Mark Doty


by Barry V. Qualls

I heard Mark Doty’s language for the first time in 1996 when poet Alicia Ostriker introduced him to a Rutgers audience. She read a poem called “Couture” from his just published volume, Atlantis:

    Maybe the costume’s
        the whole show,
            all of revelation

    we’ll be offered.
        So? Show me what’s not
            a world of appearances.

I know, with certainty, that the evening I first heard Doty read was one of the moments, one of the gifts, I most treasure from my three decades at Rutgers. I heard music and discovered images that recalled the work of John Keats—but, unlike Keats, Doty’s nightingale is alive in the age of AIDS and wars and desolation, and the possibilities of love.

Doty came to public attention with Turtle, Swan; Bethlehem in Broad Daylight; and My Alexandria, which received the T. S. Eliot Prize. He has won numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and, with eight volumes of poetry, including Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems, which appeared last spring, his is one of the most recognizable voices in American poetry.

But his voice has become equally strong, equally necessary, in prose: Heaven’s Coast, the memoir of the death of his lover Wally from AIDS; Firebird, his autobiography of a boy growing up in a peripatetic family and finding his life, and his art, in Judy Garland and Petula Clark; Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, a wondrous exploration of a seventeeth century Dutch painting that is also a meditation on stilled lives and still lifes; and, most recently, the glorious Dog Years, a memoir on the deaths of the two retrievers, Arden and Beau, to whom his earlier poems and first memoir had already given vigorous life.

If you want to know about Doty, you listen—as we will this evening. But you will come close to him, too, by noting the authors of epigraphs of his volumes: Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Walt Whitman, William Blake, and Emily Dickinson. All of this is to suggest the richness of allusion in Doty’s language, the need to work with the language of others, to connect to their worlds.

Doty needs sunflowers and chiffon; needs Judy Garland and Petula Clark, Keats and Dickinson, to reconstitute worlds—for life, as it were. And the creation of art is at the center of this need: “I believe that art saved my life,” Doty reveals in Firebird. “The gift of faith in the life of art, or, more precisely, a sense that there was a life which was not mine, but to which I was welcome to join myself. A life which was larger than any single person’s, and thus not one to be claimed, but to apprentice oneself to.”

But let’s allow Beau, the golden retriever, to have the last words about Doty. From Sweet Machine’s “Golden Retrievals”:

    Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention
    seconds at a time. Catch? I don’t think so.
    Bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who’s—oh
    joy—actually scared. Sniff the wind, then

    I’m off again: muck, pond, ditch, residue
    of any thrillingly dead thing. And you?
    Either you’re sunk in the past, half our walk,
    thinking of what you never can bring back,

    or else you’re off in some fog concerning
    —tomorrow, is that what you call it? My work:
    to unsnare time’s warp (and woof!), retrieving,
    my haze-headed friend, you. This shining bark,

    a Zen master’s bronzy gong, calls you here,
    entirely, now: bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow.

Maybe Beau’s work—to unsnare time’s warp (and woof!)—is a poet’s work too.