The description on the back of Mark Doty’s third book of poetry says it is “a book about mortality, about the mortal weight of AIDS in particular” and “the struggle to make meaning in the face of an epidemic.” While such a description is indisputably accurate, it is by no means complete. A reviewer who was asked to say whether she agreed with this description by simply checking “always,” “sometimes,” “occasion-ally,” or “never” might feel as if she had been given a multiple-choice question for which all the answers were incomplete or unsatisfactory-unless the options included “all of the above.” Thankfully, there is no multiple-choice test on this book. Readers and reviewers alike are free to ask questions that begin where the blurb and the preface leave off. So what do “mortality” and “miraculous” have in common with each other besides the fact that they start with the letter “M”? And how can one read every book in the largest library of the cultural center of the ancient world when they, and it, no longer exist? Mark Doty’s My Alexandria, nominated for the 1993 American Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for poetry, is a thick braid of brilliant answers to these impossible questions.
It is important to begin by noting that the book is not titled merely Alexandria; rather, it is My Alexandria. According to The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites, Alexandria was “The first known city in the world to bear the name of the founder rather than a god or a mythological hero.” In Alexander the Great’s tradition of conquest and bravado and confidence in his own vision, Doty creates, out of his own vision of life, not a physical city or a library, but poems which holographically give shape to what cannot be held, what disappears or seems insubstantial about those environments or objects, but which is actually the very “stuff” that makes them great-the transport of human feeling and consciousness, alternately taking us out of ourselves and then slamming us back in, leaving us with the mystery of what Doty in the final poem, “Lament-Heaven,” names “the twin poles of yes and no.”
This mystery is introduced in “Chanteuse,” the last poem in the first section, from which the title of the book is derived. Doty compares the voice of a black drag queen singing under a blue spotlight to an unseasonably warm Christmas day in Boston when he and his partner opened their windows to have a warm wind blow “every paper flake of snow from the tree”: “We were awash in/ a studio-sized blizzard … and anything that divided us then was bridged/ by the sudden graceful shock/ of being inside the warmest storm.” Yet this is only the beginning of the intersections, since the singer’s
voice is the vehicle of her lyric (reminiscent in an innovative way of Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West”). This combination creates the “she” which becomes simultaneous with his own memory of the moment, and the poet’s statement can be read as a kind of metaphoric index for how to travel through the terrain of the poems that follow so as to make the journey one’s own.
The book is divided into three sections, which simultaneously describe a movement away from and toward something, even as they circle back and recall what has been set up earlier. The first section features various cities as a backdrop, their particular landmarks or street names or bars or train stations used in such a way that the physical city itself never becomes the point. What is most important about their rendering is that in them we move in an environment of darkness lit beautifully but artificially, arid that we seek with a painful, heartbreaking intensity to make visceral contact with one another or to escape into the illusion offered by such an environment as a matter of solace, since the freedom of pure human connectedness is always broken, paradoxically, by the circumstance of living. The poems embrace this inevitable heartbreak in a generous, compassionate perspective of forgiveness, of being at home with our need to connect, despite its profound difficulties.
In the last two sections, the poems become more acutely and immediately personal, more riveting, as details associated with AIDS float and then settle into the world of more and more of the poems. Yet interestingly enough, the backdrop for these is pastoral daylight: the poet’s own garden, an auction tent...
(The entire section is 1852 words.)