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Mark Doty

HarperPerennial, $22 (cloth), $12 (paper)

by James Longenbach

Mark Doty's third book, My Alexandria (1993), has become one of the most honored poetic performances of the decade. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award in this country and the T. S. Eliot Prize in England. A hard act to follow -- but Doty's fourth book, Atlantis, is even better. My Alexandria now seems a lot like Doty's earlier work, because Atlantis is a whole new world.

In his first three books, Doty maintained a troubled attitude toward metaphor and figurative language. This is a venerable dilemma: Many poets -- especially American poets -- have worried that language can get in the way of our experience of the world ("No ideas but in things," said Williams). Rather than making poetry of this conflict, Doty's poems occasionally appeared conflicted themselves. Some of My Alexandria celebrates the artifice of the drag routine and equates the "false" with the "splendid" or asserts that the world is "recognizable only as the stuff/of metaphor." A reader of these lines might well expect poems that revel in artifice. But the poems more often appear studiously plain, especially their openings: "A bookstore in a seaside town,/the beginning of February, off season." This blocky sequence of nouns avoids both strong metaphor and verbal thrust; it locks us into a present-tense scene. The poems consequently take a long time to enter their own conceits and tend to conclude rhapsodically, trumpeting significance, as if the poet does not trust their figurative language. These lines from "Lament-Heaven," characterizing the garrulous talk of convicts, also describe the poems: "monologues that keep them/real: I am here,/doing this."

In the harrowing world of Atlantis, Doty learns to live, as Robert Frost said we must, in metaphor -- those spaces between sea and shore, body and soul, life and death. In the first poem, "Description," Doty acknowledges the sea-change he has undergone.
But I'm not so sure it's true,
what I was taught, that through
the particular's the way

to the universal:
what I need to tell is
swell and curve, shift

and blur of boundary,
tremble and spilling over,
a heady purity distilled

from detail. A metaphor, then . . .
The poem's first word is "my": "My salt marsh/-- mine, I call it." But it is telling that Atlantis is not (echoing My Alexandria) titled My Atlantis. Doty is now more willing to stand back: The world is his only because he names it, lives in it not despite but through the shimmer of metaphor. He no longer wants to lock the world in language ("I am here/doing this") but to let it wander, as he feels himself to be wandering: "-- mine, I call it, because/these day-hammered fields/of dazzled horizontals/undulate, summers,/inside me and out." The poems consequently seem more vivid and immediate than ever before.

This act of self-examination is spiritual as well as aesthetic. Much of My Alexandria looks back at a lost world through the veil of AIDS, but every poem in Atlantis is focused by and through the death of Wally Roberts, to whose memory Doty dedicated the book. "The body dead is, in a way, our world's great secret," says Doty in a recent essay. "The body is not me. I am my body, but I extend beyond it; just as my attention laps out, as my identity can pour out into the day." In Atlantis, Doty's attention to sheer corporeal existence is sometimes overwhelming. The final lines of the book's title sequence describe the dying Wally Roberts as he rests his hand on a golden retriever's flank.
It isn't about grasping;
the hand itself seems
almost blurred now,
softened, though
tentative only

because so much will
must be summoned,
such attention brought
to the work -- which is all
he is now, this gesture
toward the restless splendor,
the unruly, the golden,
the animal, the new.
Because these lines are so affecting, it would seem impertinent to say they also describe Doty's approach to poetry: "It isn't about grasping." He has harnessed his knowledge of the liminal body -- the body hovering on the coast that separates life from death -- in poems that register his overwhelming sense of mortality even when he barely speaks of it. In "A Green Crab's Shell" (not the most ambitious poem in the book, but along with "A Display of Mackerel," one of the most astonishing) Doty spins a web of metaphor around a crab's shell, beginning, as Elizabeth Bishop might, with a series of equivocal attempts to pinpoint the shell's significance.
Not, exactly, green:
closer to bronze
preserved in kind brine,

something retrieved
from a Greco-Roman wreck,
patinated and oddly

muscular. We cannot
know what his fantastic
legs were like.
Bishop's influence is discernible throughout Atlantis, both in mannerism ("this chamber/-- size of a demitasse --") and in the way the poems hover between the desire for precise observation and the knowledge that precision is only achieved through the slippery turns of metaphor. "We cannot know," says Doty, ". . . though evidence suggests." What this crab's shell ultimately suggests is much too large to fit inside a "demitasse" or even a "traveling case": The interior of the shell reveals itself to be "a shocking, Giotto blue."
What color is
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die,
if we could be opened
into this --
if the smallest chambers

of ourselves,
revealed some sky.
This modest, equivocal poem is about the threshold of the corporeal body -- more profoundly so than "Atlantis." The body's ineffable connection to a world beyond its physical boundaries -- the self, or spirit, or soul -- is materialized in these lines as a part of the body we cannot see. Through metaphor, Doty allows us to imagine what it might look like if we could see it: "Imagine breathing/surrounded by/the brilliant rinse/of summer's firmament."

Whether in the city or on the shore, Doty remains preoccupied by what he calls "coastal colors." For him, the world is an endlessly receding horizon, an ongoing dialogue between matter and spirit. "Here, at the edge of immensity," begins "Two Ruined Boats," "they seem the axis of the harbor." Poem after poem is situated at the juncture of sea and shore, but Doty is not merely locating us there. The landscape is always double, and we are both there and somewhere else, standing on the beach and gazing into an elemental flux that eventually includes us. Some poems, like "Two Ruined Boats," establish this doubleness immediately; others, like "Wreck," do it more discreetly. Only the last lines of "Wreck" acknowledge that the ruined boat is a metaphor for the body on the cusp of oblivion. The boat decays but does not disappear, and, though he knows better, Doty would like to insist that the boat "won't" give in:
something must hold,
some chambered wreck

must fill and empty daily,
seawater pouring like the future
-- I need this evidence --

into the hulk which admits
and releases and keeps
its grip on the shore.
The poignancy of these lines lies in that, as much as he needs to think otherwise, Doty knows that the boat will eventually lose its grip, that flux is not identical with eternity. In "Two Ruined Boats" the wrecks are cleared away ("some misguided civic gesture"), and though Doty says that "Description is itself a kind of travel," he also says that description is "a mode of travel,/but not a means of repair."

Frost said that part of learning to live in metaphor is learning how to know when metaphor breaks down -- to remember that figurative language may reveal the world but does not allow us to control it. As hard as Doty works to name the world, it remains (as he says in "Two Ruined Boats") "inhospitable": The world is never completely his own. Atlantis is the work of a poet who has questioned everything he once believed, and who, in rediscovering the world, has recognized that he must let it go. The book earns its title.

Originally published in the April/ May 1996 issue of Boston Review

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