|30th Annual UND Writers Conference: "Expressing the Sacred"
Reading: Mark Doty
March 27, 1999
© 1999 Mark Doty and the University of North Dakota
Chris Stoner: Thank you. Welcome everyone to the three o’clock reading, which is Mark Doty. And, as I read through Mark Doty’s work in consideration of the Writers Conference theme, what I was especially touched by was his wonderful sense of experiencing the sacred in ways which are accessible to everyone. His articulation of the sacred does not require extensive study of any religious texts or devotion to any specific system or, of beliefs. In Doty’s work, one experiences the sacred in the remains of a dolphin beached in a marsh, in a black, beaded dress and the memories of a cherished and tortured friend that it embodies, in the small gestures of kindness which unite strangers. Just a small example of that is from his memoir Heaven’s Coast. It’s a short scene in which he relates being in New York at the cathedral St. John the Divine where the altar is decorated for people in remembrance of people who have died of AIDS.
And he writes: "People came and went--boyfriends, teenagers, a Hispanic woman who knelt alone at the alter, crossed herself, prayed, smiled at me as she rose. I asked her if she might have a Kleenex; she rummaged in her black patent purse and apologized for finding nothing.
I tried to leave then, but I couldn’t seem to walk out of the orbit of the altar, some magnetic pull in those ranks of candles, the unrevealing banners of appliquéd felt. I’d begin to walk away and some little spasm of grief would break free, as if floating loose from below, rising to the surface, choking, blinding. I sat back down on the column base, and in a moment there was a tap at my shoulder: the Hispanic woman, come back with--where had she gotten them?--the kind of paper napkins you get with an ice cream cone. It seemed to me the most genuine of gifts, made to a stranger: the recognition of how grief moves in the body, leaving us unable to breathe, helpless except for each other."
Heaven’s Coast, which is Mark Doty’s first volume of memoir, received the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for non-fiction and was also named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review. For his five collections of poetry, he has received the National Book Critic Circle Award, a Whitings Writers’ Award, and Britain’s T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Houston and a new memoir entitled Fire Bird is forthcoming in 1999. Please welcome Mark Doty.
Mark Doty: Thank you, and thanks for being here. It’s...it feels good to read to an audience of such heartiness. [Audience laughter] You know, you sort of, you made this effort to come out through the blinding drifts this morning. And it also feels wonderful to be at a conference, which I feel has been educating me. Often coming to an event like this, you expect to be putting energy out more than taking things in, but the conversations that my colleagues and I have been having yesterday and today have felt rich and provocative and troubling in ways that I know are going to go on generating new thinking as we leave, and that’s a wonderful gift.
I thought that I would read for you a couple of poems and then a prose piece, which I’ll tell you about when I get there. I want to begin with a pair of poems, which, in different ways, I think, have to do with some of the things that we’ve been talking about. This poem is set in Southeastern Massachusetts. It’s called "Migratory."
Near evening, in Fairhaven, Massachusetts,
and I was up there, somewhere between the asphalt
the shopping carts shining, from above,
of those who know how to fly in formation,
the parking lot, the wet field
and its exits, one shattered farmhouse
erases the mechanical noises, everything;
and then, out of that long, percussive pour
Assertion, prayer, aria--as delivered
which plays nonetheless down the length
rise above, ineluctable, heedless,
--so little between spirit and skin,
as they headed toward Acushnet
either, with the cars nudged in and out
would remain unfilled. I wasn’t there.
I seemed to be nowhere at all.
Not so long ago, I got an invitation to contribute a poem to a new anthology called Unleashed, and the sole requirement for this anthology was that the poems had to be in the voice of the writer’s dog. [Audience laughter] And I thought, "No, this is...no. Not something I’m gonna do." Well, about a week later, I was walking my dog Beau in the woods near where I live, and he began to send these sort of telepathic signals--these phrases and lines. It turned out he wanted to write a sonnet [Audience laughter], which was a surprise to me: he does not have the demeanor of a formalist by any means [Audience laughter], but...this is his poem. He’s fond of puns, as you will hear, and his poem is called "Golden Retrievals."
Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention
I’m off again: muck, pond, ditch, residue
or else you’re off in some fog concerning
a Zen master’s bronzy gong, calls you here,
So, I sent this poem off to the editors of this anthology, who liked it, and shortly thereafter let me know that they were sending a photographer to photograph the author of the poem [Audience laughter], and the book is out now, and so you can see Beau sort of...he’s doing a kind of three-quarter authorial profile [Audience laughter], a very glamorous shot.
This is something I don’t usually do. But, this is a prose piece, it’s called "An Exile’s Psalm," and it’s...I wanted to read it for two reasons. One, because it’s part of this book which just came out called Here Lies My Heart: Essays on Why We Marry, Why We Don’t, and What We Find There, which is a wonderful and interesting book about relationship from all kinds of points of view. And, because this is new, I thought it would be interesting to read from it and also because of what my piece here addresses has to do with many of the issues that we’ve been talking about over the last two days. This is too long to read you the whole thing, so I’m going to skip the beginning. And that means I need to give you a little bit of background.
For twelve years, I lived with a man named Wally Roberts, who died of AIDS in January of 1994. After his death, I wrote a memoir called Heaven’s Coast, which was about our lives together, about his illness and death, and the time thereafter, that period of raw, new grief. I wrote the book because I needed something to read about that sort of experience. I could find many books, which were written from the point of view of the urge to console the grieving, either psychologically or spiritually, but I could find very little that was written out of the anger and tumult and beauty, which grief is at its rawest. So, when I had finished that book, I found myself in the odd position of having published a very intimate story about how I felt a little while ago, and then having lots of people read that book who didn’t know how I felt now. About fourteen months after Wally’s death, I became involved in a new relationship with a man named Paul. So the ... I found myself both enormously happy about this and terrifically confused. What could it mean to love again? What did that say about my old relationship when a new one was beginning? Those are some of the things with which this piece is concerned.
The Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco: an early afternoon sheened with silvery coastal light. A mother-of-pearl layer of cloud thinned to a high glaze by sun, then the atmosphere darkens to something softer, the muffling intimacy of rain.
I’m thinking of the world in layers, a meditation provoked by the koi: beneath the surface of the absolutely clear ponds that thread through this garden, these calm presences drift and angle. They seem to float without effort, though now and then a purposeful flick of the two translucent fins on either side of the body propels them forward. Who was the Japanese philosopher who said, "A fish never makes an aesthetic mistake"? These big, lovely fellows are the confident princes of another world, gleaming in their supple chainmail. Just when I round a curve in the path or come up over a little rise, another’s revealed, the garden’s secret jewels: here a speckled opal, here a blazing orangey-gold "like shook foil." Here’s the most startling of all: a pale chiffon yellow, its vibrant intensity amplified by the grey light of the day. He turns on his side as he swims, as if to scratch his lemon flanks on the pond bottom, flashing to heaven a belly of birthday-candle yellow, a shimmery lemon merengue. He makes me catch my breath; what in all the world glows like that? And his happy, doglike, rolling and scratching--who’d have thought a fish capable of evidencing pleasure?
These koi move beneath a complicated surface--even, occasionally, break through that horizontal scrim which is busy giving back the dull sheen of sky and the bulk of trees, reflections even of individual leaves, as well as the interruption of actual leaves floating on the water. And, as if the surface didn’t already have enough work to do, it’s begun to rain a little, so that the drops of rain send out spreading rings which shiver all the other reflections and overlap with other circles. The black-and-silver skin of the pond becomes a kind of dreamy geometry lesson, demonstration of an indecipherable mathematics.
I wouldn’t think so much about the third layer, above water and surface, save that it is threaded now by birds--sleek black citizens whose predominant feature, beside their elegant necks, always in motion, are the shiny little black beads of their eyes, which are vivid pinpoints of subjectivity--places where the air seems to look out at itself, at us all. Strange to think of so many vantage points, the air full of locations: points of departure, perspectives, places to stand, intensions. These feathered stances pulse and hurry, pause and cock their heads, shift back and forth on wire legs, turn those glamorous necks every which way.
And there is, too, a pair of blue jays, the Virgin-of-Guadalupe azure almost impossibly bright in the rain, a cobalt leap and flutter from branch to stone lantern to boulder to branch, in some kind of a chattering and gesticulating dialogue with each other, two quick blue thoughts circling around and around in the air. One goes down to the water’s edge and jumps in, splashing its wings rapidly to beat the water into a tumble of droplets in the air, comingling the three layers of things I’ve been watching into one. Is it me who has made this separation? Obviously the boundaries between air and water are permeable ones--the koi break the surface to feed and splash, the rain and leaves rattle the reflective skim, the birds leave off throwing their darting reflections on the water in order to enter into it and worry the surface further. Water is the physical demonstration of responsiveness; nothing is more immediately and visibly reactive. Water plays back for us every force affecting it, every nuance, every bit of life.
Today it seems to me that time has just the layered quality of this garden. I’ve come here in a taxi, essentially by mistake, since I’d planned to go to the Museum of Asian Art. Tired of talking (I’m on a book tour, a round of readings and interviews which require me to try to articulate again, what I have already written about love and grief), I wanted the silence and poise of Japanese ceramics or Chinese scrolls. But almost as soon as the taxi doors, taxi’s pulled away, I realized the museum’s closed; the sign on the door tells me I’ve come on the wrong day. I turn from the door to the round ornamental pool in front of the museum, and realize first that the turtle sitting on the lip of stone protruding from the water is not bronze but alive, and then that I have seen this before--have, in fact, done this before. In 1989, on a vacation in San Francisco, Wally and I did exactly the same thing, arriving at the museum doors on a Monday or a Tuesday and watching a turtle--this turtle?--among the water lilies in the ornamental pool. And then we wandered next door, to the Japanese Tea Garden. So the warm fragrance of brewing tea coming toward me from the sheltered area where people are sitting with teapots and rice crackers takes me back to that day, those flavors: seven years passed, same mistake, same pleasures. And new ones, since the garden seems engineered to ensure that we notice the complicated matrix of this particular day. New sadness, as well. I feel rather like that blue jay, mixing up the layers of time till they’re indistinguishable.
Though, in fact, the scent of the tea--more present, in the rainy air--does not bring back the past as I would like it to. I hope that some particularly vivid, buried memory of Wally, of an hour together, will come back to me here. But it doesn’t; I’m more aware of the irony--here we were, here I am--than of any vivid sense of him. Memory of this kind can’t be willed; if it isn’t the time for it, then it isn’t. But I am wishing for such an encounter with the past because my relationship with the past is in a state of confusion.
It’s been spun around by this tour, by reading to audiences about Wally and his death, by talking to journalists and interviewers about grief. I am no longer in the habit of talking about him every day. I talk to him nearly daily, but it’s an interior conversation, and I am not accustomed to all this bringing of memory out into the outer world. This brings him closer, particularly when I am reading to audiences for whom I know the epidemic is a pressing reality. Their faces remind me that these words have the force of actuality for them; they’re here because it is important for them to find their experience mirrored in language. And writing is only capable of that when it is crafted and honed--not just journal entries in which the writer’s feelings are paramount, but the shapely work which allows the reader to feel.
But therein lies a paradox: these word both evoke the past and hold it at a distance. As I read them to audiences, I sometimes re-experience the past but I always re-experience my own language, as if my words were gradually taking the place of my memory, covering the past over with bits of phrases--like a sort of elaborate mosaic pavement, something from the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, assembled over the surface of my memory--so that it becomes a surface, a made replacement for the felt thing.
One night, not long before the visit to the garden, I had an awful paroxysm of doubt, a terror that by repeating my story, by turning my life with Wally into art, I had made it more difficult to remember him. In the act of making him memorable to others, had I removed him from myself? Had I only intensified my loss? Or worse, done some disservice to him, made him smaller? I don’t want my story, the artifact of memory, but something less pure, less selected: the unpredictability, the otherness, of another being.
And this is another way the dead die to us. They are not there to correct our impressions, to keep us from getting to confident in our understanding of them. The living will always make sure that we can’t fool ourselves into thinking we totally know them; something will always confound our perceptions, challenge our certainty. But of the dead, we know what we know, and over time our memories and the narrative we make of them begin to seem fixed, not subject to revision by experience.
What I was feeling was, finally, simple, familiar. I missed him. All the stories I’d made to represent him, all the writing I’d done to capture something of us, are at last doomed to fail; nothing is captured, nothing is held, because no matter what gesture we make to render the world, no matter how seemingly large and encompassing the gesture is, the world resists. The world is larger than art. "The world is wily," Susan Mitchell says in one of her poems, "and doesn’t want to be caught." My poetry and my prose sometimes seem to me a complicated set of negotiations with death, of attempted accommodations to mortality: Here is a way to think of dying which might be bearable, which might be something close to all right. And yet it’s not acceptable, not all right, though one cannot stop making the negotiations, cannot stop the proposals of possibility, in spite of the possibility, in spite of the fact that death will knock the papers from the table, will end all discussions, will break off talks without hope of resolution.
In the landscape of this garden, I locate myself, not with the splendid yellow fish or the quick aerial cogitations of the jays; it’s that calm but nonetheless never-still surface of the water with which I identify. I am trembled by wind, written upon by the sky and all its passages of cloud and of wings. I am fluid in time as well as in space; it’s foolish of me to wish to recapture the past, because I am the past, what there is of it; it’s entirely entwined in my subjectivity. I carry it. And I am now, as well, inscribed by every passing force, unstable, rain-marked, clear.
I don’t have the experience I might wish for, of vivid memory, the past recaptured. Wally and I are not here. But I am, and more to the point, the garden is. This matrix of levels, this common flesh in its multiple forms, these winged and finned thoughts and surfaces upon which the forces of the world meet. I am happy here, seeing all this life, implicated in it, even if my grief is useless, even if my longing and my work have come to nothing.
Not redemption, not reclamation. But perhaps not nothing. I am thinking of the chilling statement of Yeats’s: "All that is personal," he wrote, "soon rots, unless it is packed in ice or salt." He meant the preservative chill and saline of form, the poet’s icy verbal brine which might pickle poor mortal forms caught in time. I’ve quoted it to students a thousand times, but suddenly I think he’s wrong; all that is personal rots anyway; it’s the ice and salt that last.
I’m not reading that because we’re in North Dakota, by the way.
It’s the ice and salt that last. All the particulars of love and desire and memory and doubt poured into poetry vanish, as the poem becomes, in time, a vessel for the reader’s feeling, the writer’s distinctive experience faded away. The form lasts long beyond the life it was made to hold.
And even the preservative container will vanish, when no one can read the language anymore, or the book that contained it falls to pieces. Think of the poems of Sappho torn to shreds in Egypt to wrap the mummy of a crocodile, and the little strips of paper come to light only a century ago, which display just those shards. Stays against time are temporary; our attempts to hold time at bay, of course, are made inside of time, exist within in it, as everything does. The shreds of paper survive and then, nothing.
And yet the flux, the moment, the participation in the life of the world in that shimmered and inscribed surface, erased and rewritten, scribbled and trembled and reconfigured--isn’t that something more than nothing? What could we ever be but the flux, the liquid page, written by this day, right now, in which is involved all of the past as well as all tomorrows?
Not nothing. A man comes up to me at a book signing and asks me to sign his book. "I’m Mark," he says, "would you sign this for Jim and Mark?" It turns out Jim’s been dead for one month. Mark’s face is open and radiant, the look that people have when the world has cracked open in front of them, when they have themselves cracked. He could burst into tears at any moment, or sing, or praise something. "I’m a Buddhist," he says. I think he wants me to know this because it’s meant to tell me he’s all right, that he can stand at some distance from attachment, from life and death, that he doesn’t believe that Jim has ended exactly, because was "Jim" there in the first place? At least I think that’s what he means; "I’m a Buddhist" seem like complicated shorthand.
Then he tells me that someone read a passage from Heaven’s Coast at Jim’s memorial service; the book hasn’t been out long, and it seems extraordinary that someone should use it, the book is already involved, independently of me, implicated in lives (and deaths). And then I realize I don’t care if what I make lasts for fifteen minutes or fifteen years or (imagine!) fifteen centuries. It makes no difference at all. It isn’t the preservative part of art that matters; it’s the use. It’s the word that works as water-surface, mirroring back human life and feeling; it’s the act of writing and reading which extends the small size of my humanity in the direction of others. I am not allowed to keep Wally or anything else, but in fact I am allowed to give him, or a version of him, away. I cannot even keep myself, but I can give the word that’s written by the world on the surface of myself away. To be spoken by Mark, for Jim; to be spoken by that Mark for himself; to be written by this Mark for that one; to be said on the air, as it is written on air, by my hand of air, out of my history of breathing.
Not nothing. Not yet. There’s some faith in art that won’t quite leave me. Maybe we can’t get the world just right, can’t get it captured in language, but it seems to be possible to suggest enough of the way the clear bright skin of the pond shines. A version of the world which could exist between us, not exactly capturing the uncapturable past but indicating, somehow, through the agencies of art, enough of that complexly wavering surface, enough of the skin of the world, so that you might see beneath it the mystery: the pale-side-of-lemon-teal fish swims and shines, turning first to one side and then the other, rolling, himself liquid, a big pale treasure, alive.
For weeks now, Paul has been casually working on a song. He has a sort of semisecret life as a composer of liturgical music; his settings of psalms show up in hymnals and songbooks all over the country. I didn’t know this about him at first; he screens his avocation behind his public identity as a writer. What a delicious identity to keep in the closet!
The song has been coming in little snatches he hums and sings when he’s vacuuming or otherwise occupied, but today he seems to have composed enough of it in his head to be ready to move to his electronic keyboard. He’s at the dining room table with the instrument and staff paper for noting down the arrangement, a translation of the Psalms open beside him. The one he’s setting is number 137, and he’s playing the opening bars again and again with slight variations:
Beside the streams of Babylon
He doesn’t know that I have come into the next room. He’s shy about playing and singing in front of me, which seems odd given how much time we spend together, and oddly touching. Watching from the doorway, I love the way he hunches forward, as if he’s fitting his lanky frame around the keyboard; because I’m watching from behind, I can see the play of muscle on his neck as he mouths the words. I love the slightly tinny sound the keys make when struck--like a badly recorded harpsichord--and the sunlight through the old lace in the east-facing windows, his soft voice working out the details and harmonies in this cheerful song of exile.
I am, myself, in strange land, and I don’t know the harmonies here yet. How could I? And yet the song seems entirely full of promise; the melody seems to say that if exile will not end, it will be accepted, there will be terms for it. My lover has that concentration, that absorption in the moment, in which it is impossible not see his handsomeness, his--how to say it?--his presence as himself, both so forgetful and completely involved. It draws everyone around him into the present, too.
Including the dogs, who are lying at his feet as if they like the chime of the keys, the subtle variations of the repeated phrases. Arden has his head on his paws. As the tune continues, Beau leans back, as if the song were entering into him, and then begins to roll on his back, as if the music and Paul’s voice, and the warm sunlight through the lace curtains were playing all along the length of his spine. He’s the same color as the light through the lace. So much pleasure, in this constellation of things: warmth and sun and the sweet configuration of voice and music. It’s as if Beau can’t contain his happiness; it wells up and requires him to move. Soon Paul will notice that I am here, watching, and though he’ll be happy to see me, I’ll also break the moment’s domestic spell, this little bright instance of what I love, which I am grateful now to stand and watch, unseen.
Thank you very much.
We seem to have a tradition of questions going so if there...we could take a few minutes for that here. If there are things you would like me to talk about, I’d be happy to.
Audience member: [inaudible]
Mark Doty: Yeah, hi.
Audience member: [inaudible]
Mark Doty: Oh, you bet.
Audience member: [inaudible]
Mark Doty: Sure...New York is a city that has been very generative for me. And, why is that?
I think it’s because it is a place of such collisions. And, the fact that so many people are compacted upon such a tiny island means that there are constant human encounters in which one sees people at their very best and at their very worst. In many places, we are held apart by the design of the cities in which we live. In Houston, where I’m living right now, everything happens in automobiles, and there is no sidewalk life. If you walked down the street, people look at you and think you’re strange, you know; whereas, if you walk in a New York street, what happens is that there is a whole complex intermingling of culture, languages, histories, and points of views and I find that enormously stimulating. I come, to some degree, as a poet from a tradition of affirmation of the city, which is a tradition of--it’s really, it’s not a very old tradition, it really goes...You know for Romantic poets the city was a location of evil and suffering, where human beings were diminished. William Blake said, talks about walking through London, he says "I mark in every face, I see marks of weakness, marks of woe." But when Walt Whitman came to the city, circa 1850 or so, moving from rural Long Island to New York, it was this great thrilling zone of possibility, and this certainly probably connected to Whitman’s sexuality because for him moving into city life meant escaping narrow strictures of possibility and going into a world where you could be anybody, and you could try out different kinds of identities. So, he fostered a tradition which is also furthered in the work of Hart Crane and great New York poet of the 1950’s Frank O’Hara, all of whom were celebrants of, in particular, Manhattan and of cities in general. I’d like to line up behind those guys. [Audience laughter] Yes?
Audience member: I have a question from this morning. Am I talking right?
Mark Doty: Mm-hmm.
Audience member: And that is: could you talk a bit about faith and grieving?
Mark Doty: Sure. Well, as some elements of the prose piece that I read may have indicated to you, one of the consequences, I think, of an experience of profound loss is despair. A sense that, you know, "why should I love again? Why should I participate in the world if what love leads to is, is loss, inevitably?" I remember having, not so long after Wally died, looking at couples, like happy couples together, and thinking "don’t you know?" You know? "How can you celebrate life in this way," you know, "don’t you see?" And that’s because I was so, so much looking at the world through the lens of loss. In some ways, the experience of his death and of new grief brought me into a relationship with ultimate things that strengthened my faith and strengthened my perceptions. I mean I believe that grief really is a heightened state of perception. And that I could see the world more clearly--that was at the beginning. But as time went on, my grief dulled into something more like despair. And that’s the place where I think one’s faith, in the sense of one’s will to go on participating in life, is really tested. And, for me, it was, it was the support of other people. It was particularly the support of my friends who were not in the flesh, but on the page, you know, reading the struggles of others. And it was also--I don’t know how to say this without sounding, well, I’ll just do it--there’s a poem in my book, Sweet Machine, which is about seeing a juvenile whale. And this whale was in our harbor in Provincetown. And it was young; it was about a 20 feet long Humpback. And it spent days swimming around and around the pier, where the last of our fishing fleet is docked. And the whole town turned out to watch this, and it was thrilling, and it was also really scary, because we were very concerned that this creature could be beached. And of course, if a whale is on land, its body is so heavy that its lungs and heart are crushed by its own weight. And when I first looked at that creature, all I could feel was fear: "oh my god, that beautiful thing is going to die," because that’s where I was then. And then, I began to look further and realized that what it was doing was playing. It was jump, leaping around. It was showing off for us. It was reaching, you know, ten feet away from the pier, it was [flipping] its flukes up in the air. And I thought, "here is this incredibly heavy thing that is so full of joy." And I thought, "if that, that’s what the world offers us." So that became the source of a poem, and, and more profoundly the source of instruction that there were, there were things around me which were occasions of the will to persist. And that if I keep my eyes open, and if I didn’t just look down at my own two feet, you know, but if I kept looking out and around, I would find those things that could lead me forward.
Audience member: [inaudible]
Mark Doty: Yes.
Audience member: [inaudible]
Mark Doty: It’s not the preserv...I said not the preservative part of art that matters but the use...
Audience member: the mirroring back...
Mark Doty: The mirroring back, yes. Yes, I know it’s a real...in a way it’s a stay, an argument with myself, all right, because to some degree I’m a, I’m a Romantic poet. And the project of Romantic poetry is making a stay against time: I will make some thing, which preserves that lyric instant of perception. And, so what I’m doing there is arguing with myself that that’s not what art is for, because you can’t fix time; you don’t get to keep anything. But what you do get to do is to make some thing, which can be a meeting ground, if you’re lucky, between people, which can be, not something you make just for your own self-expression, but something which is made as a gift. And that gift giving enlarges us beyond our own little, limited selves. In a strange way, Wally and I, together, now have a larger life because, and this has been the real gift to me of publishing that book, is that he’s become an element in other people’s imaginative lives. And that is a kind of continuation. What a...I mean, what a strange fate, to persist in the imagination of other people. Maybe that’s a good place to stop. Thank you.
[Transcription by Beth Schoborg; Reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts 11 November 2012]