Saves.” Gay and Lesbian Review 7, no. 2 (spring 2000): 52.
[In the following review, Freeman maintains that Doty is a skilled poet and memoirist, judging Firebird as a powerful, insightful reminiscence of the author's past.]
Mark Doty's Heaven's Coast (1996) is one of the most powerful memoirs we have of the AIDS crisis and of love between men. His follow-up, Firebird: A Memoir, is a much different book, one that tells the story of a chaotic childhood and develops as a coming-of-age narrative ripe with elements of Southern Gothic, dislocation, teenage rebellion, and the salvific power of art, of creating.
Near the end of the book, Doty writes, “I believe that art saved my life. How is it that making sustains?” “Making” aptly describes the process Doty engages in. Primarily known for his well-wrought, opulently designed poetry, Doty's creativity in structure is his genius. Firebird is a structural tour de force, and even when the tale itself is not at its most captivating, the telling never wavers.
Memory's machinations and distortions are part of any memoir. Doty's memories of his past, his family, and their many houses recede even as he tries to draw them closer. The process he's working through is perhaps best illustrated by a story from his years in Tucson. There was a family in their neighborhood in which the father came home from work one day and shot his wife, his children, and himself. Doty's father tells him it was the mother who pulled the trigger. Doty writes, “I wasn't paying attention, exactly, to the facts of the story; I was revising it into something I could bear.” What makes his father's version of the story unbearable is that his mother, drunk, once pointed his father's Luger at him:
She holds the gun out, and she waits; I stand in the line of fire, and I wait. … What I don't know is: does she pull the trigger? Does she hesitate, does her hand refuse the task she's set it? … I don't know because I'm not there. I'm closed, gone away, already dead behind the eyes, no longer at home, halfway to the next life already and good riddance to this one. … Maybe I'm thinking I won't miss it, this sorry stubborn queer flesh, maybe I'm thinking I'm nothing at all, merely empty, ready to receive what my mother offers.
Firebird is a recognizable story of a gay boy growing up, a boy whose “education in beauty” makes it so very hard to be the kind of boy the world expects him to be. An elementary school teacher tells his parents, “Mark relates well to girls.” No deciphering necessary to get the message there, but there's more, of course. Like the time that the ten-year-old Mark and his friend Werner decide to put on a revue. Mark's “vehicle” is Judy Garland's “Get Happy,” and his rendition involves a cane and a red chiffon scarf: “I am amphetamine bright and glittering … I am entirely a Judy, right down to the prescriptions, in tight black stockings.” Inevitably, his mother comes in and catches him in the act.
This incident, frozen in Doty's memory, is a queer epiphany, one that many readers will recognize: “I know, all the way through, that she isn't going to love me the same way now.” She says, “Son, you're a boy.” That line says it all: “Nothing else to say. It's a stopping place.” The meditation continues: “You're a boy. I am stunned and silent, caught in a shame that seems to have no place to come to rest. I have been initiated—whether because my mother wanted to punish or to protect me—into an adult world of limit and sorrow.”
“Fanfare & Finale,” the final section of the book, is comprised of short, anecdotal passages. Doty poses the question that's at the heart of the popularity of the memoir as a genre: “Why tell a story like this, who wants to read it?” Like any good writer, he answers his own question, and he does so in various ways. One way, of course, is to write an artful and compelling narrative. Doty succeeds because of his aesthetic vision, and his poetic understanding of language. One answer: “What matters is what we learn to make of what happens to us. … And we learn to make, I think, by telling.” That answer leads to the next question: what does the telling do? Doty's reply: “To tell a story is to take power over it. Now they—we—are part of a tale, a made thing. … The stubborn past is not to be dissolved by any act of will, and perhaps we ought at last to be glad for that. What happened defines us, always; erase the darkness in you at your own peril, since it's inextricable from who you.”
SOURCE: Gladstone, Jim. “Metameringue.” Lambda Book Report 9, no. 9 (April 2001): 15.
[In the following review, Gladstone offers praise for Still Life with Oysters and Lemon and Murano.]
What are the ingredients of Art? To Jan Davidsz de Heem, the 17th Century Dutch painter whose Still Life with Oysters and Lemon lends both title and inspiration to Mark Doty's slim yet infinitely rereadable new volume of prose poetry, one recipe begins with citrus, crustaceans, clustered grapes, a glass urn.
To these, de Heem adds oils, pigments, canvas, bristles pulled from a pig's proboscis. And through the alchemical cookery of light and vision and emotional resonance, he transforms them into something altogether different than themselves.
Start from an egg, arrive at a meringue. Or, start from a painting, arrive at a poem.
De Heem's painted lemon peel uncurls in Mark Doty's mind. The whole painting becomes but one compound ingredient, to which Doty adds words, rhythms, his memories, others' paintings, and Gaston Bachelard's philosophies. Then comes Doty's own cooking style (In the 21st century, a self-conscious convection alchemy versus de Heem's old-fashioned woodburning alchemy). The results is a daring, delicious dish. A metameringue.
So what's a book critic to do? You can't just pull an Emeril and then crank these recipes up another notch. This Art thing can be pushed too far. It can explode into silly pretension: Metameta-boom! (And a rama-lama-ding-dong).
Mark Doty has a brilliant sense of metrics. In Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, he's measured everything so carefully and set it right on the brink of over-ripeness. The brink, so it's still delicious. Art criticism-cum-memoir-cum-essay-cum-elegy.
“Not yet, this feels so good!”
All is held at the luscious brink of things, like the deliquescent half-shelled oyster, shining on the edge of the table. It could go bad, could spoil at any moment, but, no. De Heems and Doty have locked it in place at precisely the right moment.
Sometimes we have to set aside the clever criticism. That means you too, reader. Step back one layer of meta. See the painting. Read the book.
What are the ingredients of Art?
You'll know it when you taste it.
Post-prandial petit-four: Mark Doty has yet another brand new book, an extravagantly attractive limited edition with full-cloth binding, called Murano. Published by Los Angeles' J. Paul Getty Museum in conjunction with an exhibition of Venetian glass (Murano is the outlying island of Venice famed for its glassworks). Doty's elegant single poem on memory and the glassblower's art is accompanied by extremely close-in photography of objects from the Getty collection, revealing the flow and the flaws of both glass and time.
SOURCE: Marcus, Peter. “Reflections on Intimacy.” Gay and Lesbian Review 8, no. 5 (September 2001): 42.
[In the following review, Marcus discusses the theme and style of Still Life with Oysters and Lemon and Murano, though cites shortcomings in the juxtaposition of text and images in the latter.]
Mark Doty's most recent book, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, is a meditation on a Dutch still life painting “by one Jan Davidsz de Heem, painted in Antwerp some 350 years ago, and displayed today—after who knows what places it has been.” In a mere seventy pages Doty takes his reader deep into the painting—with which he became intimate at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art—and deeper still into an examination of intimacy itself, whether with an object or with another person.
Doty's prose sentences read much like lines of his poetry: they beg the reader to pause, to reread, to consider all their complexities. He first observes the literal object with such acuity as to let the reader see it through his eyes, then share his wonderment, then contemplate becoming intimate with an object, with a work of art, with any representation of the world, or with another person. Still Life is a meditation on how a painting can capture the ephemeral. Doty tells us that “the most beautiful still lifes are never pristine, and herein lies one of their secrets,” and describes how every object in still life captures “something of the imperfect, the quickly passing, … imported into the realm of perfection, in the long, impersonal light of centuries.”
As much as the book is meditation, it is also memoir. We learn that when he and his partner Wally moved to Vermont, they bought (for an incredible ＄24,000) “a thirteen-room Italianate Victorian house built in Montpelier in 1884.” We learn of their adventures in “the realm of auctions, a time-honored system for the redistribution of the possessions of the dead.” We learn that Wally, who later died of AIDS, gave “wickedly funny” names to the people they encountered at auctions, but time has taken those people and those names away. In the last years of Wally's life, they lived in Provincetown, and Doty's intimacy with the seaside town is part fascination with its beauty and part grief for the loss of Wally. We also learn of Doty's childhood, his marriage to Ruth, and his relationship to her mother Bertha, an old woman whom he calls “forgetful, generous, loving, attentive, devoted solely to food, kindness, and the World.” He loves Bertha because she doesn't judge his looks (he had hair down to his waist and wore it in a ponytail), his age (he was exceedingly young), or the “misguided marriage” itself: Bertha “did nothing but love us.”
“Here and gone” describes what Doty finds as the essence of human existence. All of the people he describes—with the notable exception of Paul, his present partner—are gone, whether they've left the world of the living or just passed out of his life. Then there's the connection that one can have to the objects one buys at sales or auctions, which have passed out of other people's lives, having shared a certain intimacy with them: “Deep paradox: things placed right next to us, in absolute intimacy, yet unknowable. Full of history, but their history is mute.” Of the still life as an art: “They satisfy so deeply because they offer us intimacy and distance at once, allow us to be both here and gone.”
Mark Doty's poem “Murano” has been reprinted as a single book, with photographs of Murano glass from the J. Paul Getty Museum. As in Still Life, we see Doty contemplating the permanent and the ephemeral, art and the world whence it came. Dedicated to his late friend Lynda Hull, the poem shows Doty to be a master craftsman worthy of the Murano artists he so reveres. He urges his reader to consider, “What's gold I but a physical / species of joy?” and echoes themes we find in Still Life: “Is this I what becomes of art, I the hard-won permanence / outside of time?”
The juxtaposition of the poem with the images from the Getty is at once delightful and troubling. The images are close-up and gorgeous. But stanzas of the poem are placed all over the page, inside the curve of a glass handle: “Even the pigeons' sleek necks / prismed, and some backwater's slick / of engine oil swirls like endpapers.” How the stanza relates to the pictorial image is not entirely clear, so the two are in danger of competing rather than complementing each other. So, while I'm not totally comfortable with the marriage (some pages have images only, some stanzas only, most pages mix the two), Murano showcases a beautiful poem in a unique way.
SOURCE: Bergman, David. “The Ineffable Being of Light.” Gay and Lesbian Review 9, no. 3 (May-June 2002): 37-8.
[In the following review, Bergman discusses themes of light and art in Source, noting that “Doty is an aesthete, very much derived from the mauve decade of Wilde and Beardsley.”]
Mark Doty is one of the few poets who is both central to gay poetry as a movement and an important figure in mainstream poetry. I don't mean to suggest that gay poets aren't part of mainstream poetry, but most of them, like John Ashbery or J. D. McClatchy, have not made the issue of their sexuality an important or explicit topic of their work. Even though Source, his latest volume of poetry, makes fewer references than earlier books to AIDS or lovers or participating in gay community events, his work is still very gay; for at heart, Doty is an aesthete, very much derived from the mauve decade of Wilde and Beardsley. Doty's deepest instinct is, in Walter Pater's words, to get “as many pulsations as possible into the given time” he has while alive. Estheticism is sometimes confused with upper-class snobbery and the acquisition of expensive objects. More frequently it takes on both a democratic and transcendent aspect. Wilde wore not a hothouse gardenia in his buttonhole, but a common sunflower. Whitman, to whom Doty directs an extended letter in Source, was as keen a lover of opera as he was of stevedores. Doty collects beautiful objects, but they are exquisite chards of broken pottery found on the beach, and not Faberge eggs. And it's not the objects themselves that he values, it's the non-material sensations they produce, the light they reflect and refract, the scents that they emit, the frissons they create as they pass across the skin.
Light especially is the condition that inspires Doty and to which his poems aspire. In his book-length essay on Jan Davidsz de Heem's Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, he writes of himself and the other gallery visitors: “We are all moving … in the light that comes toward me through a canvas the size of a school notebook; we are all walking in the light of a wedge of lemon, four oysters, a half-glass of wine, a cluster of green grapes with a few curling leaves still attached to the stem. This light is enough to reveal us as we are, bound together, in the warmth and good light of habitation, in the good and fleshly aliveness of us.” In Source, Dutch still lifes have given way to “Manhattan: Luminism.” The luminist painters were a small 19th-century school of landscape artists who tried to recreate that special American light of the Eastern seaboard, the salt marshes of the Chesapeake, the cranberry bogs of New England, the hazy fields of newly mowed meadow in which objects are, in Doty's words, “edgeless, one bit! of light's indifferent streaming.” The paradoxical result of all this attention to the ineffable, transitory quality of light is the awareness “that there is / something stubborn in us / —does it matter how small it is?— / that does not diminish.” “Principalities of June” ends with the assertion that with light “the more you break it / the nearer it comes to whole.” Source preaches something akin to the conservation of spiritual energy. Our perception of the momentariness of beauty is the surest sign of the infinity of the imagination and the eternity of the self.
Although the source of all this beauty seems to come from some transcendent natural power—Doty can sometimes sound like a Wordsworthian pantheist—the source of much of his inspiration is other poetry and other art. It doesn't have to be great art. In “Brian Age 7,” Doty is inspired by the crayon self-portrait of a first-grader hanging in the window of the local pharmacy. “It isn't craft,” he admits, “that makes the figure come alive.” Indeed, he has no idea why “some marks / seem to thrill with life, / possess a portion / of the nervous energy / in their maker's hand.” But the right “wobbly crayon strokes” can contain an entire “system of beauty.” Still, great artists are more reliable conduits of this energy.
If Jan Davidsz de Heem's notebook-size painting can inspire the seventy pages of Still Life with Oysters and Lemon,Source seems to be channeling the spirit of Marianne Moore, or at least the book has recurring echoes of her most famous poem, “The Steeplejack.” Its opening lines, “Durer would have seen a reason for living / in a town like this,” finds its echo in the opening of Doty's “Catalina Macaw,” “Durer painted a wing like this.” “Summer Landscape,” a poem inspired by a Stuart Davis painting, presents a scaffolding ringing “the spire of the Unitarian Universalist / Meeting house,” where a female steeplejack (a steeplejill?) named Jade is “regilding … the acanthus, our spire's / once-golden flourish angling up into summer air” where she “anchors to the sturdy tip a crown.” In Moore's poem, C. J. Poole is “gilding the solid- / pointed star, which on a steeple / stands for hope.” It's not just that the imagery is similar; the cadences bear a great deal of similarity. Moore makes yet another appearance in “Time on Main,” in which Doty meditates on the three “pointless” steeples that rise on Johnson, Vermont's main street. Whereas Moore has C. J. Poole put up a red and white sign that reads “Danger,” Doty has his Congregationalist church hang a sign “above / arched windows inscribed / in marble glass / LOOK UP.”
There are many reasons Doty should elect an affinity with Moore. She is, after all, one of our greatest poets and, if not a lesbian, certainly queer in some sense. She represents the sort of American precision that Doty admires, and like Doty, she uses animals over and over again, not only as objects worthy of study in themselves, but also as objects of autobiographical projection. But they differ significantly. Moore casts on her subjects the steady light of the anatomist who, searching for solidity, discovers ambiguity and danger. Doty casts the edgeless light of the luminist to discover in ambiguity comfort and reconciliation. Moore finds that the “sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave” whereas Doty locates “in the liquid open” the “wild deep current [that] brought us.” Moore is hard and unaccommodating, whereas Doty—although not soft—hopes to find consolation in the world around him, to be comforted by the experience.
Perhaps because Moore is too crusty, too resistant, too unconsoling, Doty turns to James Wright's “A Blessing” as the inspiration for the title poem. “A Blessing” is one of the masterpieces of post-war poetry. It places Wright in early spring “just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,” where he encounters two Indian ponies playing in a field alone. Doty's “Source” places him outside a New England town where he sees “three horses in a fenced field / by the narrow highway's edge.” One of the many things that must have struck Doty about “A Blessing” is that at first Wright doesn't encounter ponies, it's “Twilight [that] bounds softly forth of the grass;” as if the light becomes the horses, that light becomes flesh. In Doty, the horses are beamed up: he watches “the accordion bones / of the rust-spotted little one unfolding itself into the afternoon.” And they are not alone in this transmogrification. “You too,” he tell the reader, “you flare / and fall back into the necessary open space.” Wright's poem ends as he caresses the mare's long ear “That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist” with the sudden realization, “That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.” Doty's poem ends with an equally visionary moment in which
You could see beneath their hooves The path they'd traveled up, the horse-road
On which they trot into the world, eager for pleasure And sunlight, and down which they descend,
in good time, into the source of spring.
Wright celebrates the nexus where animals, humans, and flora meet and become interchangeable forms of beauty, creativity, and vitality. Doty's “poem wants a name for the kind of nothing / at the center of time, out of which the foals / come tumbling: curled, fetal, dreaming.” This nothing is “Not emptiness, / not negation, but generous, cold nothing: / the breathing space out of which new shoots / are propelled to the grazing mouths.” This blankness seems strangely like the tabula rasa, the yet unwritten page of poetry, and my suspicion is strengthened by Doty's insistence that “The poem wants the impossible” and that “the poem wants a name.” It is the poem, ultimately, that is the generator of life, that creates the “breathing space” which shoots nourishment into “the grazing mouth.”
If there is a transcendent force in Doty's world, it is the transcendence of art. The skeptical postmodern is supposed to reject the “mystification” that distinguishes commercial representation from art, and separates doggerel from poetry. But Doty again and again returns to that very queer turn-of-the-century belief that art and literature are different from other objects and can bring a kind of salvation, or at least a balm to the spirit. As Pater wrote, “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success and life,” and that the wisest spend their life “in art and song.”
SOURCE: Doty, Mark, and Christopher Hennessey. “Going to the Source.” Lambda Book Report 10, no. 11 (June-July 2002): 12.
[In the following interview, Doty discusses such issues as the development of his thematic and artistic preoccupations, the role of geography and public awareness in his work, and his aesthetic approach.]
Mark Doty seems to understand the origins of art's power, and his most recent volume of poetry resonates—in a new key for this award-wining poet and memoirist—with that understanding. In this interview, Doty digs deep into this new work, the aptly titled Source, and offers the stories behind each of his previous volumes. Among topics central to understanding his poetry and his aesthetic project, Doty expounds upon the interconnections of life, art, and observation.
Along the way, Doty speaks to his personal influences and origins, weaving a narrative of poems, poets and principles that have been important to his life and work.
Doty is the author of five books of poems and three works of nonfiction, Heaven's Coast: A Memoir and Firebird, and most recently Still Life with Oysters and Lemon. Among numerous awards, Doty has won a Lambda Literary Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award, Britain's T. S. Eliot Prize, the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and he has been a finalist for the National Book Award. He lives in New York City.
[Hennessy]: I feel that your previous volumes each had a unique history to it. Does this latest volume?
[Doty]: The “story” of my books, their autobiographical arc, has been an important aspect of them. I've written a kind of trilogy, really—My Alexandria,Atlantis and Sweet Machine—which were all concerned, to put it abstractly, with apprehending limit, encountering the fate of the body in time. And with questions of community and memory. To put it more concretely, the shape of these books was determined by the AIDS epidemic, my late partner's illness and death, my own grief, the decision—is that the right word for it?—to live onward from there. The last of these books begins to move outward, wanting to claim a broad involvement in civic life—a sense of the self as one fragile-but-tough survivor in the ongoing pulse of the living.
This is a book much less tied to story; if it had one, I suppose it would be the tale of the poet stepping out of the retreat at the watery edges of the continent described in Atlantis and going out into the U. S. of A. I wrote these poems in Iowa, Utah, Texas, Massachusetts and New York. As well as living in all these places, I traveled a good deal as a visiting writer, and in these four years I gained a sense of myself as not being from anywhere in particular, but rather a citizen of the country. And I want this to be a citizen's book—one that rises out of our crowded, uncertain social moment. To my mind Source attempts to marry the stuff of the inner life—poetry—to a recognition of the particular social world which is this American moment. Somewhere Auden makes a wonderful statement about the way poets wish to dwell in the paradise of pure sound, the garden of pleasure—but how poems, if they are to represent the world at all, must always be ruining that paradise by admitting the fallen world. I paraphrase, but I intend something like the unity of music and heartbreak he's pointing to.
Do you think geography, place, even topography, can affect the production of poetic form?
I do. Of course it also has to do with how you live in a particular place, and the speed of your days, the focus of your attention. Think of Frank O'Hara's New York, for instance, and the way its speed and multiplicity contrasts with, say, Mary Oliver's New England landscape, which seems to mandate singularly focused acts of attention. In my case, I think you can feel in my books the shift in where I was and how I was living. Turtle, Swan and Bethlehem in Broad Daylight were written in Massachusetts and Vermont. They are books concerned with memory; their speaker seeks understanding by trying to situate himself in a personal history. The voice is relatively quiet, and there's a steady kind of attention. My Alexandria was written primarily in Vermont, though I moved to Provincetown before it was completed. The speaker in these poems is thinking of the present instead of the past; the pressures of adult life are such as to require his complete attention. Something of New Englandness percolates through the poems; maybe it has to do with the way the landscape becomes a vehicle, the way stories are told about places in poems like “Demolition” or “The Wings,” which partly locates itself at a Vermont auction. Atlantisis entirely a Provincetown book, with a few little trips to New York along the way. It's saturated in qualities of light, and is enormously interested in mutability, which is less true of the work before it. My Alexandria is very worried about disappearance, but in Atlantis things don't so much vanish as turn into something else. This has to do with living in a place that is constantly being revised. By the in and out of the tide, the shift of the fog, that famous Cape light—which isn't steady but instead continually shifts the way we view the world. That fluidity is the ground of the poems' making. Sweet Machine marks a transition; the poems were written in Provincetown and in Iowa City, and I felt my life opening after a period of constriction: a new relationship beginning, a wider world of professional life.
I'm reminded of a comment you made in an interview in 1998: You wanted to talk about the “public life.” You remain a poet of the interior and, of course, a poet who's gay; I suspect these elements are interacting in interesting ways when you write about the “public life.” Can you talk about that?
Well, no one can really write poetry about the public sphere from the public sphere, because the language is generalized and almost immediately debased. We have only to look at the events of September 11 and how an immediate and material tragedy is so quickly translated into cant, cliché, forms of speech which sentimentalize and—I suppose it's not too strong to say—degrade the character of the original experience. Mass culture commodities language. One answer to this problem is an almost complete retreat into interiority—to our private passions, concerns, impressions. Even these, of course, are shaped by those forces larger than ourselves, though our poems don't always acknowledge that. I am interested in a poetry that looks outward, in the impingement of the world and the evidence of engagement with the world. I suppose that where being gay connects with this is that it represents a further degree of remove. Simply to be a poet is to be outside of the mainstream of social discourse, and gayness adds one more dimension of standing at odds to the collective. I always remember E. M. Forster's wonderful description of Cavafy. He said he was a short, Greek man in a straw hat, standing at a slight angle to the rest of the universe. That slight angle is a degree of exile, but it is also a degree of perspective, which is the exile's gift.
Too, being a homosexual man or woman is also a perpetual reminder of the way in which public matters are deeply implicated in private ones. The state, the police and the church have, after all, been presences in our bedrooms and our nightmares all our lives. Such a condition reminds one that even the composition of, say, a love poem is not solely a private act.
I suppose there's no ignoring September 11. So, I'll ask: As one of America's most noted voices on the subject of loss, both as a poet and a memoirist, how have you responded to the events of September 11?
I don't think I've begun to respond in my work, except for a tiny poem that approaches those days in a very oblique way. It's a poem about a lost cockatiel in my neighborhood. A few days before September 11 there were posters on the street about this bird, and I found myself thinking of the fate of that creature after September 11. A little poem triggered by that came tumbling out, centering on something that's always obsessed me: What does it mean to be one among many? What does the loss of one creature entail when the life of the whole continues. So I've written just that tiny poem. But like everyone I feel the tremendous pressure of those days and the requirement to speak, and simultaneously the impossibility of speaking. Of course, that's part of what makes an event like this so hard for us. We need to respond, yet speech seems to fail in the face of events of such gravity and scale. In a way that's what poetry is for, those occasions when speech is inadequate. If we could say anything readily, then we would just do so. It's the unsayable that calls for a poem.
I have seen one extraordinary poem written since, by Frank Bidart. It's called “Curse” and speaks directly to the terrorists and wishes upon them empathy. It's remarkable—both in its content and for the fact that it has been written at all.
I want to talk about wounds, flaws. You're attracted to writing that “reminds us it's made of language,” and you pay special attention to the surfaces of things, ideas discussed at length elsewhere. But you've also said that the flaw, the wound often makes a thing more unique or beautiful. What occurs to language when, via artifice, it is made flawed—beyond, of course, the inherent flaw of language?
I admire enormously poems in which language arrives at a limit, something can't be completed or grasped, and the poem in some way acknowledges that and points to its own inability to hold. I could give you lots of examples because it's one of the things that interests me most. For instance, a poet I love, James L. White, and a poem of his called “Making Love to Myself” from The Salt Ecstasies (Graywolf, 1982). White was enormously influential to me. His closest aesthetic partners would be deep image poets like Robert Bly, but because White writes so directly from his experience as a gay man, the kind of ecstatic rhetoric we're used to meeting in those poems has a different grounding. This particular poem is an elegy to a lover who's not died, but has simply gone away. After a sorrowful description of the autoerotic act and of recalling his companion, White says at the end of the poem: “I just have to stop here, Jess. / I just have to stop.”
Stop what? Writing this poem, because I can't bear what I have to say? Stop wounding myself by remembering you? Stop masturbating because I'm coming, or because I can't finish because of these torturous memories? Or even, perhaps, that I have to stop my life because I can't continue with this absence? It's an extraordinary example of a poem that incorporates its own limits.
Another marvelous example is a poem I've just been writing about, by James Wright, called “On the Skeleton of a Hound.” The speaker's considering the fate of a hound's bones—he calls them “a ruin of summer”—when he changes his mind about grieving, because once he saw the hound chasing a rabbit in a pursuit so fierce and splendid that the dog followed the hare “to the moon, to dark, to death, to other meadows where singing young women dance around a fire.” Completely weird. The poem's left the terrain of the field and gone to some other, transcendent place, “where love reveres the living.” Then there's a bit of silence, of white space, a stanza break occurring in the middle of the line, then, all by itself at the beginning of the next stanza, these words: “I alone.” It's as if we've gone to a place where no more can be said, and thus the poem must incorporate this rupture; only a breakage can allow for any further movement. And what comes after that break? The solitary, tentative self. It's a remarkable moment. Probably the greatest poems always point us toward their own unraveling, the place where they cannot succeed in what they have set out to do.
Permanence and impermanence are significant themes in Source. Do I hear a shift from other volumes, something I'd track as tone of confidence? For instance, “Paul's Tattoo” begins with this firm statement: “The flesh dreams toward permanence.”
I think it's true that one writes one's way toward a greater sense of permission to make the bold claim. It has to do with a sense of building a context for one's own statements over time, certainly building a context within the body of a book. My hope is hat when you arrive at an opening line of a poem that asserts “The flesh dreams toward permanence,” the poems or books that have preceded it have prepared you to entertain such a claim. So that you're not thinking, Who is this guy?
This directness of assertion has been influenced by my work as a prose writer. During the time I was writing the poems in My Alexandria, I was very interested in raiding the fiction writer's toolkit: using multiple lines of narrative that intersected or paralleled one another, dialogue, characterization, allowing time to pass, things that are not primarily the ingredients of a lyric poem. That's continued to be true in my work, but having the vehicle of nonfiction prose (for telling extended stories and for meditating on those stories, writing a different kind of inclusive text) has pushed me as a poet to—well, get to the point, as it were. If I had written a poem like “Patti's Tattoo” a few years ago, I might well have begun in story and sidled up to making that statement. The prose work has pushed me in the direction of compression and perhaps forthrightness. I hadn't put it that way to myself, but now that you point to it, I think it's probably true.
In Source you describe a scene in a crowded beach changing shed in which “… so much flesh / in one place it seemed to be of the soul.” The body linked to permanence—will we see more of this in your work?
Hmm—depends on whether you think the soul is permanent!
Seriously, the body for me has been so much a location of instability, having lived through the crisis years of the AIDS epidemic. The body had been, and continued to be, the source of pleasure, much of what made experience matter and life worth living. But then it also became the location of so much danger and uncertainty, a place where there was so little control. That was very much reflected in my work. And now that you point it out, this idea of being part of a physical ongoingness is something that very much possesses me. I think the poems in Source are [asking]: is the self bounded in me and my old bag of skin, or does it reside in the common human whole? Also, where can we locate our ongoingness? Five thousand people disappear on September 11. The city continues in some way to carry those bodies, to carry no just all those names and photographs, but the dust of those bodies. We breathe it in.
The lines you mention are written in response to Whitman, to his view of the grass as “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” We continue through matter in permanent flux; we're part of that ongoing, larger, vibrating thing.
The body electric! Speaking of Whitman, he seems to be one of the strongest influences I hear, but I also hear Bishop, and not exclusively in Source.
I have been educated by Bishop in profound ways. I read her first in the early 70s, and didn't get it; I'd been schooled on the flamboyant intensities of neo-surrealism, and thus I found her poems cold and hard to get at. I read her again in the late 70s and my perspective shifted to allow me to appreciate her precise and evocative detail. But it wasn't until the late 80s and early 90s that I found myself drawn to her way of revealing the self by means of the “how” of seeing; the character of the perceiver was made available to us through the way in which attention was paid, through the choices by which attention made itself felt through language. There's an epistemological project there: We know her by virtue of how she knows. Perhaps the suggestion is that this is what poetry can give us—knowledge in context, historical, specific, the self caught in the act of knowing.
I don't believe we should go in fear of influence. The fact is that poetry never exists in a vacuum; it's written in dialogue with other poems, part of a vast web of utterance and response and further response. Each of my books seems to me to be animated, in part, by a conversation with another poet or poets. My Alexandria speaks, of course, to Cavafy, but it also very much involved with Rilke and with Robert Lowell.
Hart Crane and James Merrill are present in Atlantis, too, but nowhere near the extent that their stylistic characters are engaged in Sweet Machine. That book is a broader and more inclusive book than its predecessor, and concerned—on a formal level with intensification of the verbal surface, which becomes increasingly wrought, more assertively musical than in previous books. At the core of it is an argument about art, about the power of what we make, which both distinguishes us as human and threatens to be the agent of our damnation. Those two powerful ghosts are tutors of both formal complexity and emotional nuance. There are shadow presences of other poets here as well—my late friend Lynda Hull (in “Murano” and “Emerald”), Jorie Graham (in “Lilies in NYC”) and Stevens (in “Dickeyville Grotto”), and I'm sure others I'm not thinking of at the moment. I guess I think of a book as a kind of arena of response.
Do you feel gay writers approach their influences differently?
I suspect that gay writers tend toward a different stance than the Oedipal notion of inheritance propounded by [Harold] Bloom, that one is always trying to kill of one's influences and hide the evidence of: their presence, like bodies under the carpet. Perhaps because we have much less sense of a tradition and of familial legacy, literary or (often) literal, gay writers are probably more likely to let their influences show, to pay public homage. That's why practically every gay and lesbian writer in English has a poem called “Days of Something-or-other.” We want to claim our allegiances; we want to stand in a line. Lineation is lineage!
Like Bishop, you're a careful observer of the living (and sometimes dying) world. How important to your work is observation?
I am almost always disappointed by poems that don't attempt, in some fashion, to represent the world. I don't agree that “representation is murder.” The world survives any attempt we make to portray it. I do think representation is always a failure, but a noble and fascinating one. I believe in a poetry of attentiveness—which of course can mean attentiveness to the inner world, too. A poet like Michael Palmer may practice representation through an attempt to portray the action of thinking, or to embody a set of ideas about reading or signification. Brenda Hillman's poems observe people and landscape with the same precision they employ to look at interior processes of prayer and meditation.
For me, revision is the great paradox. Operationally and perhaps logically, “revision” suggests taking the poem further from its source, but I often find that the process pulls the poem closer to the work's origins, to its most urgent needs. How do you see it?
Increasingly this seems to me a very delicate negotiation. I used to be a wholehearted believer in the notion that, if revision carried you far away from where you set out, good! The deeper intentionality of the poem might reveal itself, and its larger realms come into play. I think poets often quit too soon, before they've explored the shadow possibilities that lie around the edges of what they can see clearly. We tend to flee complexity—for very good reasons, since it might be emotionally messy, and will almost certainly challenge our craft. But the willingness to embrace complexity is often what makes the difference between an ordinary poem and an extraordinary one. So I am all for prolonging the experience of submerging oneself in the draft of a poem, trying to remain uncertain about where it is going for as long as possible, in order to see what you can find out along the way.
This means that often one writes a great deal that is thrown out, or that turns out not to be connected after all—but such exploration inevitably winds up enlarging the world of the poem. If one has investigated the other rooms in the house, as it were, then one knows what's in them, and that knowledge winds up informing and pressurizing what the poem does ultimately include. Bishop is a wonderful example of this: What she knows and doesn't say is the shadow presence in the poem, and that shadow raises the stakes immensely, throwing what is said into a kind of high relief. What you know and don't say is crucial to the poem, whereas what you don't know (and therefore don't say) does you no good whatsoever!
All that said, on the other hand, I find myself valuing what emerges spontaneously, forcefully, with that sense of a pressurized utterance from the interior. I think my poems have often undergone a good deal of work before they emerge into consciousness; if I wait till I feel that undeniable urge to write, what comes tumbling out is often rather orderly, and sometimes (lucky ones) oddly dose to complete. Not that it doesn't need polishing, consideration on the level of craft, but in some fundamental way the poem may be born close to whole. I think this has to do with a lifetime of reading, with the internalization of influence we just talked about. The imagination, confronted with a new problem to solve, reaches back toward all it's encountered, seeking the resources it needs. And this often goes on without our knowledge, so that a poem, given grace, might emerge with a greater wholeness.
But it's very difficult to tell when you're done, isn't it?
What to withhold, what to give over, how not to “protect” oneself—all necessary decisions and all seem tied up in something like an act of faith, faith in the poem's needs. Are you comfortable with the term “faith” in that context?
Oh, absolutely. I have very little faith in myself [laughing] and I actually have a great deal of doubt about my work—its value, its success—after the fact. While I am making a poem, I have a great deal of faith in the potential for integrity, the possible completeness of what I'm doing. I feel it needs to be done, and that there is a way in which it can be written that will make it matter, meeting my own needs for investigation but also reflecting the reader's questions or experiences, too. As soon as I have brought the poem to something like completion, my faith begins to evaporate. It's a kind of operational faith. If you can't believe in it while you're doing it, then you're in trouble. After you've completed a draft, then every sort of doubt in the world may be appropriate. All the questions—Who is it for? What is it worth? Are there ways in which it can be larger?—all seem perfectly legitimate to me, and useful. But they have to be, to some degree, banished during the initial act of writing.
Is that the same for prose for you?
Prose allows me a good deal of room to talk about those dates. If my faith is wavering, that will probably become part of the subject.
Through reading your memoirs and poetry, I've developed this image of you as someone who studies life as one might study an art object.
I do, decidedly, see myself as a student, and my work as one of inquiry into the nature of experience. Making art is a discipline of paying attention. That's what poetry and nonfiction have in common for me, that work of attending to what we see, attempting to know it in a more profound way—through saying what we see—than can be done simply by experiencing often feel that I have not lived something fully until I've written it—not that I want to write about everything I live, by any means! But rather those experiences of depth and complexity, those that call out to be written, do so because there is more there to be known, further gradations to be seen, deeper complexities to be found.
I am a little uncomfortable with the idea of studying life as if it were art. Art is always selected, arranged, chosen, whereas experience arrives, as John Ashbery says, “flush with its edges”—that is, connected to countless other experiences, part of the flux and maelstrom. It diminishes experience to think of it as art.
On the other hand, I very much like the idea of looking at art as though it were life—which indeed it is: The vessel of lived experience, the forms into which the makers have poured the texture of their experience, through which they have attempted to render subjectivity. What it was to be Garcia-Lorca or Marianne Moore.
In a poem in Source you write:
that there is something stubborn in us —does it matter how small it is?— that does not diminish. What is it? An ear, a wave? Not our histories or who we love or certainly our faces, which dissolve even as we're living. Not a bud or a cinder, not a seed or a spark: something else:
obdurate, specific, insoluble. Something in us does not erode.
Persistent questions, ontological searching, a longing for definition—these themes run throughout Source. A worldview?
Of course. And that is the spine of a life of making poetry, that there is a certain degree to which we can rely upon reporting of one's experience, the expression of feeling, following what living gives us. And then it becomes necessary, as one continues to practice, it becomes necessary to articulate—for some people it's a mythology, for others a kind of philosophical platform. It's a staking of claims on ultimate matters. One doesn't finish that. Whatever claim I might make in Source will be subject to further argument and revision. The book begins with a poem that insists on the question, “So?” and ends with the title poem, in which that question is literally embedded in the word “source.” Those terms—“so?” and “source”—are intended to delineate a paradox; I suppose it's in paradox that my faith abides. The statement you quote, “Something in us does not erode,” feels like a contradiction to what the title poem claims, that everything emerges from nothing, that everything returns to nothing. And that contradiction is energizing.