A beautiful book. Not my favorite, ever, but gorgeous all the same. And there is something that feels so good to read 318 pages of poetry, all by the same poet. I love the regular collections, the 70 pages of the average poetry collection, the unity of the idea, the power of the knockout punch, but to live within a poet’s world for several days, to read poems from seven different collections, and new poems, from a spread of twenty years, is an experience unto itself. I’ve been intimidated by poetry compilations in the past, of reading them all at once. I’ve had Seamus Heaney’s OPEN GROUND for years, and have dipped in and out of it, but have never read all thirty years of poetry from beginning to end. Now I think I will. Doty’s FIRE TO FIRE was such an intimate portrait of a man and his lover and his dogs and his grief and the devastation that was AIDs in the 80s and 90s, and above all, the chronicle of Doty’s own seeking and growth as a man. This is a book that I will visit again and again.
I like to quote from favorite poems in my poetry reviews, but from this book, that is so hard to do, for two reasons. One, because there are so many wonderful poems, it is hard to choose just one. Two, because so many of the wonderful poems are so long, running two, three, four pages, which I love, but is a lot to post here. And finally, because so many of the poems work best in the over-arching context of the book, and the ways that these poems talk to each other, both within their own collections, but also in how they dialogue over the years. There is no way to recreate that in this review. Indeed, as Doty wrote in his poem: “Theory of Beauty (Greenwich Village),”. . . beauty resides not within/individual objects but in the nearly/unimaginable richness of their relation,” (p. 24) and this could work as the Ars Poetica for this collection, because the richness of these poems is their relation to each other, and their relation to Doty, and their relation to the world and the various subjects of his poetry.
However, as impossible as it is to recreate the way that the parts of this book create a sum far greater than its parts, here is a taste based on a few poems that I couldn’t help but scrawl in my journal:
From the long poem, “Lament-Heaven,” (p. 126)
. . . . . . . I think
this is how our death would look,
seen from a great distance,
if we could stand that far
from ourselves: the way birch leaves
signal and flash, candling
into green then winking out
. . . If deaths like that,
if we are continuous,
rippling from nothing into being,
then why can’t we let ourselves go
into the world; glimmering strong?
Who can become lost in a narrative
if all he can think of is the end?
And then, from the long poem “Atlantis” (p. 148)
Where isn’t the question,
though we think it is;
we don’t even know where the living are,
in this raddled and unraveling “here.”
What is the body? Rain on a window,
a clear movement over whose gaze?
Husk, leaf, little burst of paper
and wood to mark the speed of a stream?
From “Migratory” (p. 166)
. . . I wasn’t there.
I was so filled with longing.
– is that what the sounds for? –
I seemed nowhere at all.
From “Grosse Fugue” (p. 179)
. . . I have been teaching myself
to listen to Beethoven, or trying to –
learning to hear the late quartet: how hard
it is to apprehend something so large
in scale and yet so minutely detached.
Like trying to familiarize yourself,
exactly, with the side of a mountain:
this birch, this rock-pool, this square mosaic
yard of resserated leaves, autumnal,
a jewel relinquancy. Trying to see
each element of the mountain and then
through them, the whole, since music is only
given to us in time, each phrase parceled
out, in time . . .
What do you expect, in a world that blooms
and freezes all at once?
There is no resolution in the fugue.
I could go on and on, but I’ll pause there. Because that is the thing about poetry, about reading it, and about the parts that grab us – poetry is life parceled out for us, and we react to the images and words according to where and when we are in the world. Posting the above fragments of poems as I have done here reveals as much about me as it does Mark Doty. It shows the themes and ideas that I am resonating with right now, which will be different than what I resonate with next month, next year, or in twenty years. Reading that last poem causes me to think of two things. I think of my nephew, who is learning to play the trumpet, and has found a certain love and ability for the instrument, so much so that his teacher has invited him to play in the 7th and 8th grade band, and so to help him catch up with their music, she has given him sound files of the songs, so that he can play along with the united whole of the music – so he, and we, can hear the music that continues on while he counts out his resting beats, and then, music springs forth from this child, that while almost twelve, with feet as big as my own, is still so very much a child, and so the sound of music bursting from his lips is a startling thing. So this poem makes me think of that, and then also I hold onto those last three lines, and how they express the truth of my life – my life right now, and my life as it has always been. That life is always blooming and freezing all at once. That during some of my best, brightest moment I’ve also had heartbreak, tragedy or depression. That in the first week of my first job after college, the beginning of my life as an adult, my father died. That while swimming with sea lions in Mexico I could also be almost drowning in a depression that threatened to pull me under over and over again throughout my life, that the week of defending my MFA thesis, my best friend, soulmate and love of my life, cut herself out of my life, never to return. Life is both frozen and blooming all at once, and all we can do is hold onto it.
All of the last of this, I think I shouldn’t post. These are things not suitable to a book review, but then again, the thing that poetry also does for me is that it makes me brave. Mark Doty faces his life with openess and brave honesty, and so I can aspire to do the same. And so I’ll leave this review exactly as it is.
And I’ll end with four lines from “Fog Suite” on page 189:
What I love about language
is what I love about fog:
what comes between us and things
grants them their shine.
Doty’s words gives life its shine, and helps me see the beauty in hardship and the grace in love and good times.