- The poetry of Mark Doty
Glaze and glimmer,
lustre and gleam,
can’t he think of anything
but all that sheen?
So opens the first of two uncharacteristically flippant-seeming poems titled ‘Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work’ in Mark Doty’s 1998 collection Sweet Machine. Doty, drolly replying “No such thing, / the queen said, / as too many sequins,” is able to roll with the critical punch he’s received, aware of what for some are his limitations; and yet he went on to publish a sixth collection, Source, every bit as epiphanic as those preceding it. Mark is a gay man whose poems often seek to reconcile the camp aesthetic with spiritual yearning, when the former might seem to be at odds with this. It is here that, though the poet will rightly hope the reader can acknowledge the specifics of the homosexual’s experience, a broader audience can also relate. Many of us encounter like some kind of demon this temptation to give in to an absurdist, camp or blackly comic outlook; some of us successfully resolve this drama.
How do we do this? How do we with age, despite becoming knowing, still manage to have experiences we might call pure?
It is the poetic instinct that gives us this victory over the baser parts of ourselves. I can’t go on; I’ll go on – this is work, a kind of work magnified in the poet’s output. Doty has seen many friends die of HIV-related illness, including his long-term partner Wally, about whom he wrote an acclaimed memoir, Heaven’s Coast. Without his poetry, mightn’t Doty, like many of all proclivities and ideologies, faced with so much mortality, have succumbed to a nihilism that expressed itself in dangerous ways? Instead, his recent collections, and his second memoir Firebird, which deals with his analogous experience as a homosexual and as an arts-inclined person emerging from his brutal childhood home-life, have been self-administered acts of grace we all might be inspired by.
I discovered Mark Doty’s books in 2000 when I was beginning to feel jaded and mistrustful of my own pursuit of a life of depth. There are tens of poems amongst his total output which act as lanterns. Most are arranged in tercets, which despite fashion and ideology highlights the order the content has constructed from often grave occurences. That these poems, formal though free and colloquial, should appear now heightens their poignancy and value. In my favorite, ‘Visitation’, again from Sweet Machine, the poet describes a whale which seems at first beached. Though concretely something he’d seen, this whale serves as a symbol of us all in our times of grief; but this whale, far from having been “led to disaster” on the shore, instead is basking, proudly. The whale
would negotiate the rusty hulls
of the Portuguese fishing boats
- Holy Infant, Little Marie –
with what could only be read
as pleasure, coming close
then diving, trailing on the surface
big spreading circles
until he’d breach, thrilling us
with the release of pressured breath ...
and the way his broad flippers
resembled a pair of clownish gloves
or puppet hands....
Perhaps this whale’s camp flirtation is the best realisation of Doty’s aesthetic. If camp was commandered by gay men, it’s because they comprise a group in whose interests it is to mock normative, straight values. The camp gesture critiques straight culture. As a straight man feeling oppressed by others’ expectations of what it is to be male, I very much relate to this; but, as for Mark, the camp impulse is not enough. Mark Doty seems to feel that camp is an embryonic impulse better realised in his work. He’s saying to his peers, “Isn’t this what you’ve meant all along?”
And he knows when to be solemn. In the poem ‘Days of 1981’, from the woefully out of print My Alexandria, Mark describes a gay club prior to when AIDS first began to hit the news. There is an underlying tragedy in the poet’s portrait of his first sexual experiences.
I don’t remember who bought who drinks
or why I liked him; I think it was simply
that I could. The heady rush of quickly
leaving together ...
it was so easy,
and strangely exhilarating, and free....
We can feel for him as his assertion of his true self is being carried out beneath the approaching shadow of a mortality fascinated by the wish for pleasure. And of course his homosexuality is (almost) incidental: gay liberation as an extension of the sexual revolution of the 60s coincided with the all-halting double-em-dash of disease.
Doty’s acquaintance with mortality, rather than cowing him, leads him to celebrate beauty where he finds it; also not to cling so much to it when it is found – an attitude expressed in his take on camp – or practice a puritan denial of ‘superficial’ pleasures. There is often a love of flamboyance in these poems, in clothes and characters. Though the flamboyance may largely be one of levity in the gay community, again Doty wishes to nurture it and credit it as an expression of a deeper impulse. When we inhale a perfume, enjoy another’s preening, or gaze at a jacket in a shop window, and catch sight of our furrowed brow in the same glass, we can do worse than acknowledge this writer’s aesthetic.
(Originally published in Poetry Express, Spring ’03)