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literature

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Doty, Mark (b. 1953)  
 
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The dark poem "Fog" recounts the aftermath of an HIV test as the speaker and his lover speak to the dead via a ouija board (a nod to James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover).

Critic Deborah Landau contends that the poems in My Alexandria, though not polemical, "transform homophobic narratives about the disease, offer comfort to those living with HIV, and encourage empathy from those whose lives have not yet been affected by the virus."

Sponsor Message.

In his fourth book, Atlantis, Doty, using the backdrop of Cape Cod, explores mutability and transformation. The book's centerpiece (and title poem) is a long, open-hearted tour de force that contains lines like "I thought your illness a kind of solvent / dissolving the future a little at a time."

In this volume, Doty develops an "aesthetic of ruin" in the face of his partner's dying. For example, in "Two Ruined Boats," he sees art as a "mode of travel, / but not a means of repair," lamenting that "my art / could only articulate the sheen, / or chronicle the fashion in which / the world gains luster as it falls apart." As is fitting for the expression of a psyche battered by the loss of a loved one, Atlantis contains scenes of storms and their aftermath.

Atlantis also includes the poem "Homo Will Not Inherit," which forcefully responds to a bigot's picketing placard by unabashedly moving through the shames and joys of gay desire (including a visit to a bathhouse) to culminate in a transcendent acceptance of eros: "I have my kingdom." This book is also notable in that it marks Doty's first volume published by a large commercial house.

The loss of Roberts is also recounted in the memoir Heaven's Coast, which movingly and honestly depicts a loving gay relationship and the grief resulting from a partner's death. Widely acclaimed as one of the best AIDS memoirs, the book won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction.

Sweet Machine (1998), Doty's fifth book, is a transitional work in that it shows its speaker attempting to move on with life after great sorrow. It is more urban and gritty than Doty's previous works.

Some poems in Sweet Machine concern the rediscovery of desire and the appetites of the body. (The book's epigraph is Hart Crane's line "Thou canst read nothing except through appetite.") "Lilacs in NYC," for example, is a frenetic lyric that explores the various levels of meaning behind "you enter me" in the context of sex and desire. "Sweet Machine," on the other hand, examines desire's consuming powers by contrasting a beautiful billboard model with a seemingly drugged-out boy who can't stop scratching at his skin.

The book also confronts the power of art as a force that is both creative and destructive. Sweet Machine employs a hyper-musical language that is more intensely wrought than that of the previous books.

Source (2001) moves Doty's poetry into a more socially engaged realm. New York Times reviewer Ruth Padel argues that the poems of Source, "about painting, cityscapes and people . . . [are] searching out the American self." Doty's surfaces "are intensely, and self-reflectingly, American," she adds. In Doty's descriptions of scenes from Vermont to New York City to Key West to Cape Cod, the poet engages every level of the physical world (tattooed skin, a drag queen, flowers, horses, the earth itself) but, not unlike in Whitman's grandiose poems of America, he often imbues them with a kind of luminosity.

Source is rife with images of flesh and body. "Flesh" is seen, in "At the Gym," as that which "goads with desire, / and terrifies with frailty." The volume also contains poems of deep ontological searching, explored in the title poem and in "Manhattan: Luminism," in which he wonders:

. . . there is something stubborn in us
--does it matter how small it is?--
which does not diminish.
What is it? An ear, a wave?
Not our histories or who we love
or certainly our faces, which dissolve
even as we're living. Not a bud
or a cinder, not a seed
or a spark: something else:
obdurate, specific, insoluble.
Something in us does not erode.

Even in wondering about that which "does not erode" (the soul?), Doty uses imagery of the body.

Source also contains two poems--"Letter to Walt Whitman" and "Elizabeth Bishop, Croton, watercolor"--that pay homage to two poets who have greatly influenced him.

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