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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