Mark Doty was born in 1953 and has received numerous awards for his work including the Ambassador Book Award, Whiting Writers Award, and National Book Critics Award. He also has published several collections and nonfiction—Dog Years was a New York Times bestseller, and he is also a professor at the University of Houston, Texas and lives in New York City.
As always, I picked up his most recent volume Fire to Fire new and selected poems in my local library, published 2008 by way of HarperCollins Publishers. It is a thick volume of poems in which I will stick to my usual mention of just a couple of poems but let me assure you that it is a worthwhile volume to read. The newest poems are towards the front of the book and these are the ones I’ll focus on.
“Citizens” is a poem about a near-miss with a demolition truck as Mr. Doty is about to cross the street and jumps back and finds himself stewing over the whole scenario. How often do we find ourselves doing the same exact thing daily? How often have any of us turned the scenario into a poem? Mark Doty describes the incident in detail and I just love his vengeful lines: “If I carried a sharp instrument/I could scrape a long howl on his flaming paint job/(just under the gold and looming log: DEMOLITION)” after noticing that the driver seemed to enjoy nearly running him over. As Mr. Doty carries his burden of wrath he thinks of how he just needs to let go of the incident, but cannot. “and I’m carrying the devil/in his carbon chariot all the way to 23rd,…” until finally Mr. Doty gets to the bottom of why he is so upset: “but because he’s made me erasable,/a slip of a self, subject to.” Isn’t that the entirety of an experience such as this one? To know you came so very close to losing life and limb but no one seemed to notice or care? Finally, Mr. Doty rationalizes the experience with words we all use “I don’t care./If he’s one of those people miserable for lack/of what is found in poetry, fine.” I know we all use “I don’t care” once we finally get over an incident such as this one. I like the fact that Mr. Doty decides he is one of those “miserable” people and must be lacking something in life, and he names it poetry. Isn’t that just like a poet? Of course I present this poem to you because it’s a universal experience to have a near-miss accident but also because he goes through all the emotions you can go through when you are frightened. You have fear, vengeance, anger, rationalizing, then finally you feel calmer and can move on. These emotions are lived every day in various intensities and I am glad that I found a poem like this one which touches them all in a fleeting moment on a crosswalk. I hope you enjoy it, too, when you find this book on the shelf.
Then there is the poem “Theory of Multiplicity” which is about the idea of noticing someone else’s life. It starts out in a Laundromat in which Mark Doty does his laundry and he is recalling a garden someone had started. “look into the garden someone made next door/on the edge of the sidewalk, spilling onto the pavement,/surprisingly wild, with prairie grasses, a shrubby coneflower, strapping and frowsy black-eyed Susan, even a few bees” Mr. Doty describes sitting outside observing the passerby and the idea of others who may have noticed the same garden “What was/the garden but the sum of all that, studied or casual?/Perception carried, loved, considered, dis- or regarded.” I love that last line because there are so many ways to perceive something and think of all the passerby on the street who may have noticed the garden but either didn’t think much of it, or enjoyed seeing it every day on their way about their business. I think this is a romantic idea, something simple and possibly overlooked being seen daily the a large amount of people and who knows if the person who tended this garden even knew or cared what the passerby thought of it. “it took all of us/to make the garden known./No one could assemble/the entire vantage we made together.” These lines bring out a wonderful sense of community out of something so ordinary and doesn’t that make daily living extraordinary when you think about it? “The next summer the garden would be sparse,/not well tended, and offer no consolation…” Then we hear Mr. Doty’s lament of that magical garden not having the same quality the next year and remarks “though even its diminishment might be said/to be one of its nearly endless dimensions.” So even though we may lament change in our daily lives, even in something simple, it is still just another way of looking at the world, not the end of it. That’s what I take away from this poem, the idea that no matter how small, someone notices and that when something changes it is noticed and altered in our perception. Think of your neighbor letting their grass grow a little longer as they age and don’t have the ability to mow as often, or a child tending a wild garden of her own then making it cleaner and neater as she grows up. Or how about when a neighbor paints their house after a long period of time and how wonderful it looks. Think of the things you do in your daily life that you wonder if anyone notices and realize that someone might actually notice it after all. Maybe your co-workers know you’re the one washing up everyone’s coffee mugs or straightening up the conference room but haven’t thought to say “thank you.” Just imagine all the little things you and your neighbors, co-workers do daily that are noticed after all.
To find out more about Mark Doty and to read some of his poems available on-line, please click the link below:
As always, thanks for reading, and please stop by tomorrow for more Poems Found by Poet Hound…