Reading: Mark Doty

43rd Annual UND Writers Conference:
March 30, 2012

© 2012 Mark Doty and the University of North Dakota

[Video of this reading is also available.]

[Please note, unless otherwise specified, poetry is presented with published line breaks:
for proper spacing and formatting, please consult printed source.]

Heidi Czerwiec: ...o'clock, Food, Inc. will be screened in the Lecture Bowl, and then at 8 p.m. there will be "A Great Conversation with Jane Smiley" at the Chester Fritz Auditorium. Not here. Chester Fritz Auditorium. Just down University Ave. If you came out of, out of the front door of the Union and went left down University, you go over a little bridge and then it's huge and on the left. Okay. If you would please take a moment to turn off your cell phones, or turn them to vibrate. I would like to thank the Office of the President, the Dakota...North Dakota Council on the Arts, and the Greater Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau for their continued support.

And now I would like to introduce Chris Stoner, who will be introducing Mark. Chris Stoner is a course materials manager for the University bookstore and a part-time lecturer in the Women's Studies program. He's a graduate of our Masters program in English and a drag performer, who performs regularly across North Dakota, who has written columns about gender, sexuality, and performance in independent publications. And a fun fact: when Mark Doty appeared at the 1999 Writers Conference, Chris introduced him then as well. Something I did not know when I asked Chris to do it this time. Please welcome Chris Stoner.

[Audience applause]

Chris Stoner: Yes, welcome to our reading this afternoon. As Heidi mentioned, this is the second time I've had the pleasure to do one of these introductions. I first encountered Mark Doty at the 30th Annual Writers Conference when I was just a smart-mouthed undergraduate with a penchant for pink hair and big ideas. I devoured Heaven's Coast, Doty's first book of memoir, transfixed by the combination of personal narrative and a poet's exacting and disciplined love of language. The theme of the conference that year was "Expressing the Sacred," and those questions resonate with me again as we talk about the sacred connections formed between animals and their two-legged companions. Dog Years, Doty's newest memoir, is a testament to these connections, and I once again find myself enchanted. Far past my undergraduate days and much less pink hair than I used to have, I've retained my smart mouth, and I still appreciate big ideas. And Mark Doty is certainly a curator of big ideas. His works have earned numerous distinctions, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the UK's T.S. Eliot Prize. Please help me welcome poet, memoirist, educator, and consummate wordsmith Mark Doty.

[Audience applause.]

Mark Doty: [inaudible]

Chris Stoner: I appreciate it. Thank you.

Mark Doty: Maybe I'll be lucky and every ten years or so Chris can re-introduce me here.

[Audience laughter.]

It's really a pleasure to be back, and my thanks to Heidi and everyone here for their flexibility. I was supposed to be here last night, and because of a situation at the university where I teach, it wasn't possible, so my gratitude for being willing to rearrange things. When I thought about the theme of this year's conference, it meant that I could read to you practically anything I've ever written [Audience laughter], because the presence of animals is a continuous wellspring for me. It's--strangely enough, I don't think I would know who I am without a creature nearby, a creature who does not use language, whose silence calls out for words, whose non-human presence asks us to think about what it is to be human. So I'm gonna read you a mix of some new and old poems, and a little bit of memoir, too. I'm gonna start with a poem that began a few years ago. I was a guest professor at Stanford University, so I was getting to wander around these beautiful little towns near San Francisco Bay. One of those towns is called Pescadero, which gives this poem its title.

The little goats like my mouth and fingers,

and one stands up against the wire fence, and taps on the fence board
a hoof made blacker by the dirt of the field,

pushes her mouth forward to my mouth,
so that I can see the smallish squared seeds of her teeth, and the bristle-whiskers,

and then she kisses me, though I know it doesn't mean "kiss,"

then leans her head way back, arcing her spine, goat yoga,
all pleasure and greeting and then good-natured indifference: she loves me,

she likes me a lot, she takes interest in me, she doesn't know me at all
or need to, having thus acknowledged me. Though I am all happiness,

since I have been welcomed by the field's small envoy, and the splayed hoof,
fragrant with soil, has rested on the fence board beside my hand.

Well, that poem came out a couple years ago in a national magazine, and it, it produced some amazing mail. A goat farmer from Oregon invited me to hang out for a few days, and...

[Audience laughter]

...get to know his stock. A--some citizens of Pescadero wrote to express their pleasure in seeing their town represented in poetry. And the best letter of all was from an elementary school teacher in the Bay area, where every year the kindergarten class goes to the goat farm in Pescadero. And the first graders who didn't get to go read my poem and reminisced. [Audience laughter] And I love that, the idea that a poem could be a text of memory and affection for kids.

This is a poem that hearkens toward childhood in a different way. I taught for some years at a very squirrely, little experimental college in Vermont. Most of our experiments were bombs, but one thing we did which was wonderful was to invite students with children to come and live on the campus. So suddenly we had little kids everywhere--in classrooms, in hallways, most visibly in the cafeteria. This is called "No."

[Audience laugher.]

The children have brought their wood turtle
into the dining hall
because they want us to feel

the power they have
when they hold a house
in their own hands, want us to feel

alien lacquer and the little thrill
that he might, like God, show his face.
He's the color of ruined wallpaper,

of cognac, and he's closed,
pulled in as though he'll never come out;
nothing shows but the plummy leather

of the legs, his claws resembling clusters
of diminutive raspberries.
They know he makes night

anytime he wants, so perhaps
he feels at the center of everything,
as they do. His age,

greater than that of anyone
around the table, is a room
from which they are excluded,

though they don't mind,
since they can carry this perfect
building anywhere. They love

that he might poke out
his old, old face, but doesn't.
I think the children smell unopened,

like unlit candles, as they heft him
around the table, praise his secrecy,
holding to each adult face

his prayer,
the single word of the shell,
which is no.

This one is a new poem, which also comes out of the California landscape. If you walk out onto the pier at Santa Cruz harbor, you can see the creatures, who are described in this poem, who like to float on the tide. So many there, so many joined together that you can't really tell where one ends and another begins. This is called "Perfect Repose."

Turning so effortlessly you wouldn't
call it that, what they do,
sliding easily over,

a kind of
oscillation, on their sides,
most of them, floating together

in their troop,
perhaps twenty-five of them
just off the pier, though

you couldn't count them,
the sea-lions: they curve around
one another, two break away,

one joins, the group drifts
with the tide. Whose flipper
or tail raised to the sun,

whose head lifted out of the green?
They lie a little beneath
the surface, now and then

turning the face up to breathe,
which is suddenly how you know
they're asleep: simultaneous,

intimate, soft plosive, a little wet,
and though one coughs now and then
--water in the nose?--

the single thing they make of many,
still and always moving,
as if air were also a wave

now arrived at the drifting shore of--
what pronoun? I mean thou
all breathe in again at once.

The amazing thing about watching these creatures is that you realize the way they're all breathing together, and pretty soon you're breathing exactly the same way. You can't stop yourself from joining with them.

I have lived for sixteen years with two big retrievers, and when I lost those two, I waited about five years and I got a new dog, a beautiful golden retriever named Ned. And having written a lot of poems about the old dogs, poems in which a dog did something interesting or thought-provoking, and I used that as a platform for a philosophical premise or a sort of a meditation about something or another, I swore off those poems. I was not going to write any more poems like that, ever. And then here's the new dog. And he keeps doing things [Audience laugher] that are provocative, and I said, "No, no, no. I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to do it." And finally I gave in. And here's the first of the Ned poems. It's called "Deep Lane."

We're walking in the cemetery--oops, that's the wrong draft of the poem. Never mind. I keep doing that! I have two drafts of the poem in here, and one of them's better than the other, and that's the bad one. [Audience laugher] And so hang on. Work in progress.

[Because this poem is not yet published, it is presented in prose format with estimated punctuation]

"Deep Lane"

June twenty-third, evening of the first fireflies: we're walking in the cemetery down the road, and I look up from my distracted study of whatever, an unfocused gaze somewhere in the direction of my shoes, and see that Ned has run on ahead with the champagne plume of his tail held especially high, his head erect, which is often a sign that he has something he believes he is not allowed to have.

[Audience laughter]

And in the gathering twilight, what is it that is gathered? Who is doing the harvesting? I can make out that the long horizontal between his lovely jaws is one of the four stakes planted on the slope to indicate where the backhoe will dig a new grave. Of course, my first impulse is to run after him, to replace the marker out of respect for the taboo that we won't desecrate the tombs, or at least for the particular knowledge of those who knew the woman whose name inks a placard in the rectangle claimed by the four poles of vanishing. Well, three poles now.

[Audience laughter]

And how it's within their recollection, their gathering, she'll live. Evening of memory, spark lamps in the grass, I stand and watch him go in his wild figure eights. I say, "You run, darling. You tear up that hill."

[Audience laughter]

Well, you may have noticed that poem is called "Deep Lane," which has ostensibly nothing to do with the poem at all. The reason for that is that I have a house out in the country on Long Island, and not so far away is this little short road. You know, it goes, like, a few hundred feet, its name is Deep Lane. And I found myself obsessed, not with the place, but with the name, that, that phrase, "deep lane," that suggested diving down and yet going forward--the two vowels, the "e" and the "a," the two monosyllabic words--deep lane, became a little bit of a mantra. And so I now have--I wrote a Deep Lane poem, and I wasn't done. I wrote another one, and now I have, We began to think the white fish individual

like, fifteen "Deep Lane" poems. [Audience laughter] So here's another one.

[This poem is a variation of one that appeared in American Poetry Review May/June 2011. It is presented with estimated punctuation.]

"Deep Lane"

We began to think the white fish individual
--the one of the pair who'd struggled, after all,
when our pond's colder water shocked

and he lay pulsing in the shallows
till we thought him all but gone,
then simply drew himself up,

if that were something a fish
could do, and swam away.
A heron ate his mate. He seemed,

all the more then, singular.
He surfaced in March, after his first season
entombed in the bottom-mud,

unscathed, a four-inch emperor
in a white silk coat,
insignia of the kingdom

splashed over his back
the color of candied orange rind.
He'd nose up out of the lily-murk

when our shadows crossed his borders,
push to the edge to open the translucent
white ring of his mouth over and over

as if begging...As if! Seems to want,
seems to feel. But as we knew him,
semblance fell away: We felt the presence

of the soul of him, if soul could be
understood as specificity,
so that when he himself was swallowed

--white appetite perched on the roof,
bill raised to the air, throat unrelenting--

the absence in the pond grew resonant,
a sort of empty ringing. Where were the details then,
the gestures that had marked him?

The lives underneath each stone,
all particular, irreplaceable?

How can I take any pleasure in this garden?

Do you guys have ticks in North Dakota? Okay, so you know, you know, you know. On Long Island, ticks are the thing that make you suspect that nature is out to get you. You know? And this poem refers to a, a theological concept, Manichaeism, which is the idea that the world is divided into opposing forces of light and darkness, and that the outcome of their struggle is not foreknown. The Catholic Church declared that a heresy about 400 A.D., but, you know, you can make up your own mind.

[Because this poem is not yet published, it is presented in prose format with estimated punctuation]

"Deep Lane"

Into Eden came the ticks, princes of this world, heat seeking, tiny, multitudinous. Lord, why have you given them a heart, a nervous system, a lit microchip of a brain is it, if not to invite Manichaeism? Hard to believe the force that shaped the mild tortoise traversing the undergrowth with smallest steps, the sway-necked lily, hard to countenance that same mind, dotting Paradise with pinhead demons wanting nothing but to gorge, to suck beyond the dreams of their hell-brothers, the mosquitos.

[Audience laughter.]

Implacable, without boundary, pure appetite--I wouldn't know anything about that.

[Audience laughter.]

So, some more dogs. A few years back, I went with a friend of mine to the animal shelter in Brewster, Massachusetts. My friend had decided it was time for him to adopt a dog. And there were there--no other word will do it--a mess, a mess of puppies, a sprawling mess of them. This is called "Shelter."

They shove
and tumble around us
on the concrete floor,

the little ones,
just as they must have crowded
around the gates of this world,

eager to live. So much
to be licked, on earth,
what work! All mouth, sure

of their reception,
they've hurried to a realm
they know will feed them,

so they open their new faces
to us, tongues and teeth
apprehending our scents

and salts. This is here,
the minds register, yes,
and this, and this is good.

The older ones, each
in a separate pen, consider
what's to be made

of betrayal. This one's
all evident eagerness,
muzzle against the grid;

this one serenely still,
waiting for us to make
the first gesture, though

there's something--hopeful?--
in his expression. The one
who's been here longest

cries, though not to us.
Rowed under
the hellgate inscriptions

(Too big, No time,
Landlord says no)
they've lost habitations

and, some of them, names,
though most carry forward
a single word--

Tahoe, Dakota, Jack--
all of the past they're allowed
to keep, and not enough

to stop the world from draining
into this vague limbo
far from affection's locations

and routines. I know.
Leashed to no one,
the plain daily habits

gone, who are we?
No one's dog
is nothing but eagerness

tinged with caution,
though only a little.
We wanted to be born

once, don't we want
to be delivered again,
even knowing the nothing

love may come to?
O Lucky and Buddy and Red,
we put our tongues to the world.

Well, I'll shift gear, and read you a little--few pages from this book, Dog Years. In this particular passage, my dog Arden, who's a big lab/Newfie mix is quite young, and he's about to make his first trip to the kennel, which, probably for a dog, is no big deal, but for the human companion, extremely stressful. Here it goes. So this is central Vermont, late 1980s.

One kennel we visit seems like a jail for pets, with concrete floors and brilliant fluorescent lights and awful metal doors that bang and reverberate through the metal walls. The search for an acceptable kennel isn't an easy thing, but there's a week we have to be away. A friend from school recommends Arlene's, a place perched way back on a dirt road on a hill above the college, in a zone of trailers and odd little "manufactured homes." We call, then go for a visit. Arlene is a wide woman in a flowered dress, who seems to have a bit of difficulty standing; she says, "My leg's been bugging me, but Junior can take you out to the kennel."

Junior is a thick fellow, arms and legs of the same size, and his head seems made of identical material, [Audience laughter] as if he were built of tubes of clay all extruded from the same pipe. We walk across the muddy patches and the thin grass out back, to a row of pens made of wire fencing, roofless, each one with a little wooden house inside. One pen has several of the ramshackle structures, for the more social. It looks like the canine version of a town in a John Waters movie, [Audience laughter] but we try to remind ourselves that what we seek in a kennel might well not be the things that would please a dog, and Junior does seem affectionate with the animals, and the creatures wiggling their butts in the pens are completely fine.

When Arden arrives, he appears to find the place delightful. He runs up to the edge of the cages, greeting the inhabitants: much tail-wagging, sniffing, friendly little barks. We're wretchedly nervous about leaving him--I suddenly feel very gay and very middle-class--[Audience laughter] but he shows no signs of being the least bit bothered, and we're disciplining ourselves not to look back too much as we walk away, letting him be absorbed in his new social life in the big damp pen.

Of course, we call Arlene from San Francisco, a couple of days into the trip. She's as laconic as an old Vermonter could ever be. She says, "He's just fine."

What I want, naturally, are some details, [Audience laughter] but I don't quite know how to ask for them. "So he's okay?"

"He's doing just fine."

[Audience laughter]

I try again. "He's adjusting okay?"

[Audience laughter]

Pause. Arlene calls out, "Junior?" Another pause, shuffley noise, phone bumped or dropped, muffled words, then, "How's that new black dog?"

Muffled word. She gets back on the receiver. "Junior says he's just fine."

[Audience laughter]

I have no choice but to believe, though I also can't help but imagine Arlene rolling her eyes.

At last we're back, and make the drive from the airport straight up Arlene's dusty, gravelly road. The noise of our car pulling into the driveway rouses Junior, who emerges and leads us out back; Arden's in the big pen by himself, as all the other dogs seem to have gone home. He comes bounding out of his doghouse, and when Junior opens the door to the pen, he jumps straight up in the air, arcing his body like a leaping fish, the picture of joy. Junior retrieves the blanket we've left with him, which feels very damp, as, indeed, does Arden. I look back and see that the doghouse has a gaping black hole in the roof. Arden's been sleeping in the rain all week!

But, in fact, he seems none the worse for wear, perhaps even refreshed by the experience, [Audience laughter] as happy and eager as he's ever been, though we don't ever go back to Arlene's.

[Audience laughter.]

It's fifteen years later when Paul and I drive Arden, on fall weekends, down to a little house Paul's parents own on the Jersey Shore. When we pull off the Garden State Parkway at the exit, Arden sits up in the back of the station wagon, excited, head to the glass, nostrils pulsating at the salt air.

At the house, he's in heaven; there's a small grassy yard that fronts onto a lagoon, a world of things to watch. Arden's happiness is to lie on the grass, alert to seagulls and egrets, to passing boats, to rippling water. Across the canal, they're building condos smack out into the wetlands, so there's an occasional truck, a bulldozer flattening reeds. He hardly has to walk at all if he doesn't choose to--it's hard for him, these days--and a whole world seems to offer itself for his inspection. Eventually he falls asleep, out in the grass, and in a while wakes up and watches again.

He's so pleased with his situation that he doesn't want to come in that evening, so we let him stay there, sleeping in the twilight. We don't have the heart to wake him up to bring him indoors, but at three in the morning, we're roused by crashing lightning and then a wild downpour, like gravel poured onto the roof of the house. Suddenly I'm awake enough to think, My God, he must be miserable! I pull on some shorts and run out into the storm--only to find him so deeply, completely asleep he seems he might be sinking into the earth. He's soaked to the bone. I say his name--nothing. I stroke him, no response. Now I'm soaked in the cold rain, too. I put my hand on his ribs to make sure he's breathing, which he is--but he has gone so far into the bliss of sleeping in the grass beside the dark lagoon that I can't wake him at all. And this is a dog who didn't even like to go for a walk in the rain!

I don't know that in a few minutes, after I've given up and run back into the house to wrap myself in a towel and shiver and shake as if I were myself a large, soaking dog, he'll stumble back into awareness, wake up enough to hobble to the door so that he can have a towel-drying, too. Just now, as I am bending over the absolutely still black body gleaming in the flashes of lightning, he suddenly seems to me the image of King Lear--the mad old man on the moor, fallen, intensely vulnerable, the very image of all our aging, helpless in the storm. And I'm the worried Fool, trying to rouse the tragic, failing King.

But perhaps I dramatize, [Audience laughter] as I have been known to do. [Audience laughter] I could also have read his deep, dreamless sleep in the rain as a memory of Arlene's, of lovely nights of youth in a fragrant field, in good company, where the rain must have brought to the sleeping animals new fragrances of its own. [inaudible]

I think we'll have...end with a few poems. There's a, a garden center, I like to go to out close to where I live in Long Island, where they have various creatures. And one of them is this really beautiful, very cranky peacock. And looking at that creature, I found myself thinking about theories of evolution. And how is it possible that something as incredibly ornate as this could be seen as necessary, hmm? Could, how, how did evolution exactly create a peacock's tail, hmm? It's a mystery. So this is--there's a quote from Darwin in this poem. It's a real quote. I did not make this up. And the poem is called "Apparition."

Oracular pear,

this peacock
perched in a plywood roost
at the garden center,

magnificent behind a wire fence
marked with his name:

and hand-lettered instructions:


[Audience laughter.]

He's the provocation:
of what use
the wrought extravagance

he's not just now displaying?
Darwin: "The sight of a feather
in a peacock's tail,

whenever I gaze at it,
makes me sick!"
No reason on earth

even eons of increments

would conspire to this,
and is the peahen
that hard to attract,

[Audience laughter.]

requiring an arc of nervous gleams,
a hundred shining animals
symmetrically peering

from the dim
primeval woods?
But if Hommer argues

by his mere presence

for creation, his deity's
a little hysteric,
rampant attitude

contained in all that glory.
Did he who made the lamb
make this imperious

metallic topknot shivering
above an emerald field
of anodized aluminum

while Hommer blinks and flicks

his actual eyes from side to side?
And then the epic
trombone-slide-from-Mars cry

no human throat can mime
--is that why it stops the heart?--
just before he condescends to unfurl

the archaic poem of his tail.

I think that experience of being filled with wonder by the world, the peculiarity of the world, is probably the foundation ground of poetry. Where else would poetry begin except in that, that feeling of being struck by the strangeness of things, and the urge to both describe and try to account for that strangeness? This poem began in the grocery store in Orleans, Massachusetts, when I found myself staring at the fish counter, where the creatures described in this poem, no longer living, were on display. It's called "A Display of Mackerel."

They lie in parallel rows,
on ice, head to tail,
each a foot of luminosity

barred with black bands,
which divide the scales'
radiant sections

like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window.
Iridescent, watery

prismatics: think abalone,
the wildly rainbowed
mirror of a soap-bubble sphere,

think sun on gasoline.
Splendor, and splendor,
and not a one in any way

distinguished from the other
--nothing about them
of individuality. Instead

they're all exact expressions
of the one soul,
each a perfect fulfillment

of heaven's template,
mackerel essence. As if,
after a lifetime arriving

at this enameling, the jeweler's
made uncountable examples
each as intricate

in its oily fabulation
as the one before.
Suppose we could iridesce,

like these, and lose ourselves
entirely in the universe
of shimmer--would you want

to be yourself only,
unduplicatable, doomed
to be lost? They prefer,

plainly, to be flashing participants,
multitudinous. Even now
they seem to be bolting

forward, heedless of stasis.
They don't care they're dead
and nearly frozen,

just as, presumably,
they didn't care that they were living:
all, all for all,

the rainbowed school
and its acres of brilliant classrooms,
in which no verb is singular,

or every one is. How happy they seem,
even on ice, to be together, selfless,
which is the price of gleaming.

Well, I wanna end with two poems for spring, because here we are. One tiny, one slightly more extended. I'll do the tiny one first. You know the beautiful little spring peepers? Those frogs that chorus like crazy? I say beautiful, but I'm talking about their sound because you never get to see one of these things. They're totally mysterious what they look like. They're elusive. But you hear this unbelievable, loud chorus! I wanted to find a word for the sound they make, and I was struggling, trying to find it. It wasn't there, wasn't there, until, working on this poem, I happened to open an old dictionary. This is called "In the Airport Marshes."

A kind of heaven,
this clamor, a lulliloo:
"to shout joyously,
to welcome with cries,

from a cry of joy among
some African peoples":
Webster's New International,
1934, a foot-thick volume

deftly marbled
as this patch of marsh.
Today I require the term
and there it is--these definitions

wait to be lived,
actual as these frogs,
who chorus as if
there's no tomorrow,

or else they've all
the time in the world.
We ruin the rain,
they go right on,

this year. Hard to imagine
the eagerness of a body
which pours itself
into this--forms

you have to take on faith,
since all they seem
to be is chiming Morse
belling out long-short

over the patched tarmac
of the runway. I never till now
needed the word lulliloo.

How do you reckon your little music?

And I'll end with a poem which began some years ago driving north, I think, driving in New England to give a poetry reading something like this one, and coming across a scene by the side of the road that somehow seemed to get beneath the skin of the world, as it were. This is called "Source."

I'd been traveling all day, driving north
--smaller and smaller roads, clapboard houses
startled awake by the new green around them--

when I saw three horses in a fenced field
by the narrow highway's edge: white horses,

two uniformly snowy, the other speckled
as though he'd been rolling in flakes of rust.
They were of graduated sizes

--small, medium, large--and two stood
to watch while the smallest waded

in a shallow pond,
tossing his head and taking
--it seemed unmistakable--delight

in the cool water around his hooves
and ankles. I kept on driving, I went into town

to visit the bookstores and the coffee bar,
and looked at the new novels
and the volumes of poetry, but all the time

it was horses I was thinking of,
and when I drove back to find them

the three companions left off
whatever it was they were playing at,
and came nearer the wire fence--

I'd pulled over onto the grassy shoulder
of the highway--to see what I'd brought them.

Experience is an intact fruit,
core and flesh and rind of it; once cut open,
entered, it can't be the same, can it?

Though that is the dream of the poem:
as if we could look out
through that moment's blushed skin.
They wandered toward the fence.
The tallest turned toward me;

I was moved by the verticality of her face,
elongated reach from the ear tips

down to white eyelids and lashes,
the pink articulation
of nostrils, wind stirring the strands

of her mane a little to frame the gaze
in which she fixed me. She was the bold one;

the others stood at a slight distance
while she held me in her attention.
Put your tongue to the green-flecked peel

of it, reader, and taste it
from the inside: would you believe me
if I said that beneath them a clear channel

ran from the three horses to the place
they'd come from, the cool womb

of nothing, cave at the heart
of the world, deep and resilient and firmly set
at the core of things? Not emptiness,

not negation, but a generous, cold nothing:
the breathing space out of which new shoots

are propelled to the grazing mouths,
out of which the horses themselves are tendered
into the new light. The poem wants the impossible;

the poem wants a name for the kind nothing
at the core of time, out of which the foals

come tumbling: curled, fetal, dreaming,
and into which the old crumple, fetlock
and skull breaking like waves of foaming milk...

Cold, bracing nothing which mothers forth
mud and mint, hoof and clover, root hair

and horsehair and the accordion bones
of the rust-spotted little one unfolding itself
into the afternoon. You too: you flare

and fall back into the necessary
open space. What could be better than that?

It was the beginning of May,
the black earth nearly steaming,
and a scatter of petals decked the mud

like pearls, everything warm with setting out,
and you could see beneath their hooves
the path they'd traveled up, the horse-road

on which they trot into the world, eager for pleasure
and sunlight, and down which they descend,

in good time, into the source of spring.

Thank you.

[Extended audience applause]

Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you.

[Audience applause]

So, so the curtain has closed and the house lights have come up, the curtains have risen again, and we now move into a different kind of rhetorical space in which you are invited to ask questions, and, and I'll do my best to answer them. Yes?

Paul Worley: [Ed. Note: The exact wording of Dr. Paul Worley's request is inaudible; however, he asks if Mark Doty would be willing to read "63rd Street Y"]

Mark Doty: Sure! Do you happen to be carrying that book with you? [Laughs]

Paul Worley: [inaudible]

Mark Doty: Great! Bring it up! The deal is--this is, these are poems from one, my first or second book, which I don't carry these around because they're old and they've just been reprinted in this new edition from David R Godine.

Paul Worley: Thanks!

Mark Doty: Thank you.Sure.

Paul Worley: [inaudible]

Mark Doty: Okay. All right, so this is a poem about--oh man, this is a hundred years ago [laughter]--the speaker is staying at the 63rd Street YMCA in New York City. "63rd Street Y". It's a Christmas poem, actually.

All night steam heat pours
from radiators and up the stairwells
to the thirteenth floor,
and I can't sleep because I know
all the windows are thrown wide open,

a voyeur's advent calendar.
If I lean out the screenless flame, the screenless frame,
the building's twin flanks yield
banks of lit rectangles above a black courtyard
where a few papers lie completely still,

this warm December. Thirteen dizzying stories
show tonight and any night some blank shades
or black glass, and dozens of interiors--
men all right, mostly not young
or strikingly Christian, though certainly associated.

The nude black man two windows over
is lying in bed, Melchior halfway
through his journey, writing a letter home.
And on the twelfth floor, in my favorite window,
only a little corner holding

the foot of the bed visible,
a pair of strong arms are smoothing
a thin red coverlet so carefully
he must be expecting someone. The scene's
too fragmentary to construct a convincing story,

but he smooths the cloth until
I imagine there's not a single wrinkle
on the scarlet spread blushing
the lamplight so that his arms glow
with the color of intimacy. Even

after I'm tired of watching
there's something all night to wake me:
a pigeon flapping toward the sill
like an awkward annunciation, someone singing
in the alley thirteen floors down

--the Ode to Joy?--curiosity
about the red room a floor below, empty now.
In the park, the lamps' circles shrink
along distant paths beneath intricate trees,
Fifth Avenue lumous, luminous in its Roman,

floodlit splendor, and there the hulk
of the Metropolitan, where the Neapolitan angels
must be suspended in darkness now,
their glazed silks dim,
though their tempera skin's so polished

even an exit sign would set them blazing.
I'm sleeping a little then thinking
of the single male angel, lithe and radiant,
wrapped only in a Baroque scrap
sculpted by impossible wind. Because

he's slightly built--real, somehow--
there's something shocking
in his nakedness, the svelte hips
barely brushed by drapery;
he's no sexless bearer of God's thoughts.

Divinity includes desire
--why else create a world
like this one, dawn fogging
the park in gold, the Moorish arches
of the Y one grand Italian Bethlehem

in which the minor figures wake
in anticipation of some unforeseen beginning.
Even the pigeons seem glazed
and expectant, fired to iridescence.
And on the twelfth floor

just the perfect feet and ankles
of the boy in the red-flushed room
are visible. I think he must be disappointed,
stirring a little, alone, and then
two other legs enter the rectangle of view,

moving toward his and twining with them,
one instep bending to stroke
the other's calf. They make me happy,
those four limbs in effortless conversation
on their snowy ground, the sheets

curling into the billows sculptors used once
to make the suspension of gravity
visible. It doesn't matter
that it isn't silk. I haven't much evidence
to construe what binds them,

but the narrative windows
will offer all morning the glad tidings
of union, comfort and joy,
though I will not stay to watch them.

[Audience applause]

That's going on thirty years ago, you know, so--somebody else wrote that! A question? Anybody? A question that doesn't involve reading a long poem. Yes?

Audience member: [inaudible]

Mark Doty: Oh. Okay.

Audience member: [inaudible] read a short poem?

Mark Doty: A short poem! Okay, you can have a short poem.

Audience member: And it's "Golden Retrievals."

Mark Doty: Mm-hmm.

Audience member: [inaudible]

Mark Doty: Sure I do. This is a good place to stop, actually, because this is a poem that's spoken by a dog. My, my golden retriever Beau was invited to contribute a poem to an anthology of poems by writers' dogs, and I just thought, "He's never going to do that," you know? [Audience laughter] He doesn't--he lacks focus.

[Audience laughter]

And sure enough, one day we're out walking in the woods, and, you know, I began to pick up these signals coming from him. And he dictated this sonnet. [Audience laughter]

He likes puns. It's called "Golden Retrievals."

Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention
seconds at a time. Catch? I don't think so.
Bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who's--oh
joy--actually scared. Sniff the wind, then

I'm off again: muck, pond, ditch, residue
of any thrillingly dead thing. And you?
Either you're sunk in the past, half our walk,
thinking of what you never can bring back,

or else you're off in some fog concerning
--tomorrow, is that what you call it? My work:
to unsnare time's warp (and woof!), retrieving,
my haze-headed friend, you. This shining bark

a Zen master's bronzy gong, calls you here,
entirely, now: bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow.

[Audience laughter.]

Thank you.

[Audience applause.]

[Transcribed by Megan Sevigny; Reviewed by Dr. Crystal Alberts 11 November 2012]


Contact Information

Crystal Alberts

Associate Professor of English

Director, UND Writers Conference

276 Centennial Drive
110 Merrifield Hall, Stop 7209
Grand Forks, ND 58202