Mark Doty read and talked about poetry today in the gigantic library at San Jose State University. I was not disappointed, not even for a minute. It was the whale poem, “Visitation,” that dealt with heft in a completely new way. He comes to view the whale expecting:
confusion, some accident to bring
a young humpback to grief.
In “Visitation” he asks himself the question, “How much weight do we give to joy? The last line of the poem is:
What did you think, that joy
Was some slight thing?
But first he read “Citizens:”
The light turns red and I’m stepping
onto the wide and empty crosswalk on eighth Avenue,
nothing between the white lines but a blowing riffle
of paper when this truck –
It’s the way Mark reminds me of Prospero, first summoning the minutiae of the craft, with a mastery of the elements – earth, air – and those potent polished and swirled words alchemized into a dazzling heartfelt poem… in completion he seems to ordinary down the magnetic field, blessing and releasing those energies back from whence they came by his own humanness, it is that magical touch that brings me back again to listen to this poet. To move with him through the poem and then be invited to visit his process of creation — is profound. Here is something of what he shared. He tells about how he was almost run over, and lost his temper. Something awful about that, being knocked off center. Later he began reflecting on the red truck that almost hit him. He writes something. He asks, “When does it start to become a poem? When we enquire, ‘Why does it matter?’ “
His first words when the truck cut him off were, what are you doing, act like a citizen. This led to his reflection on the fabric of social exchange in America. “What damage has been done to social responsibility? Last year Exon made the largest profit – why is there no money to pay teachers? It’s an absence of citizenship.” So when he says, act like a citizen, he is speaking for others (as well). Then he looks at his own violent reaction:
If I carried a sharp instrument
I could scrape a long howl on his flaming paint job….
and what kind of citizen does this thought make me…
Then he asks himself why he is still carrying the feeling after it is over (like the monk in the poem who carry the nun across the stream, put her down, but still holds to the experience.) When our identity gets whacked what do we do with our reaction? This can go very deep. The poem closes with Mark entering the subway “with the devil in his carbon chariot,” and an image of the train
burrowing deeper uptown
as if it were screwing further down into the bedrock.
People in the train are weighed down by lack of dignity, tired, carrying a burden. His last words are
…When did I ever set anything down?
He asks, (in relation to the making of the poem) “What will stay with me? Take your experience and think about why it matters. In the words of Walt Whitman: ‘There are buds beneath speech.’ The poem wants to unfold.”
These poems, “Visitation” and “Citizens,” are in Mark’s prize-winning book, fire to fire.