Tim Dean: "Strange Paradise: An Essay on Mark Doty"

It was Mark Doty’s third volume of poems, My Alexandria (1993), that gained him widespread acclaim and critical recognition. His first two volumes, Turtle, Swan (1987) and Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (1991), have recently been brought back into print by University of Illinois Press in a single volume. This earlier work allows us to see Doty establishing his characteristic themes—beauty, mutability, aesthetic invention—and exploring his admiration for other poets and artists, such as turn-of-the-century Alexandrian homosexual poet C. P. Cavafy, to whom one of the central poems of Turtle, Swan is addressed and whose influence pervades My Alexandria.

Doty is a gay poet and a poet of the AIDS epidemic. Almost all of the poems in My Alexandria were composed in the wake of learning that his lover, Wally Roberts (1951-1994), was HIV-positive. The story of Doty’s life with Roberts is told in prose in the memoir Heaven’s Coast (1996), a powerful philosophical meditation on living in the time of plague. Doty’s originality lies in his making AIDS part of his poetic perspective, rather than treating it simply as an object of contemplation or analysis. Reflecting upon his increased absorption in the epidemic, Doty explains that "AIDS is no longer something I write about, but is part of the way I see or speak."

As a result of this alteration in perspective, poems that apparently have nothing to do with AIDS or gay sexuality become infused with a vision that is shaped by the pressure of this form of accelerated mortality. In the title poem of Atlantis (1995), Doty’s fourth volume, the speaker refers to AIDS as

not even a real word but an acronym, a vacant four-letter cipher

that draws meanings into itself, reconstitutes the world.

This reconstituting of the world—not just by the virus but also by the poetic imagination—represents one of Doty’s principal subjects. The world needs reconstituting because it is ceaselessly falling apart, whether as a consequence of AIDS or of other forces. Doty remains fascinated by the intensification of life exhibited by people and objects in decline or decay. "My art," the speaker of "Two Ruined Boats" declares, "could only articulate the sheen, / or chronicle the fashion in which // the world gains luster as it falls apart" (Atlantis 89). Or, as a terse line from "Murano" puts it: "Broken, the better to glitter" (Sweet Machine 55). Doty is a poet of the unmaking and remaking of the world, and of its shifting luminosity throughout decomposition and recreation.

Much of his poetry "chronicles" changes in the landscape, whether urban or natural. He is a great poet of description, having learned from Elizabeth Bishop how to look at objects closely yet obliquely, seeing more in them than is ostensibly there. Many of his poems describe broken, abandoned, or ruined things. For example, the opening poem of My Alexandria, "Demolition," considers the destruction of an old New England rooming house. By the end of the book we understand that the demolition or crumbling of buildings and cities is connected to AIDS; we realize too that Doty, exercising a supremely American impulse to "make it new," has reinvented the millennia-old poetic topoi of death and mutability in response to contemporary conditions of mortality. And since AIDS permeates his poetic perspective, he works within the form of elegy, loosely construed.

Doty’s poetic speakers find beauty everywhere, even or especially in ruin. Looking at the world, Doty’s vision transforms almost everything into objets d’art. More than simply elegiac, his characteristic poetic mode is ekphrastic; his writing is about translating the art of visual appearance into words. Often Doty’s speakers become enraptured by what they gaze upon; his attentiveness to the life around him is so acute that sometimes his poems depict the speaker’s blending with the objects of his regard. His poetic self is highly porous, apt to become infused by what it encounters. Thus although Doty is a gay poet, he’s not a poet of identity, not a believer in the securely bounded self. For example, in "A Display of Mackerel," a poem of ecstatic description, he invites the reader to consider becoming as impersonally beautiful as the fish:

Suppose we could iridesce,

like these, and lose ourselves entirely in the universe of shimmer—would you want

to be yourself only, unduplicatable, doomed to be lost?

The poem ends by pointing to the incompatibility between beauty and identity, imagining the fishes’ contentment, even though they’re dead:

            . . . How happy they seem, even on ice, to be together, selfless, which is the price of gleaming.  (Atlantis 15)

Paradoxically Doty’s poems view the world from a gay perspective, yet they release that perspective from the constraints of identity and thus from any single point of view.

This combination of specificity and the expansion of perspective helps account, I think, for his poetry’s accessibility. Recognized by the many awards it has won, his work is popular among undergraduates and other non-experts, as well as being admired by his peers. Although Doty’s poems are fairly long by contemporary standards, they remain unintimidating. "Homo Will Not Inherit," the poem by which Doty is represented in Anthology of Modern American Poetry, is exactly 100 lines long—the length that Edgar Allan Poe recommended for a poem to achieve its optimal effect.

When Mark Doty visited my undergraduate class at University of Illinois on February 16, 1999, he reminded us that "the poem itself is the most articulate statement of what it is about." The reader may wish to bear that in mind as he or she considers the discussion of two poems that follows.

 

Copyright  © 2000 by Tim Dean

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Title Tim Dean: "Strange Paradise: An Essay on Mark Doty" Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Tim Dean Criticism Target Mark Doty
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 15 Apr 2016
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication Strange Paradise: An Essay on Mark Doty
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