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04-11-08

Mark Doty

Demolition  

 

The intact facade's now almost black 
in the rain; all day they've torn at the back 
of the building, "the oldest concrete structure 
in New England," the newspaper said. By afternoon, 
when the backhoe claw appears above 
three stories of columns and cornices, 

the crowd beneath their massed umbrellas cheer. 
Suddenly the stairs seem to climb down themselves, 
atomized plaster billowing: dust of 1907's 
rooming house, this year's bake shop and florist's, 
the ghosts of their signs faint above the windows 
lined, last week, with loaves and blooms. 

We love disasters that have nothing to do 
with us: the metal scoop seems shy, tentative, 
a Japanese monster tilting its yellow head 
and considering what to topple next. It's a weekday, 
and those of us with the leisure to watch 
are out of work, unemployable or academics, 

joined by a thirst for watching something fall. 
All summer, at loose ends, I've read biographies, 
Wilde and Robert Lowell, and fallen asleep 
over a fallen hero lurching down a Paris boulevard, 
talking his way to dinner or a drink, 
unable to forget the vain and stupid boy 

he allowed to ruin him. And I dreamed 
I was Lowell, in a manic flight of failing 
and ruthless energy, and understood 
how wrong I was with a passionate exactitude 
which had to be like his. A month ago, 
at Saint-Gauden's house, we ran from a startling downpour 

into coincidence: under a loggia built 
for performances on the lawn 
hulked Shaw's monument, splendid 
in its plaster maquette, the ramrod-straight colonel 
high above his black troops. We crouched on wet gravel 
and waited out the squall; the hieratic woman 

-- a wingless angel? -- floating horizontally 
above the soldiers, her robe billowing like plaster dust, 
seemed so far above us, another century's 
allegorical decor, an afterthought 
who'd never descend to the purely physical 
soldiers, the nearly breathing bronze ranks crushed 

into a terrible compression of perspective, 
as if the world hurried them into the ditch. 
"The unreadable," Wilde said, "is what occurs." 
And when the brutish metal rears 
above the wall of unglazed windows --
where, in a week, the kids will skateboard 

in their lovely loops and spray 
their indecipherable ideograms 
across the parking lot -- the single standing wall 
seems Roman, momentarily, an aqueduct, 
all that's left of something difficult 
to understand now, something Oscar 

and Bosie might have posed before, for a photograph. 
Aqueducts and angels, here on Main, 
seem merely souvenirs; the gaps 
where the windows opened once 
into transients' rooms are pure sky. 
It's strange how much more beautiful 

the sky is to us when it's framed 
by these columned openings someone meant us 
to take for stone. The enormous, articulate shovel 
nudges the highest row of moldings 
and the whole thing wavers as though we'd dreamed it, 
our black classic, and it topples all at once. 

 

Fog

 

The crested iris by the front gate waves
its blue flags three days, exactly,

 

then they vanish. The peony buds'
tight wrappings are edged crimson;

 

when they open, a little blood-color
will ruffle at the heart of the flounced,

 

unbelievable white. Three weeks after the test,
the vial filled from the crook

 

of my elbow, I'm seeing blood everywhere:
a casual nick from the garden shears,

 

a shaving cut and I feel the physical rush
of the welling up, the wine-fountain

 

dark as Siberian iris. The thin green porcelain
teacup, our homemade Ouija's planchette,

 

rocks and wobbles every night, spins
and spells. It seems a cloud of spirits

 

numerous as lilac panicles vie for occupancy --
children grabbing for the telephone,

 

happy to talk to someone who isn't dead yet?
Everyone wants to speak at once, or at least

 

these random words appear, incongruous
and exactly spelled: energy, immunity, kiss.

 

Then: M. has immunity. W. has.
And that was all. One character, Frank,

 

distinguishes himself: a boy who lived
in our house in the thirties, loved dogs

 

and gangster movies, longs for a body,
says he can watch us through the television,

 

asks us to stand before the screen
and kiss. God in garden, he says.

 

Sitting out on the back porch at twilight,
I'm almost convinced. In this geometry

 

of paths and raised beds, the green shadows
of delphinium, there's an unseen rustling:

 

some secret amplitude
seems to open in this orderly space.

 

Maybe because it contains so much dying,
all these tulip petals thinning

 

at the base until any wind takes them.
I doubt anyone else would see that, looking in,

 

and then I realize my garden has no outside, only is
subjectively. As blood is utterly without

 

an outside, can't be seen except out of context,
the wrong color in alien air, no longer itself.

 

Though it submits to test, two,
to be exact, each done three times,

 

though not for me, since at their first entry
into my disembodied blood

 

there was nothing at home there.
For you they entered the blood garden over

 

and over, like knocking at a door
because you know someone's home. Three times

 

the Elisa Test, three the Western Blot,
and then the incoherent message. We're

 

the public health care worker's
nine o'clock appointment,

 

she is a phantom hand who forms
the letters of your name, and the word

 

that begins with P. I'd lie out
and wait for the god if it weren't

 

so cold, the blue moon huge
and disruptive above the flowering crab's

 

foaming collapse. The spirits say Fog
when they can't speak clearly

 

and the letters collide; sometimes
for them there's nothing outside the mist

 

of their dying. Planchette,
peony, I would think of anything

 

not to say the word. Maybe the blood
in the flower is a god's. 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.

-from My Alexandria

BIO: Mark Doty is the author of seven books of poems, among them School of the ArtsSourceSweet Machine, Atlantis, and My Alexandria. He has also published three volumes of nonfiction prose: Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Heaven's Coast and Firebird.

Doty’s poems have appeared in many magazines including The Atlantic Monthly, The London Review of Books, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The New Yorker.  Widely anthologized, his poems appear in The Norton Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry and many other collections.  

Doty has received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Whiting Writers Award, two Lambda Literary Awards  and the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction. He is the only American poet to have received the T.S. Eliot Prize in the U.K., and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ingram Merrill and Lila Wallace/Readers Digest Foundations, and from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Doty lives in New York City and in Houston, Texas, where he is the John and Rebecca Moores Professor in the graduate program at the University of Houston.

Ouija and Garden and Fog, an Interview with Mark Doty, by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum                                                    

 

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: There are countess ways in which we measure art.  Obviously, the way we do this depends on all sorts of factors.  But one of the elements that we don’t attribute to poetry very much is memorability.  I’m not sure why that is, but I think that one reason I’m drawn back to “Demolition” again and again, is this memorability, particularly in images like “the oldest concrete structure in New England” and “the ghost of their signs” and “the metal scoop seems shy, tentative, / a Japanese monster tilting its yellow head.”

 

I think that all poets hope their poem is remembered, but we sort of have a love/hate relationship with this ideal.  How important is it to you that we remember "Demolition?"

 

Mark Doty:  Memorability is mostly a pre-20th century value in poetry, since traditional patterns of rhythm and rhyme served as mnemonic aids, and having a supply of poems at the ready was a valuable source of entertainment. Free verse is nowhere near as easy to recall, but how important is that to us?  I don't love, say, Bishop's "At the Fishhouses" any less because I don't remember every line of it. I certainly hope that people will remember my poem, recalling the shape it makes, its argument or way of viewing experience, maybe particular figures of speech. The poems I love best are those that become ways of seeing for me, internal reference points or guideposts I go back to, in order to navigate the world.

 

AMK: Is there a way, in particular, to create a poem that’s memorable?  Do you think about this while in the drafting/revising process?

 

MD: Well, I'm working for musicality in the language, and for accuracy, and to be as clear as I can about complex things. I'd guess that if you attend to those, then memorability will take care of itself.

 

AMK: My teacher, Rodney Jones, said in class the other day that “all of us as writers do things for other people…”  To what degree do the various moves in this poem exist due to a concern for your readers, rather than for yourself or for the poem?

 

MD: Interesting question. The poem wants to tie together several frames of reference: the building being demolished, the monument to Colonel Shaw that Lowell touches upon in "For the Union Dead," and Lowell's own biography as well as Oscar Wilde's. I guess it would have been possible to write a version of the poem with less narrative "glue," placing these elements side by side in a Pound-like juxtaposition. But I am interested in taking the reader along on the journey, and likewise in tracking the motion of association myself, and thus there are phrases like "All summer I've been reading biographies..." or "A month ago, at St. Gaudens's house..." These gestures of transition felt necessary to me, since I'm putting together relatively disparate elements of cultural history. I can't tell you now which of these associations might have occurred while I was watching that old building hit the ground and which came in the writing process, but it doesn't matter. Unfolding and investigating the connections -- that, to my mind, IS the composing process.

 

AMK: For a poem that seems so obviously fixed in the 1st person, I think we can all learn a lot from this poem; the word “I” only occurring a few times.  From what perspective is this poem written and how do you think this poem works within this perspective so successfully?

 

MD: I think of Buckminster Fuller saying "I seem to be a verb." The self's revealed in the action of looking, inquiring, thinking, and looking some more. That's my hope. And of course nothing's duller syntactically than lots of sentences beginning with "I" and then a verb.

 

AMK: What are your thoughts on the relationship between a speaker in a poem and the poet his/herself in Contemporary Poetry?  How should we be reading your poetry?

 

MD: I think in all my published work, there are maybe four poems that aren't spoken by some version of myself; there's a monologue by a dog, by a heroine of the Paris Commune, by a friend in a hospital watching his sister die, and one by a woman who thinks she's a reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian. And of course all those are versions of me, too!

 

But the fact is, what you put on the page is always a version of self, even if you feel you are being strictly allegiant to the truth. You can't get the whole, complex, hard-to-know self on the page. I believe in performing as many aspects of myself, and therefore there are plain spoken poems and more markedly wrought ones. And poems which seem to come with my biography attached and poems wherein "I" is much more of a placeholder, an open space for a reader to step into.

 

AMK: “Fog” is, hands down, one of my favorite poems.  I remember the first time I read it and, talking to a colleague, admitted I didn’t understand what the poem was about.  Later, giving it a closer reading, it became clear what was going on in the poem, and once the basic narrative of the poem was clear to me, I simply fell in love with the sad, searching movement of the lines that take us from the blood tests, to the ouija board, and to the ghosts who yearn to live.

 

I think this is an important aspect/problem of poetry…that it sometimes asks a lot of a reader, which can be a delight if he or she goes along with it…

 

Now, looking at this poem, I realize I wasn’t a great reader when I first came to “Fog,” but I’m wondering what you think is reasonable and unreasonable to expect of a reader and how you convince someone to work with a poem that they find “less than easy” to read.

 

MD: It would be a mistake for them all to be immediately transparent, since experience isn't like that. I do my best to be clear, but I understand that some poems may require greater patience on the reader's part, or that there might be a delay in getting at what's taking place. But if I do my job well, then you want to stay with a poem; you grant it a line of credit, as it were, believing that it may resolve before your eyes, as you keep looking, in the way that a challenging painting might.

 

AMK: Similarly, do you think “Fog” is a difficult poem?  And if so, were you aware of this when you wrote it…how did this awareness affect its writing?

 

MD: I think it's emotionally difficult. It's sidling up to a feeling of utter and complete devastation, the emptying-out of the speaker's future. Therefore it needs an array of vehicles -- ouija and garden and fog -- to approach the

molten core of the matter. I wonder if anyone ever thinks their own poems are difficult? My friend Jean Valentine, who is notorious among readers for a certain degree of opacity, always says that she could not be any more clear.

I thought I'd been very clear here, and then I was surprised when a reviewer said that my poem lacked courage because it would not inscribe the word "positive." I've done everything in my power to point to that word, which had newly become terrible, late in the 1980s, and to portray the speaker's horror of it. Do I need to make it more plain than that?

 

AMK: Another element of “Fog” that I think is particularly beautiful is the dualistic nature of its voice, which, at times, speaks from inside the poem and, at others, from outside the poem. 

 

When I say inside, I’m thinking of lines like “The crested iris by the front gate waves / its blue flags three days, exactly” and

 

Sitting out on the back porch at twilight,

I'm almost convinced.  In this geometry

 

of paths and raised beds, the green shadows

of delphinium, there's an unseen rustling…

 

lines that seem to come from within the experience. 

 

By outside, I mean lines like

 

Maybe because it contains so much dying,

         all these tulip petals thinning

 

          at the base until any wind takes them.

I doubt anyone else would see that, looking in,

 

and then I realize my garden has no outside, only is

subjectively…

 

lines that emit from some other place, a more reflective voice; a voice looking back.

 

Do you see the poem in this way?  Is this an element of form that we should read as a reflection of what the poem is about?

 

MD: I spoke earlier about perception and inquiry. The lines you point to are an example of that: here's a place in the poem where a scene is evoked, and here's a meditation on that scene. I like this kind of yoking because it feels to me like consciousness.  This is my departure from the old "show don't tell" advice that grows out of Imagism; I like poems that show and then go on to "tell" -- that is, to examine, consider, question, propose.  And in this particular poem, the speaker is desperately trying to get out of the experience, trying to find some way to stand at a remove from an oncoming train, as it were.

 

AMK: Thank you so much for your time.