My Alexandria by Mark Doty

I read this quotation the other day, and I’ll let it open this review.

Nothing which does not transport is poetry. The lyre is a winged instrument.

–Joseph Joubert, essayist

I first know Doty from a prose work that informs my love of objects in writing. (Plenty on Still Life With Oysters and Lemon here.) So it’s not surprising that there are lots of lovely, striking details and things here, in the first Doty poetry I’ve attempted. “What was our city / but wonderful detail?” What, indeed.

These poems feel perfect, crystalline, like they couldn’t be any better or any different. Each word is so carefully chosen. I love the internal rhymes and the music, and I love the enjambment, and the images, and the surprises. I still don’t feel like a very expert reader of poetry, but these have everything I feel like I want a poem to have. There are clear themes throughout the book: death, mortality, grief, with references to the author’s partner dying of AIDS and of others in the same situation. (I found that subtext easy to see, but I know a little of Doty’s life story, so I’m not sure how visible it would be to a reader who doesn’t.) It’s not a book of grief, though. It’s a book of seeking meaning and a way to carry on, of trying to see beyond death, and it’s a book of really seeing the world. Something else I recognize from Still Life is a constant, serious attention and observation.

What I think the title, My Alexandria, brings to this collection: a reference to a storied place no longer quite accessible, where things were famously better or at least very good, but in ways we can’t see from here.

Not for the first time with Doty, I noted many lines I want to keep forever. From a poem called “The Wings” (which takes place in part at the auctions that I know, from another book, Doty and his partner Wally used to attend together),

Some days things yield

such grace and complexity that what we see
seems offered.

I love that enjambment (made greater by the stanza break).

Later in that same poem,

An empty pair of pants
is mortality’s severest evidence.

This is something Doty does so well, the distillation of concept into an object.

And from the poem “No” (I so love turtles),

the single word of the shell,
which is no.

Besides these, my favorite poems are “Esta Noche,” “Chanteuse,” “Fog” and “Brilliance.”

I had success with reading these poems aloud, which I’m sure is always a good strategy, but one I don’t always use. Also, reading very slowly. Many of Doty’s perfect, perfectly fleshed images take several lines to come together, and I need to grasp them completely. It takes concentration. As much as I love a poetry reading, these are not images I could take in by just hearing them. I need to take my time.

Poetry is still hard, but so rewarding, when done this well.


Rating: 8 fused layers.

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