In this series, writers look back at past NBCC award winners. Here, poet Randall Mann revisits My Alexandria, by Mark Doty, recipient of the 1993 NBCC award in poetry.
My Alexandria, winner of the 1993 National Book Critics Circle award in poetry, is a brittle, ambitious book, perhaps one of the most ambitious in the last twenty-five years of American poetry. This bright, brutal collection is best known for its take on death and dying (the “terror / of decay, the little hell opening in every violated cell,” violated, that is, by HIV/AIDS), and its telling questions of death (“why can’t we let ourselves go // into the world’s shimmering story?”). But that’s merely one layer of the book’s story.
The power of the poems in My Alexandria lies not just in the poems’ anguish, but in their curiosity and deceptive offhandedness: the poems often begin in medias res, e.g., “When my sister came back from Africa” (“Bill’s Story”) or “Maggie’s taking care of a man / who’s dying” (“Brilliance”) or “The bored child at the auction / lies in his black rainboots reading” (“The Wings”), begin meticulously, sans parlor tricks: when the reader arrives at the obdurate dying that happens in each of these poems I just named, the pathos seems earned because Mark Doty’s art—through allusion, accumulation of detail, and necessary detachment—magnanimously, wryly, judiciously unfolds.
For example, I have always loved the construction of the poem “Days of 1981,” a gorgeously rendered piece filled with rhymes and half-rhymes that come and go, with alliterative lines like “The man I met, slight and dark as Proust, a sultry flirt”; and wordplay, as in the final lines, “The astonishing flowers, seething / a blue I could barely see,” the “seething” that recedes to “see.” And I find a kind of unrepentant tenderness in the direct phrases of the poem: “I was ready and waiting / to be swept”; “I loved him, because I’d met a man and wasn’t sure / I could meet another—I’d never tried—”; “I called him more than twice.” In this poem, the speaker grows disabused, learns the “austere code of tricks,” his necessary armor; this poem has a sense of nostalgia, innocence lost, and the suggestion of sexual freedom taken away by a virus, but the attention to craft and verisimilitude allows melancholy to enlighten rather than stifle the lines.
My Alexandria is also a deft piece of art criticism, one filled with disclosures of Doty’s aesthetics. In “Esta Noche,” a drag queen, Lola, is not simply some guy stuffed into a dress but “a lesson, a criticism and colossus / of gender, all fire and irony.” Lola’s “mysterious permission” that she earns from the dress succinctly illustrates the freedom found in constriction, in artifice. And part of Doty’s freedom is also his willingness to acknowledge debt, i.e., tradition, in, say, the formidable first poem in the collection, “Demolition.” The poem begins with a casual description of a building’s demolition, and it brings to mind the opening of James Merrill’s “An Urban Convalescence.” (Merrill is an abiding presence throughout the book.) Doty’s poet’s-poet, glittering descriptions seem rigorous, not forced (this he shares with Elizabeth Bishop, another ghostly presence). The poem is what is: what the speaker sees, how he reads the scene, how it all comes together, albeit “at loose ends.” “We love disasters that have nothing to do / with us,” Doty writes in the third stanza, once destruction has been laid out, and then his speaker effortlessly connects his dispassionate view of this demolition to his own leisurely summer reading, biographies of Oscar Wilde and Robert Lowell, and builds a curious poem out of literary and architectural dust. Channeling Lowell, he names the building his “black classic”⎯and then the building “topples all at once.”
Doty the aesthete has been criticized for the slick surfaces of his poems, but that’s a serious misreading: in the poem “Night Ferry,” yes, lights are “shimmering on the island shore” and “the narrative // of the ferry begins and ends brilliantly,” but such specifics are stated not to negate the real, and real suffering, but to acknowledge artifice’s power and then, cunningly, to undercut it. For what does Doty say toward the end of the poem?
There’s no beautiful binding
for this story, only the temporary,
liquid endpapers of the hurried water,
shot with random color.
There is lack in beauty, but that does not make life, or the life of the poem, unbeautiful, or unremarkable. Regarding a mirror on the street, in the beginning of the poem “Heaven,” he writes, “I want to think it’s a work of art, / or at least an intentional gesture,” and to believe that this is some sort of obfuscation fails to read the line closely, read the I want. I read underneath the I want a tacit But of course it isn’t like that.
And Doty’s often affecting ending lines draw their epigrammatic power not only from their craft, but from the poems’ humility: this poet’s project, maybe, is to earn such rhetoric; when he begins, say, the last poem in the collection, “Lament Heaven,” with the lovely, benign “What hazed around the branches / late in March was white at first,” there’s very little indication, from these lines, what a tour de force this poem will be, one that, after a careful description of that birch, turns into an essay on death and semantics, a meditation on the meaning of “home”; into an aesthetic manifesto, one that states “we can barely tell the thing // from its elegy”; turns into a fierce grappling with abstraction, with faith, architecture, and music—all grounded in pages of painstaking detail, such that, by the time speaker reveals the final lines, the final mystery of the poem, “I heard it, the music / that could not go on without us, / and I was inconsolable,” I, too, am inconsolable, on the basis of this moving narrative, on the basis of Doty’s charity, of him struggling, almost philosophically, to get all of the words right, he who writes more sensually than any American poet I can think of, he who seeks more than a representation of experience, but a way into experience. This makes Mark Doty the most Stevensian of writers. And I can think of no higher praise for a Modern poet.
Randall Mann is the author of two collections of poetry, Breakfast with Thom Gunn (University of Chicago 2009) and Complaint in the Garden (Zoo/Orchises 2004), winner of the 2003 Kenyon Review Prize; and the co-author of the textbook Writing Poems (Pearson Longman 2007). He lives in San Francisco.