I don’t know if it’s possible for anyone not to be taken by Mark Doty’s poetry. Reading one or two (which I try to do with poetry, so as not to become too glib about it) is like eating one or two pistachios: before you know it, you’ve done the book cover to cover and your mind is too congested for any use whatsoever. And your hair is standing straight up.
Doty, as do almost all poets these days, works with small events, everyday details, and lets his mind wander through them. “Favrile,” the first poem in Sweet Machine, digresses from reflections on the glassmaker’s art to a brief tale of a puppet show, and these two images twine together to illuminate art, and, necessarily, life. The names of the lustres used by glassmakers –Quetzal, Aurene, Favrile — are a source of wonder, leading us through dragonfly wings, sun in the fog, through lamps too dim to read by, and the elaborate silk kimonos of the puppets. Hovering just beneath the lines are the makers of these wonders, the glassmakers, the puppeteers, the poets. What is Doty’s attitude toward them? The most telling lines end the poem, when he says:
For the silk sleeves
of the puppet queen,
held at a ravishing angle
over her puppet lover slain,
for her lush vowels
mouthed by the plain man
hunched behind the stage.
It is this sense of wonders created by everyday people that permeates Doty’s poetry – as he says in “Messiah (Christmas Portions)” as the choir assembles for their performance: “. . . Altos/from the A&P, soprano/from the T-shirt shop” – these are the people who make magic.
Richard Howard, who first published “Favrile,” refers to Doty’s loyalty to the senses. It is perhaps this, more than anything else, that sets Doty apart from other contemporary poets; this is not to say that poets like Mary Oliver or Jimmy Santiago Baca ignore the senses, but rather that Doty lives in them, as the only way to realize the world. And like the world, Doty is unexpected. You think you have developed a sense of what he does, what he is going to do, and then, on page 84, comes “Golden Retrievals,” narrated by his dog: “. . . This shining bark,/A Zen master’s bronzy gong, calls you here,/entirely, now: bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow.”
Like any art that has the potential of greatness, Doty’s poems also come from the hard places: “Shelter” comes entirely too close to breaking your heart, and the last section of the book, including the title poem, “Sweet Machine,” looks straight on at the raw side. Doty’s grace in this is that he is much too intelligent to slap our faces with it – he leaves it to the reader to draw the necessary conclusions.
One thing that impresses me greatly about Mark Doty’s poetry is its understated technical brilliance. The thought and the form work together so seamlessly that the reader will tend not to notice that each line is no more than a hair’s breadth away from perfection, that each word glows in its place as though it had grown there, like a diamond in a mine, a reminder that art without technique is just junk.
To talk about poetry is most often an exercise in futility, or, at worst, vivisection. All that can really be said is “Go to the bookstore; take this book off the shelf and read a poem or two.” I think you will fall in love.
(Harper Perennial, 1998)