Mark Doty's last two award-winning collections of poetry, as well as his acclaimed memoir Heaven's Coast, used the devastation of AIDS as a lens through which to consider questions of loss, love and identity. The poems in his new collection, Sweet Machine, see the world from a new, hard-won perspective: A coming back to life, after so much death, a way of seeing the body's "sweet machine" not simply as a time bomb, but also as a vibrant, sensual, living thing. These poems are themselves "sweet machines"lyrical, exuberant and joyousand they mark yet another milestone in the extraordinary career of one of our most distinguished and accomplished poets.
It is by no means a slight to call Mark Doty's poetry a sublime form of interior decorating. If anything, color, surface and the particularities of light are the antidote to his harrowing subject matter: the particularities of dying. Both poet and documentarian, Doty is perhaps best known for his deeply moving memoir, Heaven's Coast, about the surrender of his lover, Wally, to an AIDS-related illness in 1995. His four collections of poetry, like the most recent, My Alexandria, and Atlantis (both dedicated to Wally), are equally elegiac. Loosely enjambed paeans to the barnacled trawlers in Provincetown, Mass., and the fabulous resilience of drag shows are haunted by the slow ruin of his longtime companion.
But in his new book, Sweet Machine, Doty makes one telling redaction, and the work hurtles forward from that point on: There is no dedication to Wally. It is a tender omission, for this collection of 30 poems is not about the aftereffects of Wally's passing, but about the new. Wally appears -- or is it radiates? -- only once here, and it is in an early eulogy for one of their friends. Instead, Doty turns toward the immediacy of New York street life, his slavering golden retrievers and, more importantly, his next effulgent romance. "I'm breathing here,/a new man next to me who's beginning/to matter ..." he writes in the courageous "Mercy on Broadway." "Somebody's going to live through this./Suppose it's you?"
It's as if the world and everything in it were blooming. When a ragtag group of his neighbors, "a cloudbank of familiar angels," perform "Messiah" at the local church, Doty muses, "Everything,/the choir insists,/might flame;/inside these wrappings/burns another, brighter life." As a technician, Doty is insatiably hungry for new words, and he conducts them symphonically -- if you miss the meaning, you're still carrying the tune. He studs his lines with "the lavish wardrobe of things": vaporetto, sateen and the mineral truths of marcasite. He's also wise enough to admit it's a fixation. In "Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work," Doty asks (with a rare rhyme), "Glaze and shimmer, luster and gleam,/Can't he think of anything but all that sheen?" Then follows the rejoinder: "No such thing, the queen said, as too many sequins."
But since he has begun to move beyond bereavement, Doty's work has necessarily lost some of its urgency. Like many poets who came to prominence under AIDS and who have also survived (unlike say, Paul Monette), he finds the second act of both his life and art just now developing. In the final sequence of poems, Doty seems to wrestle against his instinct toward the talking cure. He regards the raked skin of a drug-addled teen scratching himself madly on a subway platform and writes, "Moth, plum -- hear how the imagery aestheticizes?" But that language is also his mode of revelation, and the collection is full of it. "What I love about language/is what I love about fog:/what comes between us and things/grants them their shine," he writes in "Fog Suite." To him, that pleasure in illumination is all we've got. And as he says elsewhere, see into what you can. -- Salon