Deeply superficial

“What I love about language
is what I love about fog:
what comes between us and things
grants them their shine.”

– Mark Doty, “Fog Suite”

Mark Doty’s work stands as an eloquent and persuasive apologetic for the appeal of surfaces. In another poem, “Favrile,” he describes a friend weeping at a puppet opera: “Jimmy wept // at the world of tiny gestures, / forgot, he said, / these were puppets, // forgot these wire / and plaster fabrications / were actors at all, // since their pretense / allowed the passions / released to be – // well, operatic. / It’s too much / to be expected to believe; //art’s a mercuried sheen / in which we may discern, / because it is surface, // clear or vague / suggestions of our depths. / Don’t we need a word // for the luster / of things which insist / on the fact they’re made, // which announce / their maker’s bravura? . . . [A word] for everything / which begins in limit / (where else might our work // begin?) and ends in grace, / or at least extravagance.”

As a gay man, Doty has good reason to resent the essentialist biases of Western thought. In one poem, “Concerning some Recent Criticism of His Work,” he responds as follows to the complaint, “Can’t he think of anything but all that sheen?”

“. . . Every sequin’s
an act of praise.

These bright distillates
mirror the day’s

glossed terms –
what’s the world but shine

and seem? She’d sewn

the wildly lavish thing
herself, and wore

– forgive me! – shimmer . . . ”

The ellipsis is his own (that’s the end of the poem). I love the way he deftly connects his own creation with Creation itself, gendered but not specifically identified. All three poems I’ve just quoted are from his fifth book, Sweet Machine (HarperPerennial, 1988). I can’t resist one more quote, the closing lines of the last piece in the book, “Visitation,” which is about a humpbacked whale that comes into the harbor for a week. After some amazingly beautiful stanzas describing the whale and the evident great pleasure it took in exploring its surroundings, Doty talks about the effect of this “visitation” on himself:

“. . . And though grief

had seemed to me itself a dim,
salt suspension in which I’ve moved,
blind thing, day by day,

through the wreckage, barely aware
of what I stumbled toward, even I
couldn’t help but look

at the way this immense figure
graces the dark medium,
and shines so: heaviness

which is no burden to itself.
What did you think, that joy
was some slight thing?”

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