Sunday, May 16, 2010

MARK DOTY'S "MY ALEXANDRIA"






Why review a book that was published almost twenty years ago? Because it's one of the magical poetry books of our time. Because most poets don't have a common literary foundation in contemporary poetry, and  often complain about mediocrity while ignorant of those magical "slender volumes." 

My Alexandria is regarded as Doty's best book. It's the collection that made him famous. It's a treasury of gorgeous poems that are rich in affection for the self and for everything he encounters – perhaps that's why this book is so charismatic. In our ironic age, he sides with ecstasy. In a bleak, minimalist climate, he dares risk feeling and beauty, even an excess of beauty. Once in a while he slips into too much detail, but we must forgive him: the gift he gives the reader is so large.

I was thinking what it reminded me of, that interweave of so many different strands in Doty's longer poems, and suddenly remembered that I first encountered it in Rilke’s Duino Elegies. To be sure, Doty's angels are drag queens, but the richness of the interweave and the search for the transcendent are similar.

Rilke’s influence shows itself in various ways, including a way of looking at time. In “Night Ferry,” Doty writes:

I love to stand like this,
where the prow pushes blunt into the future,
knowing, more than seeing, how
the surface rushes and doesn't break
but simply slides under us.

But time is not the main subject of this volume. Rather, it’s the city – artifice, illusion, the beautiful transvestites. For Doty, this is enchantment.  He’s close to nature and animals, but his love for the city, especially for New York, is primary in My Alexandria. New York is for him what Paris was for Baudelaire and Alexandria for Cavafy: the city is poetry itself, “my false, my splendid chanteuse.”

While "Chanteuse" isn't as successful as "Esta Noche," if you skip the preliminary details and start in the middle of page 26, with the drag queen, the poem’s captivating music begins to unfold, a magic interweave of narrative and meditation:

her smoke burnished, entirely believable voice, 
the sequins on her silver bolero
shimmering ice blue. Cavafy ends a poem

of regret and desire -- he had no other theme
than memory’s erotics, his ashen atmosphere –

I'm dazzled by this paratactic leap into Cavafy. And what other poet would dare this transfiguration, when Doty describes the city while it’s raining:

The rooftops were glowing above us,
enormous, crystalline, a second city
lit from within.

Doty is full of marvelous seductions and surprises. This is the opening of “Lament-Heaven,” the last poem that could stand next to one of Rilke’s Duino Elegies.

What hazed around the branches
late in March was white at first,
as if a young tree’s ghost

were blazing in the woods,
a fluttering around the limbs
like shredded sleeves. A week later,

green fountaining,
frothing champaigne;
against the dark of evergreen,

that skyrocket shimmer. I think
this is how our deaths would look,
seen from a great distance

Poem after poem provides a ravishing interweave of personal narrative and lyricism.

“Bill’s Story” alone is worth the price of the book. So is “Brilliance,” “No,” a fabulous poem about a turtle, and “Lament Heaven.” “Almost Blue,” “Esta Noche,” “Days of 1981” (the image of the lopsided valentine heart is perfect), “Fog,” “The Advent Calendars” come close. But then there are no weak poems in this volume, unless the overlong “Wings” (the Rilkean angel now a little boy with snow shoes flung over his back).

In this age of attention deficit, it takes daring to write long poems. In the face of trendy bleakness and the poetics of ugliness, it’s a miracle that we have a poet who believes in “an art / mouthed to the shape of how soft things are, / how good, before they disappear.”

I wonder what makes this so enchanting. One factor may be his love for the city. These are the poems of a man who is happy, and happily in love. My Alexandria consists of love poems, but not to Doty’s partner (unless "Fog" -- maybe). They are love poems to the city, mainly New York. And to the exuberantly daring and creative gay culture, and to the world in general.

I like it that Doty doesn't hammer away at the fact that he is gay, It's just part of the picture, and not even the most important part. I think his worship of beauty comes first, and his ability to see beauty everywhere.

Doty makes paratactic leaps, but there is a more elementary poetic technique that he uses. It's an interweave of the ordinary and the transcendent. He gives us flowers -- or birches coming into leaf, or the crystal-hung roofs of New York during rain -- and he gives us a simple narrative (sometimes two or three simple narratives). The limitless factors (imagination, music, poetic imagery) are balanced with the limiting factors (story and structure).

Doty’s worship of beauty is unapologetic. Modernity is often equated with the poetics of ugliness – what I call the "meat packing-plant poems." I mean those poems that wallow in “realistic” detail, preferably ugly, and never provide a contrasting element. It's not "By the road to the contagious hospital" -- and then the description of early spring. It's all a grim description of the hospital.

But I realize that a typical bad poem of today is not really an example of the school of "social realism." The majority case is still a trite poem about spring (or autumn, another season that inspires thousands of bad poems) that stays entirely in the realm of the transcendent.

Doty invokes the transcendent, but also gives up the image of the girl violinist pushing her glasses back whenever she pauses. This prosy detail grounds us in the human, the real, the imperfect. We have to accept the whole package.

As in thousands of other poetry volumes, there is pain, loss, and mortality on almost every page of My Alexandria. But there is also an amazingly buoyant feel to this collection, a cosmic optimism:

And if one wave breaking says
You’re dying, then the rhythm and shift of the whole
says nothing about endings, and half the shawling head

of each wave’s spume pours into the trough
of the one before,
and half blows away in spray, backward, toward the open sea.


**

~ review by Oriana

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