Mark Doty’s Incomparable “Sweet Machine” of Wordsmithing

Mark Doty Book Covers

Doty Wins 2008 National Book Award

Renowned poet Mark Doty recently won the National Book Award for poetry for his book Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems. Fire to Fireis a collection of Doty’s work from seven books of poetry spanning over 20 years. Doty’s poems are full of images about the human experience, fierce declarations about love, life and loss, and rich sensuality. His themes have included AIDS, death, and homelessness. Doty has won numerous awards for his poetry and his non-fiction, and his titles include Atlantis, My Alexandria, Sweet Machine, Heaven’s Coast: A Memoir, Dog Years, to name but a few.

Below is one of my favorite Doty poems from Atlantis. “Faith” is the first part of a series of six poems written about the eventual loss of his partner Wally as a result of AIDS. The series, entitled “Atlantis,” the same as the name of the book, is an incredible psychological and emotional glimpse into the intimate experience of caring for and eventually losing someone you love.

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 do,

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 neck
and nothing coming,

and when I looked 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.” (1995)

 

Congratulations Mark, on a much-deserved award. Your poetry continues to inspire those of us in the trenches. I can still remember exactly where I was the first time that I read “Faith” and how much it moved me then. It still moves me in the same way today. To me, that is the sign of a poem’s true test of time, and the endurance of a poet’s ability to see words, to take words and cast them upon the page and make them his in a way that bypasses the mundane, the expected. The dog licking your partner’s face, the visit to the shelter for another dog, the need for something living in the last days of dying, these are all images that I still remember years later because they were curiously poignant in the very act of being ordinary.

Thank you for continuing to share your words. Peace.

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On The Wings of an Eagle*

golden-eagle

Golden Eagle in Flight

We Dare to Dream Again of Friendly Skies As We Give Thanks

Okay. I’m going to do it. I’m going to write a blog about what I’m thankful for. A Charlie Brown blog, if you will. I debated whether or not this subject matter would be too trite, too overdone in the blogging world, but then I decided that my cynicism would prevail, especially in light of my recent entries, which admittedly, have been a tad on the nostalgic side. I’ve decided to write about unlikely things for which we, as in the collective we, can be grateful, in spite of the dire times we seem to be facing.

Here goes:

  • The nation’s first president of color, a man of incredible presence, intelligence, and insight. I can only hope that the fates are good to him and surround him with good karma. If he runs his presidency with just one half of the calm, executive demeanor that surrounded his campaign, then there is hope that his White House will never be likened to a college fraternity without any adult supervision.
  • A new administration, one headed by a president who won’t mangle the English language. No matter what your political leanings are, you have to be grateful for a man who is articulate
  • An apparent real goal for an end to the Iraqi war, or at least a major draw down of troops in that country, even if it means that we will have an increase of troops in another country
  • An attempt to provide access to some kind of health insurance for everyone in the country, even if it takes a couple of years. Hillary Rodham Clinton first attempted this during Clinton’s first term in office and was roundly criticized for not sticking to her role as first lady. After that aborted attempt, nothing has ever been done nationally until now.
  • A chance to regain our status in the world as a nation that can be respected as a leader
  • A chance to turn our economy around and stop the practice of “Trickle Down Economics.” The plan, of course, was that everything would trickle down in an equitable manner. Um, so sorry, but WRONG. When Ronald Reagan took office, our country could be described as a diamond, with most of the country falling in the middle of the socio-economic ladder. What we have now is an hourglass, with almost no middle class, an upper class and a very bottom-heavy lower socio-economic part of the ladder. Anyone who tells you that America is a class-less society is still in their naive idealistic phase.
  • A commitment by an administration and apparently a nation to harness alternative energy and preserve resources. A long overdue wake-up call has finally been answered, and more and more people are doing what they can, in big ways and in small, to help the environment. As someone who has been recycling for over almost two decades, it is refreshing to see the changes all around. I don’t care if it’s trendy, as long as it makes an impact.
  • More awareness of post traumatic stress disorder as a real problem with far-reaching issues that can affect people for years
  • The fact that Sarah Palin and her family are back in Alaska, at least for most of the time, but the governator still can’t seem to find enough work to do as governor, so she hits the road every other week.
  • A big win in the House and Senate, but the pressure is on to deliver. Remember: with great power comes great responsibility Spider Man.
  • Law & Order, the original, is back on Wednesday nights.
  • Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC is kicking butt big time.
  • Virginia went blue for the first time since 1964, and Thelma Drake lost her seat in Congress to newcomer Glenn Nye thanks in large part to a grassroots effort.
  • The first amendment allows people like me to write things like this whenever I want, which still makes this the best country in the world in which to live.
  • colorado20river20from20deadhorse20point
    The Colorado River from Deadhorse Point
  • With any luck, President-elect Obama will be able to reverse some of the more egregious laws that Bush has signed into law, in particular, those that allow drilling near state parks in Utah and Colorado, and those that ease pollution laws. Because after all, it would be nice to leave a legacy to our children, you know, something like majestic trees, clean rivers, the Grand Canyon, some Golden Eagles, and maybe some uranium-free land. Or maybe I’m being naive and full of youthful idealism in spite of my age.
  • And finally, with any luck, the next few years we will see some glimpses of that hope we held onto so tightly when we stood in line to get into those rallies. When we stood at those rallies waiting to hear the words we needed to hear. When we heard those words of hope and better days and we actually allowed ourselves to dare to believe, even when our cynical hearts did not want to. Yes, we can dare to hope. Yes, we will believe.

These are the things that I am thankful for as an American this Thanksgiving. Perhaps I’ll write about what I’m thankful for personally later, or maybe not. But it’s nice to think that maybe this time next year, there will be a change a coming.

Peace be with you.

*On the Wings of an Eagle, song by John Denver