Mark Doty |
Today the Masons are auctioning
their discarded pomp: a trunk of turbans,
gemmed and ostrich-plumed, and operetta costumes
labeled inside the collar "Potentate"
" 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,
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,
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.
Mark Doty |
You weren't well or really ill yet either;
just a little tired, your handsomeness
tinged by grief or anticipation, which brought
to your face a thoughtful, deepening grace.
I didn't for a moment doubt you were dead.
I knew that to be true still, even in the dream.
You'd been out—at work maybe?—
having a good day, almost energetic.
We seemed to be moving from some old house
where we'd lived, boxes everywhere, things
in disarray: that was the story of my dream,
but even asleep I was shocked out of narrative
by your face, the physical fact of your face:
inches from mine, smooth-shaven, loving, alert.
Why so difficult, remembering the actual look
of you? Without a photograph, without strain?
So when I saw your unguarded, reliable face,
your unmistakable gaze opening all the warmth
and clarity of you—warm brown tea—we held
each other for the time the dream allowed.
You came back so I could see you
once more, plainly, so I could rest against you
without thinking this happiness lessened anything,
without thinking you were alive again.
Mark Doty |
Because the road to our house
is a back road, meadowlands punctuated
by gravel quarry and lumberyard,
there are unexpected travelers
some nights on our way home from work.
Once, on the lawn of the Tool
and Die Company, a swan;
the word doesn't convey the shock
of the thing, white architecture
rippling like a pond's rain-pocked skin,
beak lifting to hiss at my approach.
Magisterial, set down in elegant authority,
he let us know exactly how close we might come.
After a week of long rains
that filled the marsh until it poured
across the road to make in low woods
a new heaven for toads,
a snapping turtle lumbered down the center
of the asphalt like an ambulatory helmet.
His long tail dragged, blunt head jutting out
of the lapidary prehistoric sleep of shell.
We'd have lifted him from the road
but thought he might bend his long neck back
I tried herding him; he rushed,
though we didn't think those blocky legs
could hurry-- then ambled back
to the center of the road, a target
for kids who'd delight in the crush
of something slow with the look
of primeval invulnerability.
the blunt spear point of his jaws,
puffing his undermouth like a bullfrog,
and snapped at your shoe,
vising a beakful of-- thank God--
You had to shake him loose.
We left him
to his own devices, talked on the way home
of what must lead him to new marsh
or old home ground.
The next day you saw,
one town over, remains of shell
in front of the little liquor store.
it was too far from where we'd seen him,
too small to be his.
though who could tell
what the day's heat might have taken
from his body.
For days he became a stain,
a blotch that could have been merely
I did not want to believe that
was what we saw alive in the firm center
of his authority and right
to walk the center of the road,
head up like a missionary moving certainly
into the country of his hopes.
In the movies in this small town
I stopped for popcorn while you went ahead
to claim seats.
When I entered the cool dark
I saw straight couples everywhere,
no single silhouette who might be you.
I walked those two aisles too small
to lose anyone and thought of a book
I read in seventh grade, "Stranger Than Science,"
in which a man simply walked away,
at a picnic, and was,
in the act of striding forward
to examine a flower, gone.
By the time the previews ended
I was nearly in tears-- then realized
the head of one-half the couple in the first row
was only your leather jacket propped in the seat
that would be mine.
I don't think I remember
anything of the first half of the movie.
I don't know what happened to the swan.
every week of some man's lover showing
the first symptoms, the night sweat
or casual flu, and then the wasting begins
and the disappearance a day at a time.
I don't know what happened to the swan;
I don't know if the stain on the street
was our turtle or some other.
I don't know
where these things we meet and know briefly,
as well as we can or they will let us,
I only know that I do not want you
--you with your white and muscular wings
that rise and ripple beneath or above me,
your magnificent neck, eyes the deep mottled autumnal colors
of polished tortoise-- I do not want you ever to die.
Mark Doty |
They lie in parallel rows,
on ice, head to tail,
each a foot of luminosity
barred with black bands,
which divide the scales'
like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window.
prismatics: think abalone,
the wildly rainbowed
mirror of a soap-bubble sphere,
think sun on gasoline.
Splendor, and splendor,
and not a one in any way
distinguished from the other
--nothing about them
they're all exact expressions
of the one soul,
each a perfect fulfillment
of heaven's template,
after a lifetime arriving
at this enameling, the jeweler's
made uncountable examples
each as intricate
in its oily fabulation
as the one before;
a cosmos of champleve.
Suppose we could iridesce,
like these, and lose ourselves
entirely in the universe
of shimmer--would you want
to be yourself only,
to be lost? They'd prefer,
plainly, to be flashing participants,
Even on ice
they seem to be bolting
forward, heedless of stasis.
They don't care they're dead
and nearly frozen,
just as, presumably,
they didn't care that they were living:
all, all for all,
the rainbowed school
and its acres of brilliant classrooms,
in which no verb is singular,
or every one is.
How happy they seem,
even on ice, to be together, selfless,
which is the price of gleaming.
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.
This is what experience gives us ,
and I moved carefully through my life
while I waited.
it wasn't that way at all.
—exuberant, proud maybe, playful,
like the early music of Beethoven—
cruised the footings for smelts
clustered near the pylons
in mercury flocks.
(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?
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.
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.
Mark Doty |
Over the terminal,
the arms and chest
of the god
brightened by snow.
by atmospheric sulphurs
and now the shining
these clouded windows
show a few faces
or some empty car's
filmstrip of lit flames
how they were supposed
to teach us something?--
waxy light hurrying
inches away from the phantom
smudge of us, vague
in spattered glass.
daylight's soft charcoal
lusters stone walls
and we ascend to what
passes for brightness,
above graduated zones
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
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
Though whether what burns
is will or rage or
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
of a sigh (asphalt,
arc of trestle, dull-witted
and scaffoldings, ancient now,
visited by no one)
on the concrete
above the river,
a sudden density
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
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,
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
it takes longer to tell this
than to see it, only
a train window's worth
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
was lifting a hammer,
and bringing it down
again, tapping at
I couldn't say;
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,
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
I'd pick my seat
and set my paper down
to study him again
--he, yes, some days not
at home though usually
by the smoldering,
and when my eye wandered
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
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
my attention, always,
as it is meant to do,
its motto ruby
in the dark morning:
ALIVE WITH PLEASURE.
Mark Doty |
Not, exactly, green:
closer to bronze
preserved in kind brine,
from a Greco-Roman wreck,
patinated and oddly
know what his fantastic
legs were like--
of armament, crowned
by the foreclaws'
gesture of menace
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!
the brilliant rinse
of summer's firmament.
What color is
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die,
if we could be opened
if the smallest chambers
revealed some sky.
Mark Doty |
at century's end,
compounded metallic lusters
to natural sheens (dragonfly
and beetle wings,
marbled light on kerosene)
and invented names
as coolly lustrous
as their products'
respectively, the glaze
that sun-shot fog
of which halos
and -- what?
What to make of Favrile,
for his coppery-rose
flushed with gold
like the alchemized
atmosphere of sunbeams
in a Flemish room?
his lamps illumine
wisteria or trout scales;
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
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--
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,
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
for bel canto,
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.
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
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.
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,
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.
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
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,
The poem I will write will go like this:
Our ancestors are replenishing
the jewel of love for us.