Friday, February 26, 2010

Mark Doty

Vince lent me ‘Fire to Fire’, new and selected poems by Mark Doty an American. From the moment I dipped randomly into them I was hooked. Descriptive power, based on close observation with a sense of connectivity are his striking characteristics. I’m impressed with his empathy for animals.

Two dogs show affection in different ways. One buries his head into his master’s clothes. The other
‘Beau, had another idea. He’d offer his rump
for scratching, and wags his tail while he was stroked,
returning that affection by facing away, looking out
toward whatever might come along to enjoy.’

A friend has a friend who is dying. He has got rid of his dog and cats but is persuaded to get a goldfish for some company. Doty tells of reading a story about a Zen master who on his death thought about a deer he used to feed and so came back as a ‘stunning fawn’. The poem concludes
‘So Maggie’s friend –
is he going out

into the last loved object
of his attention?
Fanning the veined translucence

of an opulent tail,
undulant in some uncapturable curve,
is he bronze chrysanthemums,

copper leaf, hurried, darting,
doubloons, icon-cloured fins
troubling the water.’

On his web-site Doty has an essay, ‘Souls on Ice.’ In it he describes the process of creating a particular poem. Here is a paragraph from the essay: ‘Of course my process of unfolding the poem wasn't quite this neat. There were false starts, wrong turnings that I wound up throwing out when they didn't seem to lead anywhere. I can't remember now, because the poem has worked the charm of its craft on my memory; it convinces me that it is an artifact of a process of inquiry. The drama of the poem is its action of thinking through a question. Mimicking a sequence of perceptions and meditation, it tries to make us think that this feeling and thinking and knowing is taking place even as the poem is being written. Which, in a way, it is --just not this neatly or seamlessly! A poem is always a made version of experience.

Here is a full poem, which is from that site.


LOST COCKATIEL, cried the sign, hand-lettered,
taped to the side of a building: last seen on 16th

between Fifth and Sixth, gray body, orange cheek patches,
yellow head. Name: Omar. Somebody's dear, I guess,

though how do you lose a cockatiel on 16th Street?
Flown from a ledge, into the sky he's eyed

for months or years, into the high limbs of the ginkgos,
suddenly free? I'm looking everywhere in the rustling

globes and spires shot through with yellow,
streaking at the edges, for any tropic flash of him. Why

should I think I'd see him, in the vast flap this city is?
Why wander Chelsea when that boy could be up and gone,

winging his way to Babylon or Oyster Bay,
drawn to some magnet of green. Sense to go south?

Not likely; Omar's known the apartment and the cage,
picked his seeds from a cup, his fruits and nuts from the hand

that anchored him -- and now he's launched, unfindable,
no one's baby anymore but one bit…

Think of the great banks of wires and switches
in the telephone exchange, every voice and signal

a little flicker lighting up -- that's Omar now,
impulse in the propulsive flow. Who'll ever know?

Then this morning we're all in the private commuter blur
when a guy walks into the subway car whistling,

doing birdcalls: he's decked in orange and lime,
a flag pluming his baseball cap; he's holding out a paper cup

while he shifts from trills to caws. Not much of a talent,
I think, though I like his shameless attempt at charm,

and everybody's smiling covertly, not particularly tempted
to give him money. Though one man reaches into his pocket

and starts to drop some change into the cup,
and our Papageno says, "That's my coffee, man,

but thanks, God bless you anyway,”
and lurches whistling out the door.

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