Monday, January 26, 2009

Fire to Fire by Mark Doty

I know it's shocking, but yes, I'm actually reviewing a relatively new book for a change. Usually by the time I get around to things, they're scuffed up, dog-eared, and there's only a little residue to show where the "new" sticker once lived.

But here I am, and with a National Book Award winner, to boot!

Fire to Fire is an odd choice to win an award, at least from my perspective. It's not really a new collection of poems--only the first 50 pages are new material, meaning that essentially a chapbook takes the cake over whatever other poetry books were published in 2008. I find it odd that a "Best of..." wins an award over entirely new material, but since I don't read enough new poetry to say this was or was not the best, I'll just note my eyebrow quirk at the selection and move on.

I must admit that I had trouble with this book. Because it featured a lot of selections from over Doty's life, it was hard for me to get a feel for his poetry at any given time. (I do not, as a rule, care for "best of..." books, preferring to make my own decisions in this regard.) This was further compounded by Doty's seeming desire to show how large his vocabulary is.

When I was in school, my mother made me look up any any all words I didn't know the meaning to, which gave me a life-long hatred of two things--the dictionary and people who used obscure words where common words will do. As a result, Doty's style was not a good fit for me personally, as I kept thinking about how I was really glad I didn't have to read any of his work in high school.

This does not, however, mean I disliked his poetry as a rule. Far from it. I liked his turn of phrase (when not going for five dollar words), and as long-time readers of my reviews know, I am a big fan of poetry of the personal, which Doty writes in abundance. There are quite a few poems dealing with the interrelations of himself and his friends, particularly those who are dying. I am assuming the most personal deal with a dying lover or lovers, but they could possibly be fictionalized.

Here's an example, "Brilliance":

"Maggie's taking care of a man
who's dying; he's attending to everything,
said goodbeye to his parents,

paid off his credit card.
She says Why don't you just
run it up to the limit?

but he wants everything
squared away, no balance owed,
though he misses the pets

he's already found a home for
--he can't be around dogs or cats,
too much risk. He says,

I can't have anything.
She says, A bowl of goldfish?
He says he doesn't want to start

with anything and then describes
the kind he'd maybe like,
how their tails would fan

to a gold flaring. They talk
about hot jewle tones,
gold lacquer, say maybe

they'll go pick some out
though he can't go much of anywhere and then
abruptly he says I can't love

anything I cant' finish.
He says it like he's had enough
of the whole scintillant worldm

though what he means is
he'll never be satisfied and therefore
has established this discipline,

a kind of severe rehersal.
That's where they leave it,
him looking out the windowm

her knitting as she does because
she needs to do something.
Later he leaves a message:

Yes to the bowl of goldfish.
Meaning: let me go, if I have to,
in brilliance. In a story I read,

a Zen master who'd perfected
his detachment from the things of the world
remembered, at the moment of dying,

a deer he used to feed in the park,
and wondered who might care for it,
and at that instant was reborn

in the stunned flesh of a fawn.
So, Maggie's friend--
is he going out

into the last loved object
of his attention?
Fanning the veiled translucence

of an opulent tail,
undulant in some uncapturable curve,
is he bronze chrysanthemums,

copper leaf, hurried darting,
doubloons, icon-colored fins
troubling the water?"

Though a bit longer than the poems I usually quote for reviews, I think it's the best example of Doty's closeness to whatever his subject is, whether it's getting a constantly one-upped massage, the love of a dog, or picking out kimonos with a friend. There is an intimacy of communication that I find deeply enjoyable, when I am not being hammered by the poet's wealth of obscure words.

I really wish I could quote in full another poem that shows, I think the personality of Doty, called "Homo Will Not Inherit," a poetic screed against those who would judge people who don't share their religious views. It starts with the setting, goes on to describe a posting with the title words on it, and then Doty shows the world that he as a homosexual (and to some extent, all outsiders from the norm--childfree couples, atheists, pagans, goths, punks, zinesters, and the like can all find a similar theme here, I think) inhabits is the kingdom he wishes to inherit. The city after dark, uncaring police, the love of a strange man--this is Doty's paradise.

I think this exerpt says it best: "...the exile you require of me,/you who've posted this invitation/to a heaven nobody wants." is a line many people I know can take to heart. "I have my kingdom," is the poem's last line. I couldn't agree more.

Doty's poetic style is a bit of an aquired taste, I think. He grew on me as the collection moved deeper into his earlier work, as I absorbed his world from the lines on the page. If you let yourself do that, too, I think you'll find this book, while a collection of the past, is worthy of an award nod. While I prefer whole texts, and will seek out Doty's other books, those looking for a sampling will find "Fire to Fire" well worth the read.

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