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by Mark Doty |

At the Gym

 This salt-stain spot
marks the place where men
lay down their heads,
back to the bench,

and hoist nothing
that need be lifted
but some burden they've chosen
this time: more reps,

more weight, the upward shove
of it leaving, collectively,
this sign of where we've been:
shroud-stain, negative

flashed onto the vinyl
where we push something
unyielding skyward,
gaining some power

at least over flesh,
which goads with desire,
and terrifies with frailty.
Who could say who's

added his heat to the nimbus
of our intent, here where
we make ourselves:
something difficult

lifted, pressed or curled,
Power over beauty,
power over power!
Though there's something more

tender, beneath our vanity,
our will to become objects
of desire: we sweat the mark
of our presence onto the cloth.

Here is some halo
the living made together.

by Mark Doty |

1. Faith

 "I've been having these
awful dreams, each a little different,
though the core's the same-

we're walking in a field,
Wally and Arden and I, a stretch of grass
with a highway running beside it,

or a path in the woods that opens
onto a road. Everything's fine,
then the dog sprints ahead of us,

exicted; we're calling but
he's racing down a scent and doesn't hear us,
and that's when he goes

onto the highway. I don't want to describe it.
Sometimes it's brutal and over,
and others he's struck and takes off

so we don't know where he is
or how bad. This wakes me 
every night, and I stay awake;

I'm afraid if I sleep I'll go back
into the dream. It's been six months,
almost exactly, since the doctor wrote

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

that draws meanings into itself,
reconstitutes the world.
We tried to say it was just

a word; we tried to admit
it had power and thus to nullify it
by means of our acknowledgement.

I know the current wisdom:
bright hope, the power of wishing you're well.
He's just so tired, though nothing

shows in any tests, Nothing,
the doctor says, detectable:
the doctor doesn't hear what I de,

that trickling, steadily rising nothing
that makes him sleep all say,
vanish into fever's tranced afternoons,

and I swear sometimes
when I put my head to his chest
I can hear the virus humming

like a refrigerator.
Which is what makes me think
you can take your positive attitude

and go straight to hell.
We don't have a future,
we have a dog.
Who is he?

Soul without speech,
sheer, tireless faith,
he is that -which-goes-forward,

black muzzle, black paws
scouting what's ahead;
he is where we'll be hit first,

he's the part of us
that's going to get it.
I'm hardly awake on our mourning walk

-always just me and Arden now-
and sometimes I am still
in the thrall if the dream,

which is why, when he took a step onto Commercial
before I'd looked both ways,
I screamed his mane and grabbed his collar.

And there I was on my knees,
both arms around his nieck
and nothing coming,

and when I looken into that bewildered face
I realized I didn't know what it was
I was shouting at,

I didn't know who I was trying to protect."

by Mark Doty |


at century's end,
compounded metallic lusters

in reference
to natural sheens (dragonfly
and beetle wings,

marbled light on kerosene)
and invented names
as coolly lustrous

as their products'
scarab-gleam: Quetzal,
Aurene, Favrile.

respectively, the glaze
of feathers,

that sun-shot fog
of which halos
are composed,

and -- what?
What to make of Favrile,
Tiffany's term

for his coppery-rose
flushed with gold
like the alchemized

atmosphere of sunbeams
in a Flemish room?
Faux Moorish,

fake Japanese,
his lamps illumine
chiefly themselves,

copying waterlilies'
bronzy stems,
wisteria or trout scales;

surfaces burnished
like a tidal stream
on which an excitation

of minnows boils
and blooms, artifice
made to show us

the lavish wardrobe
of things, the world's
glaze of appearances

worked into the thin
and gleaming stuff
of craft. A story:

at the puppet opera
--where one man animated
the entire cast

while another ghosted
the voices, basso
to coloratura -- Jimmy wept

at the world of tiny gestures,
forgot, he said,
these were puppets,

forgot these wire
and plaster fabrications
were actors at all,

since their pretense
allowed the passions
released to be--

well, operatic.
It's too much,
to be expected to believe;

art's a mercuried sheen
in which we may discern,
because it is surface,

clear or vague
suggestions of our depths,
Don't we need a word

for the luster
of things which insist
on the fact they're made,

which announce
their maker's bravura?
Favrile, I'd propose,

for the perfect lamp,
too dim and strange
to help us read.

For the kimono woven,
dipped in dyes, unraveled
and loomed again

that the pattern might take on
a subtler shading
For the sonnet's

blown-glass sateen,
for bel canto,
for Faberge

For everything
which begins in limit
(where else might our work

begin?) and ends in grace,
or at least extravagance.
For the silk sleeves

of the puppet queen,
held at a ravishing angle
over her puppet lover slain,

for her lush vowels
mouthed by the plain man
hunched behind the stage.

by Mark Doty |

Metro North

 Over the terminal,
 the arms and chest
 of the god

brightened by snow.
 Formerly mercury,
 formerly silver,

surface yellowed
 by atmospheric sulphurs
 acid exhalations,

and now the shining
 thing's descendant.
 Obscure passages,

dim apertures:
 these clouded windows
 show a few faces

or some empty car's
 filmstrip of lit flames
 --remember them

from school,
 how they were supposed
 to teach us something?--

waxy light hurrying
 inches away from the phantom
 smudge of us, vague

in spattered glass. Then
 daylight's soft charcoal
 lusters stone walls

and we ascend to what
 passes for brightness,
 this February,

scumbled sky
 above graduated zones
 of decline:

dead rowhouses,
 charred windows'
 wet frames

around empty space,
 a few chipboard polemics
 nailed over the gaps,

speeches too long
 and obsessive for anyone
 on this train to read,

sealing the hollowed interiors
 --some of them grand once,
 you can tell by

the fillips of decoration,
 stone leaves, the frieze
 of sunflowers.

Desolate fields--open spaces,
 in a city where you
 can hardly turn around!--

seem to center
 on little flames,
 something always burning

in a barrel or can
 As if to represent

dogged persistence?
 Though whether what burns
 is will or rage or

harsh amalgam
 I couldn't say.
 But I can tell you this,

what I've seen that
 won my allegiance most,
 though it was also

the hallmark of our ruin,
 and quick as anything
 seen in transit:

where Manhattan ends
 in the narrowing
 geographical equivalent

of a sigh (asphalt,
 arc of trestle, dull-witted
 industrial tanks

and scaffoldings, ancient now,
 visited by no one)
 on the concrete

embankment just
 above the river,
 a sudden density

and concentration
 of trash, so much
 I couldn't pick out

any one thing
 from our rising track
 as it arced onto the bridge

over the fantastic
 accumulation of jetsam
 and contraband

strewn under
 the uncompromising
 vault of heaven.

An unbelievable mess,
 so heaped and scattered
 it seemed the core

of chaos itself--
 but no, the junk was arranged
 in rough aisles,

someone's intimate
 clutter and collection,
 no walls but still

a kind of apartment
 and a fire ribboned out
 of a ruined stove,

and white plates
 were laid out
 on the table beside it.

White china! Something
 was moving, and
 --you understand

it takes longer to tell this
 than to see it, only
 a train window's worth

of actuality--
 I knew what moved
 was an arm,

the arm of the (man
 or woman?) in the center
 of that hapless welter

in layer upon layer
 of coats blankets scarves
 until the form

constituted one more
 gray unreadable;

was lifting a hammer,
 and bringing it down
 again, tapping at

what work
 I couldn't say;
 whoever, under

the great exhausted dome
 of winter light,
 which the steep

and steel surfaces of the city
 made both more soft
 and more severe,

was making something,
 or repairing,
 was in the act

(sheer stubborn nerve of it)
 of putting together.
 Who knows what.

(And there was more,
 more I'd take all spring
 to see. I'd pick my seat

and set my paper down
 to study him again
 --he, yes, some days not

at home though usually
 in, huddled
 by the smoldering,

and when my eye wandered
 --five-second increments
 of apprehension--I saw

he had a dog!
 Who lay half in
 half out his doghouse

in the rain, golden head
 resting on splayed paws.
 He had a ruined car,

and heaps of clothes,
 and things to read--
 was no emblem,

in other words,
 but a citizen,
 who'd built a citizen's

household, even
 on the literal edge,
 while I watched

from my quick,
 high place, hurtling
 over his encampment

by the waters of Babylon.)
 Then we were gone,
 in the heat and draft

of our silver, rattling
 over the river
 into the South Bronx,

against whose greasy
 skyline rose that neoned
 billboard for cigarettes

which hostages
 my attention, always,
 as it is meant to do,

its motto ruby
 in the dark morning:

by Mark Doty |

Long Point Light

 Long Pont's apparitional
this warm spring morning,
the strand a blur of sandy light,

and the square white
of the lighthouse-separated from us
by the bay's ultramarine

as if it were nowhere
we could ever go-gleams
like a tower's ghost, hazing

into the rinsed blue of March,
our last outpost in the huge
indetermination of sea.

It seems cheerful enough,
in the strengthening sunlight,
fixed point accompanying our walk

along the shore. Sometimes I think
it's the where-we-will be,
only not yet, like some visible outcropping

of the afterlife. In the dark
its deeper invitations emerge:
green witness at night's end,

flickering margin of horizon,
marker of safety and limit.
but limitless, the way it calls us,

and where it seems to want us
to come, And so I invite it 
into the poem, to speak,

and the lighthouse says:
Here is the world you asked for,
gorgeous and opportune,

here is nine o'clock, harbor-wide,
and a glinting code: promise and warning.
The morning's the size of heaven.

What will you do with it?

by Mark Doty |


 When I heard he had entered the harbor,
and circled the wharf for days,
I expected the worst: shallow water,

confusion, some accident to bring
the young humpback to grief. 
Don't they depend on a compass

lodged in the salt-flooded folds
of the brain, some delicate
musical mechanism to navigate

their true course? How many ways, 
in our century's late iron hours,
might we have led him to disaster?

That, in those days, was how
I'd come to see the world:
dark upon dark, any sense

of spirit an embattled flame
sparked against wind-driven rain
till pain snuffed it out. I thought,

 This is what experience gives us ,
and I moved carefully through my life
while I waited. . . Enough,

it wasn't that way at all. The whale
—exuberant, proud maybe, playful,
like the early music of Beethoven—

cruised the footings for smelts
clustered near the pylons
in mercury flocks. He

(do I have the gender right?)
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 bulk of his sleek young head
—a wet black leather sofa

already barnacled with ghostly lice—
and his elegant and unlikely mouth,
and the marvelous afterthought of the flukes,

and the way his broad flippers
resembled a pair of clownish gloves
or puppet hands, looming greenish white

beneath the bay's clouded sheen. 
When he had consumed his pleasure
of the shimmering swarm, his pleasure, perhaps,

in his own admired performance,
he swam out the harbor mouth,
into the Atlantic. And though grief

has seemed to me itself a dim,
salt suspension in which I've moved,
blind thing, day by day,

through the wreckage, barely aware
of what I stumbled toward, even I
couldn't help but look

at the way this immense figure
graces the dark medium,
and shines so: heaviness

which is no burden to itself. 
What did you think, that joy
was some slight thing?

by Mark Doty |

A Green Crabs Shell

 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--

though evidence
suggests eight
complexly folded

scuttling works
of armament, crowned
by the foreclaws'

gesture of menace
and power. A gull's
gobbled the center,

leaving this chamber
--size of a demitasse--
open to reveal

a shocking, Giotto blue.
Though it smells
of seaweed and ruin,

this little traveling case
comes with such lavish lining!
Imagine breathing

surrounded by
the brilliant rinse
of summer's firmament.

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.

by Mark Doty |


 Under Grand Central's tattered vault
--maybe half a dozen electric stars still lit--
one saxophone blew, and a sheer black scrim

billowed over some minor constellation
under repair. Then, on Broadway, red wings
in a storefront tableau, lustrous, the live macaws

preening, beaks opening and closing
like those animated knives that unfold all night
in jewelers' windows. For sale,

glass eyes turned outward toward the rain,
the birds lined up like the endless flowers
and cheap gems, the makeshift tables

of secondhand magazines
and shoes the hawkers eye
while they shelter in the doorways of banks.

So many pockets and paper cups
and hands reeled over the weight
of that glittered pavement, and at 103rd

a woman reached to me across the wet roof
of a stranger's car and said, I'm Carlotta,
I'm hungry. She was only asking for change,

so I don't know why I took her hand.
The rooftops were glowing above us,
enormous, crystalline, a second city

lit from within. That night
a man on the downtown local stood up
and said, My name is Ezekiel,

I am a poet, and my poem this evening is called
fall. He stood up straight
to recite, a child reminded of his posture

by the gravity of his text, his hands
hidden in the pockets of his coat.
Love is protected, he said,

the way leaves are packed in snow,
the rubies of fall. God is protecting
the jewel of love for us.

He didn't ask for anything, but I gave him
all the change left in my pocket,
and the man beside me, impulsive, moved,

gave Ezekiel his watch.
It wasn't an expensive watch,
I don't even know if it worked,

but the poet started, then walked away
as if so much good fortune
must be hurried away from,

before anyone realizes it's a mistake.
Carlotta, her stocking cap glazed
like feathers in the rain,

under the radiant towers, the floodlit ramparts,
must have wondered at my impulse to touch her,
which was like touching myself,

the way your own hand feels when you hold it
because you want to feel contained.
She said, You get home safe now, you hear?

In the same way Ezekiel turned back
to the benevolent stranger.
I will write a poem for you tomorrow,

he said. The poem I will write will go like this:
Our ancestors are replenishing
the jewel of love for us.

by Mark Doty |

The Ancient World

 Today the Masons are auctioning 
their discarded pomp: a trunk of turbans, 
gemmed and ostrich-plumed, and operetta costumes 
labeled inside the collar "Potentate" 
and "Vizier." Here their chairs, blazoned 
with the Masons' sign, huddled 
like convalescents, lean against one another 

on the grass. In a casket are rhinestoned poles 
the hierophants carried in parades; 
here's a splendid golden staff some ranking officer waved, 
topped with a golden pyramid and a tiny, 
inquisitive sphinx. No one's worn this stuff 
for years, and it doesn't seem worth buying; 
where would we put it? Still, 

I want that staff. I used to love 
to go to the library -- the smalltown brick refuge 
of those with nothing to do, really, 
'Carnegie' chiseled on the pediment 
above columns that dwarfed an inconsequential street. 
Embarrassed to carry the same book past 
the water fountain's plaster centaurs 

up to the desk again, I'd take 
The Wonders of the World to the Reading Room 
where Art and Industry met in the mural 
on the dome. The room smelled like two decades 
before I was born, when the name 
carved over the door meant something. 
I never read the second section, 

"Wonders of the Modern World"; 
I loved the promise of my father's blueprints, 
the unfulfilled turquoise schemes, 
but in the real structures 
you could hardly imagine a future. 
I wanted the density of history, 
which I confused with the smell of the book: 

Babylon's ziggurat tropical with ferns, 
engraved watercourses rippling; 
the Colossus of Rhodes balanced 
over the harbormouth on his immense ankles. 
Athena filled one end of the Parthenon, 
in an "artist's reconstruction", 
like an adult in a dollhouse. 

At Halicarnassus, Mausolus remembered himself 
immensely, though in the book 
there wasn't even a sketch, 
only a picture of huge fragments. 
In the pyramid's deep clockworks, 
did the narrow tunnels mount toward 
the eye of God? That was the year 

photos were beamed back from space; 
falling asleep I used to repeat a new word 
to myself, telemetry, liking the way 
it seemed to allude to something storied. 
The earth was whorled marble, 
at that distance. Even the stuck-on porticoes 
and collonades downtown were narrative, 

somehow, but the buildings my father engineered 
were without stories. All I wanted 
was something larger than our ordinary sadness -- 
greater not in scale but in context, 
memorable, true to a proportioned, 
subtle form. Last year I knew a student, 
a half mad boy who finally opened his arms 

with a razor, not because he wanted to die 
but because he wanted to design something grand 
on his own body. Once he said, When a child 
realizes his parents aren't enough,
he turns to architecture. 
I think I know what he meant. 
Imagine the Masons parading, 

one of them, in his splendid get-up, 
striding forward with the golden staff, 
above his head Cheops' beautiful shape -- 
a form we cannot separate 
from the stories about the form, 
even if we hardly know them, 
even if it no longer signifies, if it only shines.

by Mark Doty |


 The intact facade's now almost black 
in the rain; all day they've torn at the back 
of the building, "the oldest concrete structure 
in New England," the newspaper said. By afternoon, 
when the backhoe claw appears above 
three stories of columns and cornices, 

the crowd beneath their massed umbrellas cheer. 
Suddenly the stairs seem to climb down themselves, 
atomized plaster billowing: dust of 1907's 
rooming house, this year's bake shop and florist's, 
the ghosts of their signs faint above the windows 
lined, last week, with loaves and blooms. 

We love disasters that have nothing to do 
with us: the metal scoop seems shy, tentative, 
a Japanese monster tilting its yellow head 
and considering what to topple next. It's a weekday, 
and those of us with the leisure to watch 
are out of work, unemployable or academics, 

joined by a thirst for watching something fall. 
All summer, at loose ends, I've read biographies, 
Wilde and Robert Lowell, and fallen asleep 
over a fallen hero lurching down a Paris boulevard, 
talking his way to dinner or a drink, 
unable to forget the vain and stupid boy 

he allowed to ruin him. And I dreamed 
I was Lowell, in a manic flight of failing 
and ruthless energy, and understood 
how wrong I was with a passionate exactitude 
which had to be like his. A month ago, 
at Saint-Gauden's house, we ran from a startling downpour 

into coincidence: under a loggia built 
for performances on the lawn 
hulked Shaw's monument, splendid 
in its plaster maquette, the ramrod-straight colonel 
high above his black troops. We crouched on wet gravel 
and waited out the squall; the hieratic woman 

-- a wingless angel? -- floating horizontally 
above the soldiers, her robe billowing like plaster dust, 
seemed so far above us, another century's 
allegorical decor, an afterthought 
who'd never descend to the purely physical 
soldiers, the nearly breathing bronze ranks crushed 

into a terrible compression of perspective, 
as if the world hurried them into the ditch. 
"The unreadable," Wilde said, "is what occurs." 
And when the brutish metal rears 
above the wall of unglazed windows --
where, in a week, the kids will skateboard 

in their lovely loops and spray 
their indecipherable ideograms 
across the parking lot -- the single standing wall 
seems Roman, momentarily, an aqueduct, 
all that's left of something difficult 
to understand now, something Oscar 

and Bosie might have posed before, for a photograph. 
Aqueducts and angels, here on Main, 
seem merely souvenirs; the gaps 
where the windows opened once 
into transients' rooms are pure sky. 
It's strange how much more beautiful 

the sky is to us when it's framed 
by these columned openings someone meant us 
to take for stone. The enormous, articulate shovel 
nudges the highest row of moldings 
and the whole thing wavers as though we'd dreamed it, 
our black classic, and it topples all at once.