|43rd Annual UND Writers Conference: "Humanimal"
Reading: Mark Doty
March 30, 2012
© 2012 Mark Doty and the University of North Dakota
Heidi Czerwiec: …o'clock, Food, Inc. will be screened in the Lecture Bowl, and then at 8 p.m. there will be "A Great Conversation with Jane Smiley" at the Chester Fritz Auditorium. Not here. Chester Fritz Auditorium. Just down University Ave. If you came out of, out of the front door of the Union and went left down University, you go over a little bridge and then it's huge and on the left. Okay. If you would please take a moment to turn off your cell phones, or turn them to vibrate. I would like to thank the Office of the President, the Dakota…North Dakota Council on the Arts, and the Greater Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau for their continued support.
And now I would like to introduce Chris Stoner, who will be introducing Mark. Chris Stoner is a course materials manager for the University bookstore and a part-time lecturer in the Women's Studies program. He's a graduate of our Masters program in English and a drag performer, who performs regularly across North Dakota, who has written columns about gender, sexuality, and performance in independent publications. And a fun fact: when Mark Doty appeared at the 1999 Writers Conference, Chris introduced him then as well. Something I did not know when I asked Chris to do it this time. Please welcome Chris Stoner.
Chris Stoner: Yes, welcome to our reading this afternoon. As Heidi mentioned, this is the second time I've had the pleasure to do one of these introductions. I first encountered Mark Doty at the 30th Annual Writers Conference when I was just a smart-mouthed undergraduate with a penchant for pink hair and big ideas. I devoured Heaven's Coast, Doty's first book of memoir, transfixed by the combination of personal narrative and a poet's exacting and disciplined love of language. The theme of the conference that year was "Expressing the Sacred," and those questions resonate with me again as we talk about the sacred connections formed between animals and their two-legged companions. Dog Years, Doty's newest memoir, is a testament to these connections, and I once again find myself enchanted. Far past my undergraduate days and much less pink hair than I used to have, I've retained my smart mouth, and I still appreciate big ideas. And Mark Doty is certainly a curator of big ideas. His works have earned numerous distinctions, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the UK's T.S. Eliot Prize. Please help me welcome poet, memoirist, educator, and consummate wordsmith Mark Doty.
Mark Doty: [inaudible]
Chris Stoner: I appreciate it. Thank you.
Mark Doty: Maybe I'll be lucky and every ten years or so Chris can re-introduce me here.
It's really a pleasure to be back, and my thanks to Heidi and everyone here for their flexibility. I was supposed to be here last night, and because of a situation at the university where I teach, it wasn't possible, so my gratitude for being willing to rearrange things. When I thought about the theme of this year's conference, it meant that I could read to you practically anything I've ever written [Audience laughter], because the presence of animals is a continuous wellspring for me. It's--strangely enough, I don't think I would know who I am without a creature nearby, a creature who does not use language, whose silence calls out for words, whose non-human presence asks us to think about what it is to be human. So I'm gonna read you a mix of some new and old poems, and a little bit of memoir, too. I'm gonna start with a poem that began a few years ago. I was a guest professor at Stanford University, so I was getting to wander around these beautiful little towns near San Francisco Bay. One of those towns is called Pescadero, which gives this poem its title.
The little goats like my mouth and fingers,
and one stands up against the wire fence, and taps on the fence board
pushes her mouth forward to my mouth,
and then she kisses me, though I know it doesn't mean "kiss,"
then leans her head way back, arcing her spine, goat yoga,
she likes me a lot, she takes interest in me, she doesn't know me at all
since I have been welcomed by the field's small envoy, and the splayed hoof,
Well, that poem came out a couple years ago in a national magazine, and it, it produced some amazing mail. A goat farmer from Oregon invited me to hang out for a few days, and...
...get to know his stock. A--some citizens of Pescadero wrote to express their pleasure in seeing their town represented in poetry. And the best letter of all was from an elementary school teacher in the Bay area, where every year the kindergarten class goes to the goat farm in Pescadero. And the first graders who didn't get to go read my poem and reminisced. [Audience laughter] And I love that, the idea that a poem could be a text of memory and affection for kids.
This is a poem that hearkens toward childhood in a different way. I taught for some years at a very squirrely, little experimental college in Vermont. Most of our experiments were bombs, but one thing we did which was wonderful was to invite students with children to come and live on the campus. So suddenly we had little kids everywhere--in classrooms, in hallways, most visibly in the cafeteria. This is called "No."
The children have brought their wood turtle
the power they have
alien lacquer and the little thrill
of cognac, and he's closed,
of the legs, his claws resembling clusters
anytime he wants, so perhaps
greater than that of anyone
though they don't mind,
that he might poke out
like unlit candles, as they heft him
This one is a new poem, which also comes out of the California landscape. If you walk out onto the pier at Santa Cruz harbor, you can see the creatures, who are described in this poem, who like to float on the tide. So many there, so many joined together that you can't really tell where one ends and another begins. This is called "Perfect Repose."
Turning so effortlessly you wouldn't
a kind of
in their troop,
you couldn't count them,
one joins, the group drifts
whose head lifted out of the green?
turning the face up to breathe,
intimate, soft plosive, a little wet,
the single thing they make of many,
now arrived at the drifting shore of--
The amazing thing about watching these creatures is that you realize the way they're all breathing together, and pretty soon you're breathing exactly the same way. You can't stop yourself from joining with them.
I have lived for sixteen years with two big retrievers, and when I lost those two, I waited about five years and I got a new dog, a beautiful golden retriever named Ned. And having written a lot of poems about the old dogs, poems in which a dog did something interesting or thought-provoking, and I used that as a platform for a philosophical premise or a sort of a meditation about something or another, I swore off those poems. I was not going to write any more poems like that, ever. And then here's the new dog. And he keeps doing things [Audience laugher] that are provocative, and I said, "No, no, no. I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to do it." And finally I gave in. And here's the first of the Ned poems. It's called "Deep Lane."
We're walking in the cemetery--oops, that's the wrong draft of the poem. Never mind. I keep doing that! I have two drafts of the poem in here, and one of them's better than the other, and that's the bad one. [Audience laugher] And so hang on. Work in progress.
[Because this poem is not yet published, it is presented in prose format with estimated punctuation]
June twenty-third, evening of the first fireflies: we're walking in the cemetery down the road, and I look up from my distracted study of whatever, an unfocused gaze somewhere in the direction of my shoes, and see that Ned has run on ahead with the champagne plume of his tail held especially high, his head erect, which is often a sign that he has something he believes he is not allowed to have.
And in the gathering twilight, what is it that is gathered? Who is doing the harvesting? I can make out that the long horizontal between his lovely jaws is one of the four stakes planted on the slope to indicate where the backhoe will dig a new grave. Of course, my first impulse is to run after him, to replace the marker out of respect for the taboo that we won't desecrate the tombs, or at least for the particular knowledge of those who knew the woman whose name inks a placard in the rectangle claimed by the four poles of vanishing. Well, three poles now.
And how it's within their recollection, their gathering, she'll live. Evening of memory, spark lamps in the grass, I stand and watch him go in his wild figure eights. I say, "You run, darling. You tear up that hill."
Well, you may have noticed that poem is called "Deep Lane," which has ostensibly nothing to do with the poem at all. The reason for that is that I have a house out in the country on Long Island, and not so far away is this little short road. You know, it goes, like, a few hundred feet, its name is Deep Lane. And I found myself obsessed, not with the place, but with the name, that, that phrase, "deep lane," that suggested diving down and yet going forward--the two vowels, the "e" and the "a," the two monosyllabic words--deep lane, became a little bit of a mantra. And so I now have--I wrote a Deep Lane poem, and I wasn't done. I wrote another one, and now I have, We began to think the white fish individual
like, fifteen "Deep Lane" poems. [Audience laughter] So here's another one.
[This poem is a variation of one that appeared in American Poetry Review May/June 2011. It is presented with estimated punctuation.]
We began to think the white fish individual
and he lay pulsing in the shallows
if that were something a fish
all the more then, singular.
unscathed, a four-inch emperor
splashed over his back
when our shadows crossed his borders,
as if begging…As if! Seems to want,
of the soul of him, if soul could be
--white appetite perched on the roof,
the absence in the pond grew resonant,
The lives underneath each stone,
How can I take any pleasure in this garden?
Do you guys have ticks in North Dakota? Okay, so you know, you know, you know. On Long Island, ticks are the thing that make you suspect that nature is out to get you. You know? And this poem refers to a, a theological concept, Manichaeism, which is the idea that the world is divided into opposing forces of light and darkness, and that the outcome of their struggle is not foreknown. The Catholic Church declared that a heresy about 400 A.D., but, you know, you can make up your own mind.
[Because this poem is not yet published, it is presented in prose format with estimated punctuation]
Into Eden came the ticks, princes of this world, heat seeking, tiny, multitudinous. Lord, why have you given them a heart, a nervous system, a lit microchip of a brain is it, if not to invite Manichaeism? Hard to believe the force that shaped the mild tortoise traversing the undergrowth with smallest steps, the sway-necked lily, hard to countenance that same mind, dotting Paradise with pinhead demons wanting nothing but to gorge, to suck beyond the dreams of their hell-brothers, the mosquitos.
Implacable, without boundary, pure appetite--I wouldn't know anything about that.
So, some more dogs. A few years back, I went with a friend of mine to the animal shelter in Brewster, Massachusetts. My friend had decided it was time for him to adopt a dog. And there were there--no other word will do it--a mess, a mess of puppies, a sprawling mess of them. This is called "Shelter."
the little ones,
eager to live. So much
of their reception,
so they open their new faces
and salts. This is here,
The older ones, each
of betrayal. This one's
this one serenely still,
cries, though not to us.
(Too big, No time,
and, some of them, names,
Tahoe, Dakota, Jack--
to stop the world from draining
and routines. I know.
gone, who are we?
tinged with caution,
once, don't we want
love may come to?
Well, I'll shift gear, and read you a little--few pages from this book, Dog Years. In this particular passage, my dog Arden, who's a big lab/Newfie mix is quite young, and he's about to make his first trip to the kennel, which, probably for a dog, is no big deal, but for the human companion, extremely stressful. Here it goes. So this is central Vermont, late 1980s.
One kennel we visit seems like a jail for pets, with concrete floors and brilliant fluorescent lights and awful metal doors that bang and reverberate through the metal walls. The search for an acceptable kennel isn't an easy thing, but there's a week we have to be away. A friend from school recommends Arlene's, a place perched way back on a dirt road on a hill above the college, in a zone of trailers and odd little "manufactured homes." We call, then go for a visit. Arlene is a wide woman in a flowered dress, who seems to have a bit of difficulty standing; she says, "My leg's been bugging me, but Junior can take you out to the kennel."
Junior is a thick fellow, arms and legs of the same size, and his head seems made of identical material, [Audience laughter] as if he were built of tubes of clay all extruded from the same pipe. We walk across the muddy patches and the thin grass out back, to a row of pens made of wire fencing, roofless, each one with a little wooden house inside. One pen has several of the ramshackle structures, for the more social. It looks like the canine version of a town in a John Waters movie, [Audience laughter] but we try to remind ourselves that what we seek in a kennel might well not be the things that would please a dog, and Junior does seem affectionate with the animals, and the creatures wiggling their butts in the pens are completely fine.
When Arden arrives, he appears to find the place delightful. He runs up to the edge of the cages, greeting the inhabitants: much tail-wagging, sniffing, friendly little barks. We're wretchedly nervous about leaving him--I suddenly feel very gay and very middle-class--[Audience laughter] but he shows no signs of being the least bit bothered, and we're disciplining ourselves not to look back too much as we walk away, letting him be absorbed in his new social life in the big damp pen.
Of course, we call Arlene from San Francisco, a couple of days into the trip. She's as laconic as an old Vermonter could ever be. She says, "He's just fine."
What I want, naturally, are some details, [Audience laughter] but I don't quite know how to ask for them. "So he's okay?"
"He's doing just fine."
I try again. "He's adjusting okay?"
Pause. Arlene calls out, "Junior?" Another pause, shuffley noise, phone bumped or dropped, muffled words, then, "How's that new black dog?"
Muffled word. She gets back on the receiver. "Junior says he's just fine."
I have no choice but to believe, though I also can't help but imagine Arlene rolling her eyes.
At last we're back, and make the drive from the airport straight up Arlene's dusty, gravelly road. The noise of our car pulling into the driveway rouses Junior, who emerges and leads us out back; Arden's in the big pen by himself, as all the other dogs seem to have gone home. He comes bounding out of his doghouse, and when Junior opens the door to the pen, he jumps straight up in the air, arcing his body like a leaping fish, the picture of joy. Junior retrieves the blanket we've left with him, which feels very damp, as, indeed, does Arden. I look back and see that the doghouse has a gaping black hole in the roof. Arden's been sleeping in the rain all week!
But, in fact, he seems none the worse for wear, perhaps even refreshed by the experience, [Audience laughter] as happy and eager as he's ever been, though we don't ever go back to Arlene's.
It's fifteen years later when Paul and I drive Arden, on fall weekends, down to a little house Paul's parents own on the Jersey Shore. When we pull off the Garden State Parkway at the exit, Arden sits up in the back of the station wagon, excited, head to the glass, nostrils pulsating at the salt air.
At the house, he's in heaven; there's a small grassy yard that fronts onto a lagoon, a world of things to watch. Arden's happiness is to lie on the grass, alert to seagulls and egrets, to passing boats, to rippling water. Across the canal, they're building condos smack out into the wetlands, so there's an occasional truck, a bulldozer flattening reeds. He hardly has to walk at all if he doesn't choose to--it's hard for him, these days--and a whole world seems to offer itself for his inspection. Eventually he falls asleep, out in the grass, and in a while wakes up and watches again.
He's so pleased with his situation that he doesn't want to come in that evening, so we let him stay there, sleeping in the twilight. We don't have the heart to wake him up to bring him indoors, but at three in the morning, we're roused by crashing lightning and then a wild downpour, like gravel poured onto the roof of the house. Suddenly I'm awake enough to think, My God, he must be miserable! I pull on some shorts and run out into the storm--only to find him so deeply, completely asleep he seems he might be sinking into the earth. He's soaked to the bone. I say his name--nothing. I stroke him, no response. Now I'm soaked in the cold rain, too. I put my hand on his ribs to make sure he's breathing, which he is--but he has gone so far into the bliss of sleeping in the grass beside the dark lagoon that I can't wake him at all. And this is a dog who didn't even like to go for a walk in the rain!
I don't know that in a few minutes, after I've given up and run back into the house to wrap myself in a towel and shiver and shake as if I were myself a large, soaking dog, he'll stumble back into awareness, wake up enough to hobble to the door so that he can have a towel-drying, too. Just now, as I am bending over the absolutely still black body gleaming in the flashes of lightning, he suddenly seems to me the image of King Lear--the mad old man on the moor, fallen, intensely vulnerable, the very image of all our aging, helpless in the storm. And I'm the worried Fool, trying to rouse the tragic, failing King.
But perhaps I dramatize, [Audience laughter] as I have been known to do. [Audience laughter] I could also have read his deep, dreamless sleep in the rain as a memory of Arlene's, of lovely nights of youth in a fragrant field, in good company, where the rain must have brought to the sleeping animals new fragrances of its own. [inaudible]
I think we'll have…end with a few poems. There's a, a garden center, I like to go to out close to where I live in Long Island, where they have various creatures. And one of them is this really beautiful, very cranky peacock. And looking at that creature, I found myself thinking about theories of evolution. And how is it possible that something as incredibly ornate as this could be seen as necessary, hmm? Could, how, how did evolution exactly create a peacock's tail, hmm? It's a mystery. So this is--there's a quote from Darwin in this poem. It's a real quote. I did not make this up. And the poem is called "Apparition."
magnificent behind a wire fence
and hand-lettered instructions:
DON'T PROVOKE ME.
He's the provocation:
he's not just now displaying?
whenever I gaze at it,
even eons of increments
would conspire to this,
requiring an arc of nervous gleams,
from the dim
by his mere presence
for creation, his deity's
contained in all that glory.
metallic topknot shivering
while Hommer blinks and flicks
his actual eyes from side to side?
no human throat can mime
the archaic poem of his tail.
I think that experience of being filled with wonder by the world, the peculiarity of the world, is probably the foundation ground of poetry. Where else would poetry begin except in that, that feeling of being struck by the strangeness of things, and the urge to both describe and try to account for that strangeness? This poem began in the grocery store in Orleans, Massachusetts, when I found myself staring at the fish counter, where the creatures described in this poem, no longer living, were on display. It's called "A Display of Mackerel."
They lie in parallel rows,
barred with black bands,
like seams of lead
prismatics: think abalone,
think sun on gasoline.
distinguished from the other
they're all exact expressions
of heaven's template,
at this enameling, the jeweler's
in its oily fabulation
like these, and lose ourselves
to be yourself only,
plainly, to be flashing participants,
forward, heedless of stasis.
just as, presumably,
the rainbowed school
or every one is. How happy they seem,
Well, I wanna end with two poems for spring, because here we are. One tiny, one slightly more extended. I'll do the tiny one first. You know the beautiful little spring peepers? Those frogs that chorus like crazy? I say beautiful, but I'm talking about their sound because you never get to see one of these things. They're totally mysterious what they look like. They're elusive. But you hear this unbelievable, loud chorus! I wanted to find a word for the sound they make, and I was struggling, trying to find it. It wasn't there, wasn't there, until, working on this poem, I happened to open an old dictionary. This is called "In the Airport Marshes."
A kind of heaven,
from a cry of joy among
wait to be lived,
or else they've all
this year. Hard to imagine
you have to take on faith,
over the patched tarmac
How do you reckon your little music?
And I'll end with a poem which began some years ago driving north, I think, driving in New England to give a poetry reading something like this one, and coming across a scene by the side of the road that somehow seemed to get beneath the skin of the world, as it were. This is called "Source."
I'd been traveling all day, driving north
when I saw three horses in a fenced field
two uniformly snowy, the other speckled
--small, medium, large--and two stood
in a shallow pond,
in the cool water around his hooves
to visit the bookstores and the coffee bar,
it was horses I was thinking of,
the three companions left off
I'd pulled over onto the grassy shoulder
Experience is an intact fruit,
Though that is the dream of the poem:
I was moved by the verticality of her face,
down to white eyelids and lashes,
of her mane a little to frame the gaze
the others stood at a slight distance
of it, reader, and taste it
ran from the three horses to the place
of nothing, cave at the heart
not negation, but a generous, cold nothing:
are propelled to the grazing mouths,
the poem wants a name for the kind nothing
come tumbling: curled, fetal, dreaming,
Cold, bracing nothing which mothers forth
and horsehair and the accordion bones
and fall back into the necessary
It was the beginning of May,
like pearls, everything warm with setting out,
on which they trot into the world, eager for pleasure
in good time, into the source of spring.
[Extended audience applause]
Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you.
So, so the curtain has closed and the house lights have come up, the curtains have risen again, and we now move into a different kind of rhetorical space in which you are invited to ask questions, and, and I'll do my best to answer them. Yes?
Paul Worley: [Ed. Note: The exact wording of Dr. Paul Worley's request is inaudible; however, he asks if Mark Doty would be willing to read "63rd Street Y"]
Mark Doty: Sure! Do you happen to be carrying that book with you? [Laughs]
Paul Worley: [inaudible]
Mark Doty: Great! Bring it up! The deal is--this is, these are poems from one, my first or second book, which I don't carry these around because they're old and they've just been reprinted in this new edition from David R Godine.
Paul Worley: Thanks!
Mark Doty: Thank you. Sure.
Paul Worley: [inaudible]
Mark Doty: Okay. All right, so this is a poem about--oh man, this is a hundred years ago [laughter]--the speaker is staying at the 63rd Street YMCA in New York City. "63rd Street Y". It's a Christmas poem, actually.
All night steam heat pours
a voyeur's advent calendar.
this warm December. Thirteen dizzying stories
The nude black man two windows over
the foot of the bed visible,
but he smooths the cloth until
after I'm tired of watching
--the Ode to Joy?--curiosity
floodlit splendor, and there the hulk
even an exit sign would set them blazing.
he's slightly built--real, somehow--
Divinity includes desire
in which the minor figures wake
just the perfect feet and ankles
moving toward his and twining with them,
curling into the billows sculptors used once
but the narrative windows
That's going on thirty years ago, you know, so--somebody else wrote that! A question? Anybody? A question that doesn't involve reading a long poem. Yes?
Audience member: [inaudible]
Mark Doty: Oh. Okay.
Audience member: [inaudible] read a short poem?
Mark Doty: A short poem! Okay, you can have a short poem.
Audience member: And it's "Golden Retrievals."
Mark Doty: Mm-hmm.
Audience member: [inaudible]
Mark Doty: Sure I do. This is a good place to stop, actually, because this is a poem that's spoken by a dog. My, my golden retriever Beau was invited to contribute a poem to an anthology of poems by writers' dogs, and I just thought, "He's never going to do that," you know? [Audience laughter] He doesn't--he lacks focus.
And sure enough, one day we're out walking in the woods, and, you know, I began to pick up these signals coming from him. And he dictated this sonnet. [Audience laughter]
He likes puns. It's 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,
[Transcribed by Megan Sevigny; Reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts 11 November 2012]