Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

A former U.S. Poet Laureate remembers her mother, and wrestles with her brutal murder, in compelling and feeling style.

Natasha Trethewey, two-term United States Poet Laureate, forges a serious, poignant work of remembrance with Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir. Trethewey’s mother, Gwen, is the focus of this book: the daughter’s memories and what she’s forgotten, and, pointedly, the mother’s murder at the hands of her second ex-husband. The murder took place just off Memorial Drive in Atlanta, Ga.; the aptly named thoroughfare runs from downtown to Stone Mountain, monument to the Confederacy, “a lasting metaphor for the white mind of the South.”

Trethewey is the daughter of an African American mother and a white Canadian father. Their marriage was illegal; she was born just before the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case that struck down laws banning interracial marriage. Memorial Drive begins with her upbringing in Mississippi with her doting extended maternal family, necessarily recounting her early understanding of race and racism. This happy period ends abruptly with mother and daughter’s move to Atlanta, when Trethewey’s parents divorce. Atlanta has its strengths, such as a vibrant African American community, but very quickly, Gwen meets the man who will become her second husband. From the beginning, Joel is a sinister figure. Twelve years later, 19-year-old Trethewey returns to Atlanta from college to clean out her mother’s apartment after Joel brutally murders Gwen.

While this central event is harrowing, Memorial Drive does not focus only there. Trethewey ruminates on memory and forgetfulness, and recalls her developing love for and skill with metaphor, language, writing. Back home in Mississippi, her great-aunt “would appear each day at the back door, singing my name through the screen, her upturned palm holding out toward me three underripe figs… she was teaching me the figurative power of objects, their meaningful juxtapositions.” During the painful retelling of her stepfather’s physical abuse of her mother, Trethewey resorts to the second person, a whole chapter delivered to her younger herself. Concluding: “Look at you. Even now you think you can write yourself away from that girl you were, distance yourself in the second person, as if you weren’t the one to whom any of this happened.” Memories of her mother often appear as images, offering symbolic interpretations of the 12-year gap left by trauma. While Trethewey does pursue forensic exploration (transcripts of recorded phone calls between Gwen and Joel, as well as a visit to a psychic), this memoir is more introspection than true-crime investigation. And it is gracefully and gorgeously rendered, as befits a poet of Trethewey’s stature.

Trethewey declines to offer a neat conclusion, but she succeeds in making meaning from pain. Memorial Drive is loving and elegiac, disturbing and incisive.


This review originally ran in the June 18, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 lost records.

Curious Atoms: A History with Physics by Susanne Paola Antonetta

Full disclosure: the author was a professor and mentor of mine at Western Washington University.

Curious Atoms is an essay chapbook, 50-some pages in length, dealing with physics and the author’s own life experiences: part memoir and part science, told by a serious reader of physics but with no formal training in the hard sciences (as far as I can tell). “A History with Physics” feels like an apt subtitle.

There is a certain density to this subject matter. For one thing, admittedly I neither much understand nor much care about the theoretical physics discussed here; I had to let it go by, try to meet it where I found it and move on. But it didn’t hinder my appreciation for the writing, because a great writer can carry us through any subject. (Although I might have gotten more out of this had I been more comfortable with quantum whatnots.) The physics might challenge you as it did me. The personal material is heavy in a different way; Antonetta delves into her experience with bipolar disorder, with mental health and treatment, stigma, medication, and more. She’s also a deeply intelligent and well-read narrator, ranging widely. It’s not an easy read in a few ways, but a rewarding one. I love that wide-ranging headiness, and I loved feeling like I could hear the voice again of a woman I got to hear speak in a classroom a few days a week – that was a real privilege.

Here are a few lovely, thought-provoking, representative lines.

To bring to the lyric the mind and body that I have, and speak from the lyric soul, I cannot. I’m not sure what of mine can be called mine, body or mind; the lyric, with textbook definition of “the personal emotions and thoughts of a single speaker,” wants a warm hand, not mineral. I am not an individual, quite, but a chemo-dual.

That “our bodies of difference,” as Stephen Kuusisto writes, “offer crucial ways of knowing” I do believe. I can only give the cellular knowing of my chemical history, with the punctuation of what I suppose I really am, unmixed: hysteria under the bed, glitter. I can talk about 1970s psychiatry, the time I first encountered as a girl patients preyed on sexually, the awful, always visible electroshock machine, used as treatment and threat, its aftermath a gelled amnesia. I do not think, however, that such memoirizing would get to the question.

Gifted memoirist writes that memoirizing is not the solution. Note the interest in the idea of dualism or multiplicity, as in the multiverse, as in bipolar, as in the highs and lows of minds and lives.

Better still – I apologize that this review is half quoted text, but David Lazar’s brief introduction is too perfect to pass up. I think he describes the collection perfectly, and I couldn’t agree with his final statement more.

Susanne Paola Antonetta’s essays are full of erudition and stunning self-appraisals, hair-pin turns between metaphysics and splintered pieces of autobiography, dark energy and light asides, tossed off like hand grenades. These essays are sculpted – I’m tempted to say forged (so necessary is each sentence, even each word one feels). Yet in the midst of work so exorbitantly cooked, the raw springs of the felt occasion drive the essayist through her thought-projects. I loved being in the company of this mind.

You can view the entire chapbook here, and you really should.


Rating: 8 sides.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (audio)

Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped is lovely, painful, and important. It opens with three epigraphs, and the first, by Harriet Tubman, provides Ward’s title.

We saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.

This memoir focuses on the deaths of five young men, close friends and relatives of the author, including her brother. One suicide, one murder, two car wrecks, and one death by drugs. Roger, Demond, C.J., Ronald, Joshua. Ward profiles each, tracks a life and a death and the consequences for those who loved him. In shining her light on these five individuals, she also examines race and racism, gender, poverty, and the historical patterns that contribute to deaths like these. Most centrally, racism. (See footnote re: caste.)

Ward introduces her topic and the five young men, briefly, then handles them one by one in reverse death order, from Ronald back to her brother Joshua. In between, sections titled “We Are Born,” “We Are Wounded, “We Are Watching,” etc., track the experiences of Ward and her family, growing up the eldest of her mother’s four children, in chronological order. In this way, two threads of her story meet when the backwards-moving and forwards-moving chronologies intersect with Joshua’s death, hit by a drunk driver in a hit-and-run for which the driver – a white man – would receive a sentence of just five years.

Men We Reaped is a personal memoir of Ward’s own life, as well as a profile of five individuals and their social and family circles. It is also an examination and social critique of race, gender, and class, within the United States and within the historic Deep South. Ward was raised in and around DeLisle, Mississippi, near Gulfport-Biloxi. It’s a particular place, of the old Confederacy, divided by race even as its inhabitants recognize that this is a false division; poverty-stricken, it provides few opportunities for its young people, especially young black men. Ward offers her reader the history of this place as well as of her own family, hearkening to the town’s former name: “I want to impart something of its wild roots, its early savagery. Calling it Wolf Town hints at the wildness at the heart of it.” That this range of subjects is so neatly woven into Ward’s intriguing narrative structure – those forward- and backward-moving chronologies that meet in the middle – results in an extraordinary piece of literary work. Ward’s points about social structures and prejudice are intelligently made, her personal stories are deeply moving, and her craft is admirable. Her writing is lovely and expressive. I am deeply impressed.

This audio narration by Cherise Boothe felt right to me; I appreciated the pacing and weight and pronunciations of place names. (There are so many ways to say “New Orleans.”) As I’ve struggled to write this review – often more difficult the more I appreciate a book – I’ve missed having access to a text copy for reference, but the experience of the audiobook was excellent, so that format is recommended but having the print copy alongside would be ideal.

Everyone should read this book.


Rating: 8 holes in the ground.

I listened to this book while reading Isabel Wilkerson’s forthcoming Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, also a stellar and deeply important book. As Wilkerson illustrates, these forces are the work of caste and casteism. I chose to stay with the term of racism for this review, as it’s the one Ward uses and I think it’s an accurate term, but please see also Wilkerson’s arguments.

Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan

This book came recommended by one of my favorite faithful readers here at the blog, so I’m sorry to say I’m not an unqualified fan.

Adrift is a memoir of survival. Steven Callahan is a lifelong sailor, and from boyhood had wanted to sail across the Atlantic, which he eventually managed to do in his late twenties in a 21-foot sailboat of his own design and build. Her name is Napoleon Solo, and with a friend, Callahan sails her from New England to old England. Here the friend flies home and Callahan putters south with another short-term crew member; they part at the Spanish island of Tenerife. Callahan sets out alone for Antigua, and it is in this second attempted Atlantic crossing that things go wrong. The subtitle gives the briefest summary. Callahan spends the 76 days in an inflatable raft with few and meager tools, whose accelerating failures require increasingly creative solutions, even as the man’s body and mind self-cannibalize and break down.

For one thing, this book is interesting in that it is both suspenseful and riveting, and spoiled from the beginning: that Callahan got to write the book (never mind that subtitle) gives away the ending. In fact, the subtitle’s specificity gives away yet more. As I read the log, I see we’re in day 41 and know we’re nowhere near done. I was nevertheless absorbed by the story. It’s hard to say to what extent I enjoyed this read; I was often frustrated, but always reluctant to close the book and walk away.

I think I might have been more able to enjoy the story if I’d better understood the practical aspects of it. Sometimes Callahan throws out terms or processes unconcernedly that are meaningless to me. Sometimes he tries to explain but entirely passes me by – which may be as much on me as it is on him; certainly I don’t know my way around a boat, and mechanical intelligence is not a strength of mine. He includes some diagrams and step-by-step explications that so entirely passed me by that I started skipping them, as trying and failing to understand only irritated me. That said, giving up on the details still left me able to follow the life-and-death struggle.

Callahan conceives of himself as operating in three parts: physical, emotional, and rational. Especially as he starts to really lose it (with fatigue, starvation and dehydration, frustration, sleep deprivation, and the general crazy-making of his situation), these parts become a chorus of arguing voices in his head. There is a philosophical, if not meta-physical, thread to the story: will to live versus peace with death, and how people suffer and work through experiences like this. I suspect such a story is one of the hardest things to write, to communicate such profundities… and so if I say he didn’t do an entirely convincing job of it, I mean that as mild criticism. Certainly I’ve never lived through anything like this, nor tried to write it, and I can’t imagine I’d do any better.

The story was undoubtedly compelling. I didn’t want to stop reading. And yet I felt a certain impatience, too. It’s strange to say, but the events of these 76 days, while they included much variation, were also much of the same over and over. Much minutia of patching holes and reconfiguring a speargun, but on the other hand, just the ocean: “that torn blue desert,” he calls it, with dorados and flying fish and triggerfish and calm weather or angry weather, hot days and cold nights. Possibly this could have been done in fewer than 238 pages to better effect. (That’s a major decision to be made with a book like this: degree of detail; pacing.) Maybe I’m not the ideal reader of this book, or not at the ideal time. When I think about survival-in-nature stories, I think of Krakauer first, of course; Into Thin Air remains the pinnacle for me, in memory, with Into the Wild a close second. (Both of these, apparently, pre-blog. And what would I think of them if I reread them now?) Stories this elemental must be among the hardest to get right. Isn’t this kind of survival narrative the definition of ineffable?

Interesting in its own ways, and demands to be finished (no question of a did-not-finish here), but not something I loved reading.


Rating: 7 eyes.

movie: The Booksellers (2019)

Thanks, Pops, for making sure I got the chance to see this documentary. The Booksellers is about, yes, booksellers – really, book dealers, those handling antiquarian and rare books and ephemera, rather than the clerk at your local. It therefore covers a handful of collectors as well as the rarefied worlds of New York and London book fairs and dealer circles.

Obviously as a librarian and book lover (and blogger, hello) I appreciate the appreciation for books, the excitement and fascination, the enthusiasm for this or that object; I love the visuals of books and of libraries. I roll my eyes again at predictions of the death of the book; but the film mostly rolls its eyes as well, pointing out why this will never happen. (Quintessential New Yorker Fran Lebowitz is a welcome breath of fresh air and sarcasm throughout: “The people that I see reading actual books on the subway are mostly in their 20s. This is one of the few encouraging things you will ever see in a subway.” Etc.) I guess I didn’t learn anything earth-shattering, but it was neat to get a closer view of what it looks like to really live and breathe books in a different way than I have ever known personally, even though you could say I live in books to a large degree – librarian, book reviewer, MFA student, English teacher. I confess that, while I’m committed to reading print books rather than e-books, the book-as-object is important to me only as a vehicle for the words it contains; I don’t often really geek out on the object itself. I get the appeal, though, and I dig what these folks are into, and I’m so glad they’re out there, documenting the history of print.

On the other hand, it’s a world of great privilege and funding (and the odd bit of nepotism, as frankly stated by one profiled bookseller), and it’s overwhelmingly white and male. Early on, there’s a quick flipping through of pictures of booksellers, as voiceover discusses the stereotype (old guy in tweed with pipe), to demonstrate that they’re actually not all old guys with pipes! – but they were all white. It looks to me like the documentary made an effort to showcase diversity, and good on them; I counted a whopping three people of color in the whole film, with women relatively well represented and with plenty of discussion of the women in the boys’ club situation. (All but one woman were white.) Race was not discussed until the 1:15 mark, by which point I was getting pretty frustrated with that silence. Only oblique reference was made to the fact that this stuff takes a lot of money. I guess I was left feeling a little disenchanted: cool old books and history are awesome, but very few people get invited to this party, and it’s a damn shame not to state that early and talk about it at the forefront.

We are all on our own personal journeys of woke-ness and of noticing what the world around us looks like. These days I’ve been noticing a lot of all-white or almost-all-white spaces.

Very cool documentary, lots of great visuals, and plenty of romance to appreciate about rare and antiquarian books, the quirky folks who deal with them for a living, and the histories we have yet to uncover. I am so glad there are professionals doing this work and continuing to uncover those histories. I love books, and I think I’d be tickled to get to hang out with one of these people in real life. It’s important that we recognize where money and resources keep this field pretty undemocratic, though. The hard work continues in all spheres, and radical book collections are no exception.

Still recommended.


Rating: 7 fabulous plates of fossil fish.

did not finish: Not a Gentleman’s Work: The Untold Story of a Gruesome Murder at Sea and the Long Road to Truth by Gerard Koeppel

I quit just over halfway through this work of history/investigative writing/true crime. In 1896, a small sailing ship left Boston headed for Argentina with a cargo of lumber. There were twelve people aboard: the captain and his wife, a paying passenger, and a small crew. Within the first week, three of the twelve had been hacked to death with an axe. One of the crew was convicted and served time and was later pardoned. Koeppel leans heavily toward the paying passenger as the true murderer: a silver-spoon Harvard dropout and drunk with some odd behaviors. But in the end, the ‘long road to truth’ remains unfinished; we don’t know what really happened on board the Herbert Fuller.

It sounded up my alley, but this slim history threw me in a couple of ways. Koeppel’s tone varies from the meticulously detailed chronology to the sensationalist crowing of what can only have been. Here is neither Erik Larson’s novelistic telling of well-documented histories, nor the measured and transparent speculations of literary writers like Kushner, Kupperman, Monroe, and Wood.

Koeppel’s standard of proof is not my own. For my money, he puts rather too much faith in the eyewitness accounts of discombobulated sailors, chicken-scratched down by their fellows, none of whom spoke English as a first language, and now viewed at a distance of more than a century. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously inaccurate in any case. To point to inconsistencies in records such as these and claim them as proof of dishonesty seems unreasonable. I was bemused by a preoccupation with who had children and whether they in turn had children: the continuing line of the key players seems important to Koeppel in a way I don’t comprehend.

As usual, your mileage may vary, but this is not for me.


No rating.

Talk on the Wild Side: Why Language Can’t Be Tamed by Lane Greene

It’s not really true that if you boil a frog slowly it won’t notice and will never try to escape. But if a lot of speakers very gradually inch a vowel forward or back, up or down in the space in the mouth, without even knowing, then over time a major change can set in without anyone acting in time to stop it. That is because vowel-boiling, unlike frog-boiling, is painless and victimless.

Another winner from Liz! I loved this book. It has just the right mix of expert, researched history and linguistics information, and irreverent, populist sense of fun and utility. In fact, utility is part of the central lesson of this book. Using English should be about effective communication; one can be correct, eloquent, elegant, without being snooty about it; correctness is relative and subject to context; the language is tough and durable, and doesn’t fall apart just because we slip up on the distinction between ‘who’ and ‘whom.’ (‘Whom’ plays a large-ish role in the book, to great effect.)

Lane Greene is an editor, a linguist, and a columnist on language. He’s originally from Atlanta, Georgia, but now lives in England with his Danish wife, and speaks nine languages. He has a deeply impressive grasp of the history and trends of the English language and of linguistics; he is an expert in these areas and easily wins my trust. And it’s refreshing to meet an expert who is not purist or snobbish about his field – although as Greene points out, the more expert the linguist, the less purist they’ll be.

He begins with the basics: the difference between prescriptivist and descriptivist linguistics. Descriptivism observes how language is used and has been used, and makes recommendations for how we use language based on how it’s been and is being used. Prescriptivism tries to make rules based on some sense of what is correct – it tries to prescribe, rather than observe. Prescriptivists believe there is what Greene calls One Right Way to do things, which is an inherently problematic concept. Greene knows how to set and follow rules; in one of his roles, he works as an editor, so he knows about the application of standards. (Particularly for a certain publication, for example, a “house style” sets rules.) But he is at heart a descriptivist. “To sum up: language is not so much logical as it is useful. It is not composed; it is improvised. It is not well behaved; it is resourceful. It is not delicate; it is hardy. It is not always efficient, buts redundancy makes it robust. It is not threatened; it is self-renewing. It is not perfect. But it is amazing.”

The book-length metaphor at work here is evident in the title. Language is wild, not to be tamed, and doesn’t take to prescriptivism’s puritanical tendencies. It is always changing, and it takes care of itself; it doesn’t actually need guarding or protecting. Greene proves this via a number of case studies and fascinating histories, including the Great Vowel Shift and shifts in the meanings of individual words: “In the Middle English era, manners dictated that a girl was expected to be silly and buxom, but never nice” (because each of those words meant something very different then than they do now). He relates humanity’s adventures in language, including the design of purely logical languages (never caught on) and attempts to teach computers natural language, which doesn’t work because “the rules are too many, the exceptions too manifold.” He studies language as a political tool (less powerful than some think).

And in my favorite chapter (six), “Whom in a biker bar,” he handles questions about register and the limited necessity for ‘proper’ English. “The choice of [register] allows a speaker or writer a valuable second channel of communication, alongside the literal meaning of the words and grammar that (hopefully) add up to a clear proposition, command, question or request. … To restrict yourself only to Formal – to buy into the One Right Way fallacy – is to leave a valuable and versatile tool lying on the ground.” I had been wondering, throughout this spirited and convincing defense of descriptivism over prescriptivism, why indeed I am teaching my students to avoid comma splices (etc.), and chapter six answered it for me. There is still a utility for a ‘proper’ English in certain settings, but the grammar police of the world (and those whom Greene calls ‘language tamers’) take undue pleasure in correcting us when in fact we could stand to relax in most settings – especially in spoken language. “Insisting that speech – a live activity, always changing, a biological behavior – must imitate writing – which is fixed – is a bit like insisting that people should continue to look like an old photo of themselves.”

This book is a joy for anyone who loves language, its niceties and nuances and finer points, its ever-changing, exciting, shape-shifting utility and its fascinating history. It’s certainly for anyone who is still hung up on correcting other people’s grammar, and it is certainly for anyone (like an editor or an English teacher) whose job it is to do so. If you’re unconvinced that prescriptivism doesn’t serve us, please read this book. If you love words, read Lane Greene. I think I know of some students who will be assigned excerpts this coming fall semester!


Rating: 9 prepositions at the ends of sentences.

movie: Fantastic Fungi (2019)

Thanks, Mom, for making sure I took a look at this delightful documentary. In the age of work-from-home and social distancing, the days of the week have begun to run together, and I’ve decided to view something special each Friday night to mark the beginning of the weekend, lest I miss the occasion altogether. Fantastic Fungi kicks off my new tradition.

This film is visually stunning, and there are other benefits, but I think this might be the headline. Gorgeous! (Check out the trailer at the Fantastic Fungi website – you can also watch the whole movie from there for $5.) The sped-up/time-lapse film of mushrooms growing and spreading is mesmerizing, beautiful, and surprising: you may find that mushrooms come in far greater variety than you ever realized. And fungi, of course, of which mushrooms are only a subset.

Besides those magnificent visuals, there is plainly-stated science for laypeople – chiefly, the revelation that massive networks of mycelium make up part of the earth under our feet, wherever we go. The interconnectedness of fungi is one of their coolest features. Mushrooms have medicinal properties, make good food, and can be used to filter water; and we understand but the merest bit of them.

And then there is the magic of mushrooms. The film features a series of personalities, mycologists and mushroom-lovers, scientists and entrepreneurs, and of course there are some personalities in this part. When we get to the psychedelics, I’d say it gets a bit carried away and cult-like (and I say this as someone who is totally fine with y’all tripping on mushrooms if you want to, please understand). But there are some great points made about the weird prejudices we (the U.S.) hold as a country and as a society, the setbacks in research in this field, and the very cool recent research in the last 20 years into how psilocybin might could help cancer patients and those who suffer from depression and PTSD. Good information, but a bit mystical and awed. That said, this beautiful film would probably be enjoyable while eating the magic mushrooms, too.

The NYT calls it “informative and kooky,” and I think that’s about right. If you’re not already moderately mushroom-expert, this documentary will teach you something, and it will certainly stun and sooth your eyeballs. I rather agree with the reviewer that “I could have done without Brie Larson’s cutesy narration,” offering the fungi’s collective point of view. But cutesy is part of the shtick here. And I’m unconvinced by the idea that mushrooms will help us – with technology, of course – to save the world, but that’s a matter of my worldview, and your mileage, as usual, may vary. Worth $5 and 80 minutes of my life? Heck, yes. I’d love to have that time-lapse fungi playing on a loop, in fact. Enjoy.


Rating: 7 spores.

Dog Years by Mark Doty

Love for a wordless creatures, once it takes hold, is an enchantment… This is why I shouldn’t be writing anything to do with the two dogs who have been such presences for sixteen years of my life. How on earth could I stand at the requisite distance to say anything that might matter?

How indeed?

I love Doty, as you know, and this book is an excellent example of some of the qualities of his work that I love best. He is thoughtful, meandering, wise, self-deprecating, shows his thinking transparently on the page, and has the most precise and loving eye for beauty; he turns most every observation of the world into ekphrasis somehow, by which I mean that he turns the same active, joyful, inquisitive observation to the Massachusetts shoreline or a NYC sidewalk that he turns to a museum-quality painting.

This review is a trigger warning of sorts. I love Doty, and I love this book, and I’m glad I read it, but it was also painful as hell. Dog Years is about beloved pet dogs who die (as they do), and it’s about 9/11, and it’s about death and loss. It is also absolutely relevant that I read this during the pandemic of the spring of 2020, and everything feels a bit more raw these days, the angst a bit closer to the surface than usual; and I have in no way recovered from my dear Ritchey dying more than a year and a half ago now, and my dear Hops is not even 12 yet but he shows his age. This book was beautiful and transcendent and really hard on me. I mean it as a compliment – this book comes with a warning because it’s so well done.

Because, you know, a book about a beloved pet dog dying could easily be (and they usually are) insipid, overly sentimental, a cheap shot. And I think telling the story of 9/11 (or Katrina, I think about that one a lot too) is awfully hard to do in a way that’s not going to sound like anybody could have told it. (This is true of the pandemic of 2020, too. Who will tell that story well? Will it be Doty? I’d buy that book. See also Paul Lisicky’s excellent recent release, Later. A little awkward: Paul Lisicky appears in Dog Years as Doty’s husband, which is no longer the case.) In other words, Doty has undertaken an ambitious book, which aims to do a couple of things at once that look nearly impossible to do well, even individually. But of course he’s knocked it out of the park. (It is a sign of my faith in him that I undertook to read a book about dogs dying. Whew.)

The dogs in question are Arden, a black long-haired retriever, and Beau, a golden retriever(ish). They are very specific beasts, individuals, as dogs are. Arden belonged to Mark Doty and his partner, Wally, in Provincetown, Mass., where Wally sickened and eventually died of AIDS, but not before Mark brought home Beau to join the family as well. “My friends think I’ve lost my mind: You’re taking care of a man who can’t get out of bed and you’re adopting a golden retriever? They do have a point, but there’s a certain dimension of experience at which the addition of any other potential stress simply doesn’t matter anymore.” (That is a golden retriever puppy, I would add.) Widowed, Mark (and Arden and Beau) will eventually form a new family with Paul, and it is in this shape that they make their way to the end of both dogs’ lives, eventually, after much travel and moving around – including living in New York City in September of 2011… I have seen Doty handle grief and loss before (although I’ve not yet read Heaven’s Coast, so there is still that), most recently of course with What Is the Grass, where death forms one of the five sources of Whitman’s genius. And Doty’s, I’d say. The way that these strands are intertwined is lovely and perfect.

When the towers fall, the enormity of all that loss and death and threat to the world is too much to conceive. “With the world in such a state, isn’t it arrogance or blind self-absorption to write about your dogs?” But Doty knows that “we use the singular to approach the numberless,” and this echoes one of the lines I most obsess over in Still Life With Oysters and Lemon, about “the strangeness and singularity of things…” (There is again an echo of the thread in Still Life that is about reflection, in all its senses: “We know ourselves by how we’re known, our measure taken by the gaze of the outsider looking in.”) The singular losses of Arden and Beau offer Doty a way to write about 9/11 and about topics larger than them. The unique to communicate the universal, and the personal to illuminate the public.

For me, what is perhaps the crux of this book came early. “To attach, to attach passionately to the individual, which is always doomed to vanish–does that make one wise, or make one a fool?” This is a more personal review than usual, but here we are. This is something I’ve been wrestling with, the enormity of loving again after the pain of loss, and I can’t quite believe that either way, the yes or the no, is the right thing. But I always feel I’m in good hands with this writer. Maybe I’ll figure something out if I keep reading.

Of course you known as well that I love Doty’s detailed lists of things, his descriptions (ahem) and the simple fact of his attention turned to all the humble things… the soup Arden smells on that sidewalk. “Of Franco’s retail experiment, there remained for several years an odd little lamp beside his old shop door marked with a thirtiesish design that would have held no meaning if you didn’t know what it had illuminated–but now that’s gone, too.” Things and meaning and the spaces they held, left behind.

Oh! I nearly forgot to mention structure, which absolutely needs mentioning here. Longer, numbered (untitled) chapters do the work of memoir, of memory, not entirely chronological but at least following life in some form; some of them take the form more of essay than of strict narrative, like in chapter three, when he lists and details seven “aspects to our delight” in dogs. Between these are spliced shorter pieces headed Entr’acte (an interval between two acts of a play or opera; a piece of music or a dance performed during an entr’acte), titled and not numbered. These generally take the present tense, and range as widely in content and theme as the rest of the book… and wouldn’t you know, my MFA thesis took the same structure, longer memoiristic essays with short lyric pieces in between… There is also a good bit of Emily Dickinson in this book, and I think my new approach to poetry is just to let Mark Doty tell me about it.

This is a writer I return to for guidance, and this book is an exemplar of what I appreciate about him, but (if you love a dog) it may hurt you, too.

Rambling review brought to you by the pandemic and my difficulty focusing, and the pain that this beautiful book brought me.


Rating: 9 obstreperous things.

What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life by Mark Doty

What Is the Grass is literary criticism and explication, memoir and meditation, and the kind of fine, evocative, thoughtful prose that Mark Doty does best.


It was part of Walt Whitman’s extraordinary innovation with Leaves of Grass to close time and space, to bring his observations and a sense of intimacy to each reader who finds him. It feels perfectly natural that acclaimed poet and memoirist Mark Doty (Dog Years; Still Life with Oysters and Lemon; Deep Lane) chooses to receive, interpret and muse upon these transmissions with What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life.

Doty, like Whitman, is gifted with words, a lover of beauty and of men, a New Yorker. He feels haunted by the elder poet, sees and smells him in the museum of Whitman’s home, again encounters his ghost “above the shoulders of a bedmate on a winter afternoon early in the twenty-first century, in an apartment tower in Hell’s Kitchen.” What Is the Grass is a close reading of Whitman’s great work, but also of American poetry, same-sex love, the exuberance of the physical body, myriad cultural shifts and Doty’s own life.

As is his habit, Doty’s mind on the page wanders widely. Considering a “weird period piece of art porn,” he realizes that “even in the imagined paradise of limitless eros, there must be room for death.” Indeed, death is the fifth of five sources Doty identifies for Whitman’s genius, by which he organizes this book. First, “an experience… of transforming character, loosening the doors from their jambs,” some life-changing moment or moments in Whitman’s life. The second source, “The Unwriteable,” is vigorously, jubilantly celebrated queer sexuality; here and throughout, Doty considers his loves and lovers, relationships and travels.

Next the very city, the “great stream and pulse of life” that is Manhattan, and then language itself, the lovely trips and surprises and sensuous effects and all the multitudinous details to be found in the Crystal Palace exhibition, “at which examples of practically everything human endeavor had created up to 1853 were on display.” Add to this slang and regionalisms, and “these words splash onto the page in Whitman’s first edition, as if a dam holding back a flood of new speech had been dynamited, all at once, by the force of a single poem.”

The fifth source of Whitmanian genius is death, “that strong and delicious word,” which Doty as well must wrestle with. “I’ve seen a man I loved die, and it seemed to me a pure liberation.” But “time avails not, distance avails not,” as Whitman and Doty each repeat, and the latter helps navigate the former. Readers should be prepared to dig out a copy of Leaves of Grass (or find one: “there is a copy of the Leaves in every used bookstore, everywhere in the nation, count on it”) upon reading this book, which makes an indispensable companion and guide. Arriving finally at “the poet’s greatest glory, and the exegete’s inescapable defeat,” in the end, Doty reminds us that Whitman’s “words accomplish what words cannot,” and exits quietly.


This review originally ran in the March 20, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 lines I’d consider tattooing on my body.
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