Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Mark Doty, _Deep Lane_

NEVER EVER EXPECTED to find Mark Doty sounding like Seamus Heaney, but the first section of what I suppose we may call the title poem of Deep Lane (which has nine installments interspersed over the course of the volume) gives us not only this--

break-table, slab no blow could dent
rung with the making, and out of that chop and rut
comes the fresh surf of the lupines

but also this--

harrowing, rooting deep. Spade-plunge
and  trowel, sweet turned-down gas-flame
slow-charring carbon, out of which sprouts

the wild unsayable.

The kennings, the barking assonance, the plosive consonants, the out-of-left-field adjective-noun pairings...it's echt early Heaney, right down to the potato ("white  root-flesh [...] dusky skin of the tuber").

Life's twisting path took me last summer to Knoxville, Tennessee, where I found a terrific independent bookstore, and I bought this in part because I was happy to see they stocked volumes of new poetry and wanted to encourage the practice. I had fallen a bit in love with Doty after My Alexandria and Atlantis--a happy blend of confessional and mandarin à la Merrill, the longer poems keeping dozens of plates spinning while maintaining a graceful composure. Sweet Machine and Source I liked but perhaps not as much; in School of the Arts he seemed to be prematurely slipping into the arid odorlessness of a Late Manner, and without consciously deciding I was giving up on him, I did stop keeping an eye out for new ones.

But--saw this in Knoxville, thought it was worth a chance, and it's good. If School of the Arts sounded a little Parnassian, this one (Heaney-like) has its nose close to earth: dirt, plants, animals, appetites.  "And then I was given the key / to a wanting that won't stop as long as I live," he writes in "Hungry Ghost," and throughout Deep Lane Doty leans in to appetite. Leans in, indeed, a bit more avidly than may have been good for him, as there are poems about intravenous drug use ("Crystal") and rehab ("God-Box"), but the book is certainly about the cost of the rush as much as it is about the rush:

if you don't hold still, you can have joy after joy,

but you can't stay anywhere to love.  That's the price,
that rib-rattling wind waiting to sleep you up,

that's the price the wind pays.

Some good animal poems here, too, and not just about dogs this time. "Pescadero" is an entertaining variation on James Wright's "A Blessing," with goats instead of horses, but the prize goes to "The King of Fire Island," which re-imagines Elizabeth Bishop's "The Moose." Rather than a moose stalking out of the woods in New Brunswick, though, we have a deer making the circuit on Fire Island. He is not quite the massive pile of sheer otherness that Bishop's moose is--he's a "buck in velvet at the garden rim," his "handsome face expressive," with a taste for sassafras. Still, like Bishop's moose, Doty's deer is in a relationship to us both powerful and elusive, undeniable yet unnameable: "My friend? Have I any right / to call him that?" Good question.  But in this book, Doty walks antlered.

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