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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.
Suggesting, 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 inextinguishable, 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; whoever 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: ALIVE WITH PLEASURE.

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

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, similarly, 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.