Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Loving Gaze

Last night, Elizabeth, James, and I went to see Mark Doty read as part of the Poetry Series of Seattle Arts & Lectures. Oh, what a lovely reading: the crowd murmuring in delight and sadness; the writer connecting with us. My first introduction to Doty's work was his stunning, long-form lyric essay/book - Still Life With Oysters and Lemons - a deep and lovingly weighted meditation on memory and objects and seeing. The prose was breathtakingly tuned, precise. Reading that essay, and discussing its form and considered lines influenced my own prose quite a bit. I now begin sentences and paragraphs with "And" and "But" almost to excess in order to effect dramatic turns within prose, to begin new sections of writing as pointed joinders or reversals.

I admit I am not as familiar with Doty's corpus of poetry, but have always returned to one of his poems, "The Embrace," which was published in his 1998 collection, Sweet Machine. My friend Jenny handed it to me and told me it would make me cry. I glanced at the brief page, and thought "It would take more than that." Of course, I wept. It's a perfect poem; a simple evocation of love and really, really, what it means to miss someone. It makes me think of my family. It makes me want to call them. In fact, I just re-read the poem this morning (collected in Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems) and cried again. Here it is, should you need to moisten your eyes a bit.

I think what I loved about Doty's reading, and poems, was his love. His poetic gaze lifts things; treasures things; fingers them and sets them down. The poetic moments of his poetry and prose come as a beachcombers might: a piece noticed, vaunted to transcendence through the recording of detail, connected to a moment greater than its parts, released again. Of course, this is what all writers do, poets especially, but Doty's moments feel like a glow. They feel like love itself. When turned to even quotidian subjects like dogs and turtles and goats and getting a massage in Manhattan, somehow a love infuses everything; even in sad poems, this brings the reader a kind of happiness.

In a passage excerpted from his recent book of non-fiction, Dog Years, Doty describes his old dog, lying out in a storm, and his own desperate attempts to rouse him. Before deflating the moment with a satiric "I suppose I am prone to be dramatic...," he describes the experience as bending over King Lear himself, trying to wake the old king. I've been picturing the shiny, rain-soaked side of that dog ever since, thunder roiling overhead; the dog's coat glimmering as the lightning flashed. It reminds me of a line (which I'm approximating here) from Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, where the protagonist reflects that sometimes moments seem as if they are lifted from a myth, even as you are living them. This is, of course, what made the reading of this passage so spellbinding.

Followed by an eminently warm, entertaining, and intelligent Q & A (including a great discussion of the Whitman vs. Dickinson poetic line -- these were superb questions!), we got our books signed and shuffled off home, pretty elated. Of course, I was too shy to say anything to the great writer, but at least my name is spelled correctly. I came home and wrote five fragmentary pieces of prose, just because I felt like it, and it felt so good to do that again. I rather liked what I wrote. I may share them here, since they're too slight for much else.

Anyway, it was a good evening.


  1. You mentioned me in your blog. I WIN.

  2. I wish I could have gone. That poem gave me goosebumps.

  3. I wish you had been there, too!

  4. Kirsten -- I gave you a blog award. :-) Go to to retrieve it.