Mark Doty: A Poet of Loss, Acceptance, Transcendence – and a Bit of Humor

by Alice Kociemba

Was it yesterday—no, wait—five years ago?  I am still entranced remembering Mark Doty’s reading from Still Life with Oysters and Lemon at the Festival in May 2011.  Part memoir, part essay, the book (published by Beacon Hill Press in 2001) takes its title from a Dutch painting Mark fell in love with, but also explores his (and our) attachments to the ordinary things of this world. The Peabody Essex Museum allowed Mark to show a slide of one of its Dutch paintings on exhibit, so similar to the one described from his book, and that mirroring of visual and auditory arts was so exact, it mesmerized.

As Mark demonstrated at that reading, his prose is as riveting as his poetry, full of gentle humor, curious asides, and quirky perceptions. Still Life with Oysters and Lemon also illustrates one of Mark’s most persistent questions, found in so much of what he writes: How do our narratives (visual and verbal) hold the tension of opposites?

Lemons: all freedom, all ego, all vanity, fragrant with scent we can’t help but imagine when we look at them, the little pucker in the mouth.  And redolent, too, of strut and style.  Yet somehow they remain intimate, every single one of them: only lemons, only that lovely perishable ordinary thing, held to scrutiny’s light, fixed in a moment of fierce attention.  As if here our desire to be unique, unmistakable, and our desire to be of a piece were reconciled.  Isn’t that it, to be yourself and somehow to belong?  For a moment, held in balance.

Mark has explored that tension, always, with clarity, insight, and sensual details. Years ago, after reading “The Ware Collection of Glass Flowers and Fruit, Harvard Museum” (from My Alexandria, Univ. of Illinois Press, 1993), I had to drive up to Cambridge from Cape Cod just to experience the eerie and exquisite glass-blown perfection that Mark had described.  The poem ends:

He built a perfection out of hunger,
fused layer upon layer, swirled until

what can’t be tasted, won’t yield,

almost satisfies, an art
mouthed to the shape of how soft things are,
how good, before they disappear.

It’s been that way from the beginning for me. The first Mark Doty poem I fell in love with is “Chanteuse,” the title poem from My Alexandria (which won the prestigious T.S. Eliot Prize, the first time this honor was given to an American).  “Chanteuse” is classic Doty: a long narrative poem, with a controlling phrase—“name the colors”—that holds together all the lush images.

Name the colors: light turning to rose,
a suspended glow, late afternoons,
in the air above the avenues,

as if the houses themselves were remembering,
their brick-tinted memory a warm haze
about the taxis and the homebound cars.

Almost the color of the glow, evenings,
at the end of April, when one lamppost
positioned exactly right, on Marlboro Street,

would shine through the unfurled petals
of a blossoming magnolia, marbling
a corner mailbox, an iron gate,

a tract of sidewalk—light stained by the skin
of flowers, the shadows of bloom.  I loved
that city, the two of us traversing

that light.

This poem is a love song to Boston, and to the beginning of his relationship with his late partner, Wally Roberts. It is panoramic in scope, ranging from Prendergast to Cavafy to a torch singer in a bar, ultimately to the hypnotic power of love itself.  My Alexandria also showed, as noted in a Los Angeles Times Book Review by Ray Gonzalez, how Mark  “has the courage to extract beauty out of the living moments created by death.” Take this beautiful passage from his poem “Brilliance”:

            He says,

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,

though what he means is
he’ll never be satisfied and therefore
has established this discipline,

a kind of severe rehearsal.
That’s where they leave it,
him looking out the window,

her knitting as she does because
she needs to do something.
Later he leaves a message:

Yes to the bowl of goldfish.
Meaning: let me go, if I have to,
in brilliance.

This quest for understanding the nature of things, and the acceptance of loss (including Wally’s untimely death from AIDS), ties much of Mark’s early work to his recently released Deep Lane (W.W. Norton, 2015).  Again I had to drive to Cambridge’s Porter Square Books last April to hear Mark read from it. This new collection of poems shows us an evolving Mark, who is more open, more vulnerable, even more authentic.  The other poet (also associated with Provincetown) that Mark’s new work reminds me of is Stanley Kunitz, whose later work  I admired for its sparse and re-vitalized images.

Deep Lane is a deeply psychological, spiritual, and true collection of poems. This is a Mark that has let himself strip down his diction and zen down his details.  But it is still a Mark with the same “fierce attention” (to quote from Still Life with Oysters and Lemon) and need to understand desire, loss, and transcendence.  All of which is the inevitable consequence of attachments—to objects and to people.  Deep Lane was short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize, and it, too, continues Mark’s commitment to “extract beauty out of the living moments created by death.”

One poem from Deep Lane, “This Your Home Now,” not only illustrates that commitment, but also exemplifies one of the most appealing aspects in all of Mark’s writing: his gentle, self-deprecating humor that reconciles trauma with grace. The poem is set in the context of the sudden closing of Mark’s barbershop in New York City.

…They’d lost their lease;
I didn’t know how at a loss I’d feel—

this haze around what I’d like to think
the sculptural presence of my skull
requires neither art nor science,

but two haircuts on Seventh, one in Dublin,
nothing right.

He struggles to find a new barbershop and eventually stumbles upon “Willie’s.” (As an aside, he references his friend, Marie Howe—and to hear Mark read with Marie on Saturday night at this year’s Festival, how great is that!)

        Then (I hear my friend Marie
laughing over my shoulder, saying In your poems

there’s always a then, and I think, Is it a poem
without a then?
) dull early winter, back on 18th,
unspiraling red in a cylinder of glass, and just below the line

of sidewalk, a new sign, WILLIE’S BARBERSHIP.
Dark hallway, glass, door, and there’s (presumably)

After settling into Willie’s “good chair,” Mark begins a reverie on loss that leads to, yes, acceptance and transcendence, with just a touch of humor:

After everything comes tumbling down or you tear it
and stumble in the shadow-valley trenches of the moon,
there’s still a decent chance at—a barbershop,

salsa on the radio, the instruments of renewal wielded,
effortlessly, and, who’d have thought, for you.
Willie if he is Willie fusses much longer over my head

than my head merits, which allows me to be grateful
without qualification. Could I be a little satisfied?
There’s a man who loves me. Our dogs. Fifteen,

twenty more good years, if I’m a bit careful.
There’s what I haven’t written. It’s sunny out,
though cold. After I tip Willie

I’m going down to Jane Street, to a coffee shop I like,
and then I’m going to write this poem.  Then

This year, I have to drive up to hear Mark read again at the Festival. I will be reminded of why I love him, his work. I will think of all the things he has yet to write, I have yet to read. Then

~Cited in biography,

Alice Kociemba is the Guest Editor of Common Thread (2015 & 2016). She is the director of Calliope, a poetry reading series, with winter craft workshops, at the West Falmouth Library, now completing its ninth season. For the past six years, she has facilitated a poetry discussion group at the Falmouth Public Library. Alice's first poetry collection, Bourne Bridge, was released in March 2016 by Turning Point.