School of the Arts
By Mark Doty
HarperCollins, 108 pp., $22.95
In case you don't read contemporary poetry, Mark Doty is a nationally recognized, award-winning poet and the author of the memoirs Heaven's Coast (1996) and Firebird (1999). Each fall, he teaches a semester at the University of Houston, but he divides the better part of the year between New York City and Cape Cod.
One year, though, the poet lived in Memphis. It was 1959, and Doty was 6 years old. Cooper-Young was the neighborhood where he, his parents, and his sister lived, and Peabody Elementary was where he attended first grade. Don't look for memories of Memphis, Cooper-Young, or Peabody Elementary, however, in Doty's seventh book of poems, School of the Arts. Do look for a meditation on time. It's of the essence. So too: seeing and believing; the here-and-now and the hereafter.
"Heaven for Helen" opens the book, and already Doty's treating themes he'll revisit and reconfigure over the course of nearly three dozen poems. Helen is a painter, and following Rilke's example, she's "practiced a long time learning to see." Her art's devoted to it: observation as an unselfconscious disappearing act of attention to detail. Heaven for Helen, because she's been asked by the poet, would be an immersion in and identification with nature at its most intangible -- "the respiration of the grass,/ or ionized agitation/ just above the break of a wave."
That's paradise, then, for Helen, but what of its opposite? Recall E.A. Robinson, who wrote in his poem "Luke Havergal," "Hell is more than half of paradise." Now consider Doty, who writes in response to his painter friend: "But if we're to become part of it all,/ won't our paradise also involve/ participation in being, say,/ diesel fuel?"
It's an idea conversationally put and an image to put us in mind of Walt Whitman, who affirmed the singular self while celebrating the mundane and the multitude. It's also an image (that diesel fuel) Doty returns to in "Heaven for Paul," a poem -- written half in dead-earnest, half in self-mockery -- that depicts the fear on board a plane prepared to crash-land. Paul, Doty's partner, makes his peace and dwells on the "unseeable ahead," while the poet, for his part, "had no internal composure," his vision of an afterlife literally exhausted:
"... [A]ny ideas I'd ever entertained about dying/ seemed merely that, speculations flown now/ while my mind spiraled in a hopeless sorrowful motion,/ sure I'd merely be that undulant fuel haze/ in the air over the runway, hot chemical exhaust,/ atomized, no idea what had happened to me,/ what to do next, and how much of the next life/ would I spend (as I have how much of this one?)/ hanging around an airport. I thought of my dog,/ and who'd care for him. No heaven for me, ... ."
But there is "Heaven for Beau" and "Heaven for Arden," poems about two of Doty's beloved dogs, and there's one for poet Stanley Kunitz in "Heaven for Stanley." There's even a down-to-earth heaven for Doty in "Now You're an Animal," where the poet, naked and backed only by a pair of painted antlers, poses for a photographer on 23rd Street. Just as there's a dark heaven for Doty as witness to the sex acts inside a leather bar, in a series of poems midway through School of the Arts, poems not without a spiritual component, the setting not without its blessings and joys.
Joy too (and inspiration), according to Doty, in the birds above Manhattan, in the sky between sunset and nightfall, in the flesh as painted by Lucian Freud, in the sunflowers for sale on 17th Street, in a candle and its wick burning to meet, and in that liberating land's-end known as Provincetown. The poet's vista: endless, available. The poet's eye: all-seeing, accepting.
In "Fire to Fire," Doty writes: "If I were a sunflower I would be/ the branching kind,/ my many faces held out/ in all directions, all attention,/ awake to any golden/ incident descending;/ drinking in the world/ with my myriads of heads,/ I'd be my looking."
"Myriads of heads": That's Doty borrowing from Whitman. "Fire to Fire": That's Doty in fine form. "I'd be my looking": That's heaven for Doty in School of the Arts.
This question though: Why has no school asked Doty to read in this his onetime hometown?