Sunday, March 09, 2008

Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems. Mark Doty.

Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems. Mark Doty. (Harper Collins-2008) $23.

Mark Doty is not only a poet’s poet. Thank God. Doty is an accomplished writer, the winner of the National Book Critics Award, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and is the only American winner of Britain’s T.S. Eliot Prize. But in spite of these accolades, we barbarians outside of the gates of the Academy can be thoroughly engaged and enamored with his latest collection: “Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems.”

Some years ago a friend of mine the poet Richard Wilhelm took a workshop with Doty at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, in Cambridge, Mass. He said Doty emphasized the need to avoid neat, pat, endings. He wanted his students to “stretch” their work. In this time of frenzied movement he wanted his students to “sit” with their poems.

And indeed this seems what Doty has done as evidenced by his brilliant new collection. His work is peppered with beautiful, studied images; with haunting apparitions spotted in the most unlikely of places. Doty has an astute ear for music, which makes for a wonderful musicality in his work. He can smell death’s most subtle odor, and he can explain to you what your inarticulate rage is all about. How many poetry books can we really call page-turners? But this book is in the truest sense.

In a stunning poem about the late “Cool” jazz horn player Chet Baker, Doty’s musical language captures the brutal and beautiful texture of Baker’s life and art. Baker, a naturally gifted musician, with a hauntingly, angelic voice, was also a dyed-in-the wool heroin addict and psychopath. He met his end by nodding out of a hotel window in Amsterdam. In Doty’s poem “Almost Blue,” we have Baker’s swan song, and the poet encapsulates the man, his elegiac music, his lyrics, and his drugged-out Zen-like acceptance of what life brings:

“ in the warm suspension and glaze
of this song everything stays up

almost forever in the long
glide sung into the vein,

one note held almost impossibly
almost blue and the lyric takes so long

to open, a little blood
blooming: there’s no love song finer

but how strange the change
from major to minor

every time
we say goodbye

and you leaning into that warm
haze from the window, Amsterdam,

late afternoon glimmer
a blur of buds

breathing in the lindens
and you let go and why not.”

And speaking of inarticulate rage, and lives of quiet desperation, have you ever thought why you become inordinately angry with some of the daily outrages you encounter on the street? In the poem “Citizens,” Doty is almost swiped by a truck on a Manhattan street. The truck driver smiles as Doty yells his indignant invective in his direction. Doty ponders why he carries the burden of anger so long after the fact:

“ and I am carrying the devil
in his carbon chariot all the way to 23rd, down into the subway,
roiling against the impersonal malice of the truck that armors

so he doesn’t have to know anyone.
Under the Port Authority I understand I’m raging
because that’s easier than weeping, not because I’m so afraid

of scraping my skull
on the pavement but because he’s made me erasable,
a slip of self, subject to. How’d I get emptied

till I can be hostaged
by a dope in a flaming climate-wrecker? I try to think
who made him so powerless he craves dominion over strangers,

but you know what?
I don’t care. If he’s one of those people miserable for lack
of what is found in poetry, fine.”

Yes—that it’s Mr. Doty. You have got it down. It’s what I meant to say. It is what I meant to write.

This is one of the most brilliant collections I have reviewed in years, and I am sent a lot of them. I don’t care if you are gay or straight, have a Rockefeller Grant, or food stamps, Doty speaks to us all, baby.

Doug Holder/ Ibbetson Update/ Somerville, Mass /2008

* Om Monday March 19 7PM Doty will be reading at the Brookline Booksmith 279 Harvard Street.

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