book Sweet Machine

reviewed by James Hall

Published in Issue No. 18 ~ November, 1998

I want to go shopping with Mark Doty. I imagine Mall of the Americas. I imagine a spree of sorts in the woody Bombay Company, in The Gap, an hour at least in Structure. But we’d avoid Express, wouldn’t we? Yes. Because, if anything, Doty’s lines have always trotted and never sprinted to their characteristically breathless endings. I’m too sure Mark Doty would be the perfect shopping companion; his eye craves the right color, his mind knows the perfect tapestries. But Doty would also be the most economical of shoppers. His verse (when I think of it, I always see tercets, though like any other poet his style loves other forms) packs each word in comparatively short lines.

But only when one is buying consolation gifts can one think of shopping as elegy. I am not: thankfully, my metaphor runs out. But Doty’s metaphors, his leaps from the prosaic to the poetic, never do. From Turtle, Swan, his first, to Sweet Machine, his most recent, Doty’s power encapsulates is through elegy. Every poem is elegiac in a sense, Doty has said, because it attempts to recreate, to remember a moment past.

Still, as much as anyone can admire the cut glass colored Murano blue (to borrow a Doty poem title), one must either buy the art or pass on it in hopes of finer work. I first came to Doty’s poetry when I hesitantly came out to a professor two years ago: I complained, “Is there nothing gay written?” And she, heaven sent, said, “Read this.” “This” was her copy of Doty’s multi-award-winning third venture, My Alexandria. I spent the first fifteen minutes, once the treasure and I were locked behind my dormitory door, looking for sex.

Not that I’m a huge fan of the pornographic or that Doty writes it. I wanted what Doty did deliver: I wanted honesty. I was bewitched, entranced, enthralled, enchanted by the spell this man’s poetry created. So I read more. I read Turtle, Swan (a bootleg copy), Bethlehem in Broad Daylight – his two earlier collections which mirror the poet’s own life as he was coming out. I don’t mean to put Doty in a “gay context” (is there such thing? I suppose). Doty puts himself there, writes from there – and says, “What of it?” But not until Atlantis, his fourth book, was anger a theme. “Homo Will Not Inherit” is a diatribe of sorts, the occasion for the poem being a poster bearing the poem’s title tacked to a light post with a picture of Jesus. I even scarfed up Doty’s first prose, a memoir by the name Heaven’s Coast. I loved it. The man can make me weep.

Loving these, and feeling none of them equal to the sustained power within My Alexandria, I had hopes for Sweet Machine, which title I find disturbing even in its use of internal rhyme.

I feel badly when I hate a Madonna song or when, particularly, Barbara Streisand’s Christmas c.d. flops. My objections to critics whose scathing remarks pock these divas have now become my hurdle: I didn’t love Sweet Machine.

There – I’ve said it, delayed it as much as possible. Though, yes, Sweet Machine does have its outstanding poems, I can’t help to think how they’d rate next to Doty stand-outs as “Fog” and “Esta Noche” from My Alexandria or the title poem from “Atlantis.” No, the power of this book is spotty. Though all of it is smart writing (lest I be accused of being accusational, all these poems are witty and well written), Sweet Machine cannot keep its gaze on the ostensible object (artifice, surfaces, the things that insist on their being “made”) and have an emotional resonance as well. When Doty does it well, his poems are fantastic. When he doesn’t do it well, the poems are exercises in idea.

Who couldn’t love “the puppet queen,/ held at a ravishing angle” and the realization that the queen’s true identity is “the plain man/ hunched behind the stage”? This image ends Doty’s first poem, “Favrile” (“Favrile, I’d propose,/ for the perfect lamp,/ too dim and strange to help us read”). Everything the poet sees is made, is a surface. And some of them are, like “Favrile,” beautiful, especially in Doty’s trademark elegiac light. But the power of this particular poem isn’t in the poet proving his mastery of language and form (indeed, why call attention to the parts as a whole when there is such a whole to be admired?). No – the poem’s beauty comes from the emotional tug of the friend’s attachment: “- Jimmy wept/ at the world of tiny gestures,/ forgot, he said,/ these were puppets . . . .”

This is where we are in art. The constructions must be made gossamer thin lest the poet is found out. And poets only want to be found out if a) there’s bragging going on or b) the poet’s pissed at not being found out and wants to brag. Doty is, I believe, above this. His art is at least – or wants to be.

For a poet who has written so unflinchingly about death, whose eyes have never failed to move into what might be beyond, these poems are distinctly surface oriented. Sure, they sometimes refer to “our depths” such as in “Favrile.” I guess I should consider the alternative to surfaces; looking into and licking the face of death so many times certainly sounds morbid. After detailing as he does in My Alexandria and Atlantis so much loss (the best friend, the lover, the first love), why shouldn’t this book be about our world, its made beauty, and our inclusion in it? Am I being too intransigent, morbid myself – for wanting every bloom to have its burning?

Or is it the matter of the ruse? I’m disturbed by “matter got up in costume as itself” (Lilies in New York), though I accept as true the Poundian image of putting on our masks to meet the masks the greet us. I understand this, welcome it, even. But for some reason, perhaps my own blindness, I see poetry as delving farther than surfaces – using them, of course – to move beyond the shallow and into the color. I don’t want the lilies in “Lilies in New York” to be drawn, I don’t want them charcoaled and insolent on the page. So when Doty does make them, alive, again only to deaden them with his less-than-earnest questioning, I feel cheated. Because the lilies were coming back to be – alive – and I had hoped to hold them, five minutes, maybe, in my arms.

But, like I said, Sweet Machine is nothing if not smart writing. As much as I want those flowers to live through the art Doty describes, they won’t. The loss of the daring to hope is not Doty’s poetic character. He hopes again in “Fog Suite” (interestingly enough, each of Doty’s last 3 books have had “fog” titles – “Fog” in My Alexandria and “Fog Argument” in Atlantis). This 3 part poem is perhaps the book’s best. Perhaps I love it because it recalls (as does “Thirty Deft Tiles” later, in another more content related way) my favorite Doty poem, “Fog.” In that poem, Doty relates his lover’s HIV+ diagnosis, and A.I.D.S. is a terrible blooming metaphor along with language. The poem ends:

….Kiss me,

in front of the screen, please
the dead are watching.

They haven’t had enough yet.
Every new bloom is falling apart.

I would say anything else
in the world, any other word.”

(I still can’t read this aloud without cracking at the end). In this earlier “Fog,” language is the world of consolation and, of course, the very instrument of its downfall. Doty is still, perhaps, unable to say the words, but now, in “Fog Suite” he can admit it, and come to some plausible reason:

Do we love more
what we can’t say?

As if what we wanted were to be brought
that much closer

to words’ failure
where desire begins?

Here is Doty’s longing, his tone of elegy for the unsayable-made-said. And though the world may be “lustered by the veil” we still long for “the white margins/ of a ghost’s embrace.”

Indeed, the book’s second and third sections shine as bright as “Emerald” (to borrow one poem’s title). Though “Murano,” seemingly dedicated to and about the dead poet Lynda Hull, and “Thirty Deft Tiles,” about James Merrill, leaves me wanting more, “Emerald,” about other A.I.D.S. deaths and how bereft the world’s been made, and “The Embrace” are stunning poetic ventures. These poems are full of Doty’s grace and lack the book’s characteristic insistence on veils, glass surfaces through which we’ll see the poet’s subject depth. The occasion for “The Embrace” is a dream in which the speaker’s dead lover comes back, crosses through the fog of consciousness, and holds him. The artifice that is dream – THIS the reader can locate, realize, and for once the poet need not clobber us with a 2×4 to point it out. Instead, we’re allowed in to the artifice, allowed to hear the direct address in which the poem is written; our hearts can break at the consolation the dream offers:

Bless you. You came back, so I could see you
once more, plainly, so I could rest against you
without thinking this happiness lessened anything,
without thinking you were alive again.

The emotional power of these two sections is not, as a whole, representative of the book. After this, perhaps only “My Tattoo,” with its fierce promise to wear a replica (“albeit blue”) of sun on skin, and “Mercy on Broadway,” with its devastating ending (“What did you think, that joy/ was some slight thing?” – it also ends the book), achieve any emotional heights.

My objection to emotional poetry is that often it’s not well written. My objection to well written poetry is that it forgets the heart. My objection to Doty’s Sweet Machine is that, while well written, it insistently refuses to exhume the heart: it steers clear. And I wonder at the inclusion of two poems “Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work” – the first, a slight adventure into camp, the second, a mere defense. Doty is not on trial, and I’d rather he leave me out of the battle cry of criticism. Because, to be honest, I’m already on his side.