Love, loss and grief, transformed into art
Printer-friendly version | Posted: Apr. 10th, 2010
National Book Award-winning poet Mark Doty examines our connections to our loved ones—even our pets
Here’s a thought: Sometimes, it takes someone else’s eye to help you see what’s right before you. Now, here’s a confession: One person who helped me look at what lay before me differently is the poet and memoirist Mark Doty.
I met Doty back in the early ‘90s in Provincetown, Mass., a tiny speck of a town set on the very tip of Cape Cod, a peninsula that spirals out into the Atlantic. The town was so gorgeous, I sometimes couldn’t believe I lived there. But, wrapped up in all that beauty, held by the sand and ocean and the resplendent light, was a sense of immense grief. Those were the days when AIDS was taking its toll on artists, on gay men, and many, seeking a serene place to die, chose Provincetown. It was here that I encountered Doty, the person, and Doty, the poet.
Friends directed me to his work, including the poetry collection “My Alexandria,” (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1993), which detailed the impermanent nature of the world around us, as well as “Atlantis,” (Haper Collins, 1995) another compendium of poems that examined loss and grief with honesty and lyricism. A writer in the truest sense, Doty penned other works besides, including the memoir “Heaven’s Coast,” (Harper Perennial, 1996), which examined the loss of his partner, Wally Roberts, to complications from AIDS. Because of some of these books, he’d claimed the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, but I didn’t read him for the awards: I read him because his works moved me, they taught me to look at life — and death — in ways I’d yet to imagine. I felt lucky when, at one point, I found myself living on the same street as him. Outside of his house stood the most beautiful roses I’d ever seen.
But time, it moves us here, moves us there. And it’s been years since I’ve seen or even spoken to Mark. So what good fortune to have been brought back together again, if only on the phone, as he prepares to speak at Benaroya Hall on Friday, Feb. 26 at 7:30 pm, as part of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Poetry Series. In the time since I’ve seen him he’s won the National Book Award for “Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems” (Harper Perennial, 2008), and written “Dog Years: A memoir (P.S.),” which distills how two pets helped him manage grief when his lover was dying. Chatting over the phone, with me here in Seattle and Mark in Long Island, we caught up for a bit, before entering into a discussion that touched on grief, 9/11, the human attachment to dogs, Emily Dickinson. And included, from me, a confession of thievery.
You’ve written about a lot of topics, including grief and love. How are these two topics connected? Or are they?
My God, how could they not be connected? To love anyone or anything comes with the understanding that what we love will eventually disappear, be carried away from us in time, and that we ourselves will disappear. I always think about the friend of mine who said, “A dog is a pact with grief” When you sign on to love a creature, especially an animal who is probably not going to live as long as you do, you are agreeing to experience the loss of that creature as well. All love carries with it that potential and, to some degree, I guess, that inevitability. Therefore my work has tried to pay attention to that intersection of love and grief, and to think about what the experience of grief is like and what we might learn from it and the ways it might be lived through. Not gotten over, exactly; not healed, exactly; I’m not sure I even believe in that.
There was recently this article in The New Yorker about grief. One of the things it talks about is how in our culture, grief has been circumscribed, pushed back. But it also talked about spectacles of grief around big public figures like Michael Jackson. Is there a space for grief on a public level? Or is it more private?
I think we do need different kinds of opportunities or structures for grieving in social spaces as well as in the private space. On a personal level, when one experiences a loss, I think that we need, psychologically, some kind of acknowledgment of that loss in our communities. It’s just too weird to have this private reality that doesn’t match with the social reality. It’s crucial that we’re able to make contact with other people who are grieving, who are also carrying memories of the lost.
But there’s also that broader kind of public mourning: I’m thinking about 9/11 in New York City, which was such a profound condition of public grief, and because there were not already extant structures for that, people started to create them, some of them in really extraordinary ways. One were the posters of the faces of the missing, which were Xeroxed again and again and again and posted everywhere around the city — often with flowers, candles, bits of mementos for the dead — and we understood very soon that those people who were missing were not going to be found, that they had perished, but the pictures kept going up anyway. And there would be a little bit of identifying information: “She has a tattoo on her right hip” or “He has a gold tooth in one of his molars.” This was so important to our community because there wasn’t really a place to go — people started gathering in Union Square, not too far from where I live — and people would stand around and sing. One group of people over here would be singing “Amazing Grace” and then a group of people over there would be singing something else. And just simply to be there together, to acknowledge that something profound had happened in our city was so necessary to us.
Where were you when 9/11 occurred? In the city?
Yes. I was on the second day of a fellowship at the New York Public Library. On September 11th I got up in the morning with my sharpened pencils and my new little bag to go off and write. I got as far as the corner and saw that there was a hole in one of the towers at the World Trade Center. I didn’t know what it was and went off to the library, and by the time I got there, people were gathered around watching the news on a computer. Very shortly after, we all left the library and the town began to shut down and on my way home I watched one of the towers fall from around 34th Street, right in front of Macy’s. It was one of the strangest days of my life. There was this feeling of what you believe to be stable vanishing, eroding all around you.
That sounds a little bit like grief.
Yeah, just a little, I guess. And, you know, it’s odd that it wasn’t long before there were these public tributes or occasions that felt sentimental to me and less genuine. You were talking about the public mourning around the death of Michael Jackson, and there were these events after 9/11, like memorial concerts for firefighters, where we were singing patriotic anthems and there was a lot of public expression of feeling that felt a little packaged to me, less authentic. It’s very strange how quickly we turn genuine feeling into the performance of feeling on that kind of broad public scale.
When I think of public grief, I think about the little tiny crosses that are sometimes on the side of a road where someone has died in a car accident. I find those so moving and so beautiful.
I do, too. There used to be one of those in my neighborhood on one of those columns holding up construction scaffolding. Somebody had died in an automobile or maybe a motorcycle accident, I’m not sure. His family had put up a photograph, flowers, this poem: They were there for years. Then they were gone one day as the construction proceeded. Those sights where people mark an absence are so powerful.
You mentioned that your friend had made a comment about having a dog or pet is like having a pact with loss. Your last book was “Dog Years.” That’s a challenge, to write about connections between humans and dogs and loss. And I say that as I sit here with my cat.
A challenge, period, because what could be more dangerous than to write a 200-page book about your pets? You completely risk boring the reader out of her mind. I decided that this was actually an exciting challenge to think about how can I tell a story of living for 16 years with these dogs in a way that was fast-moving, connected to things a reader would care about, not sentimental and not self-absorbed. It was like my personal literary Olympic challenge.
Have you ever read “Marley & Me?”
I have read about half of it. [Laughs.] I have to admit though that I checked out. John Grogan [author of “Marley & Me”] is a very nice man. We had a good time giving a talk together in Philadelphia. [His] book is about telling the story of his relationship with Marley and about he and his wife’s attempts to have children. My book has much more meditation than it does story. It’s very interested in thinking about “Why do people love animals? Why do we want to live with these wordless, permanently dependent creatures, who won’t live as long as we do?” It also digresses a lot and talks about such things as 9/11 and there’s a chapter devoted to a drag performer who does a killer Judy Garland imitation, and lots of other stuff — there are some poems by Emily Dickinson — so it’s very much its own hybrid.
So why do we care about our pets?
There’s no easy answer to that, which is why it’s so compelling to write about it. I think part of it is simply that they are wordless — they exist outside of language — and that’s deeply moving to us to be with creatures whose experience is not mediated through words in the way that ours is. I also think they experience time differently, without the kind of intense focus on memory and on anticipation that human beings have. They also, of course, famously do not judge us. They are deeply devoted to and connected to whomever they live with and that is very satisfying to us to have an affectionate relationship that’s less complicated than our relationship to other human beings.
They also represent a connection to the natural world, which so many of us have lost. We live in urban and suburban environments that take us out of a kind of relationship which human beings had with animals for millennia. A cat or a dog pulls us back a little bit in that direction and there’s a kind of deep comfort in that.
When we knew each other in Provincetown, that was a place that was dealing with a lot of grief. Do you think there are places that people are attracted to when they’re grieving or when loss is present?
It’s only human when you are struggling to seek a refuge. Certainly Provincetown, in those days, was that. For one thing it was a totally welcoming place for gay and lesbian people, so you didn’t have to worry about that. When [my then-partner] Wally and I moved from central Vermont, which was an isolating place — we were like the only out gay couple in our town — we didn’t want to have to think about that when he was getting sick. You could be in a community of other people who were dealing with the same uncertainties and fears and hopes that you were. I think the most important part was this sense of a spirit of welcome, and it was partly in the community, but it was partly in the landscape almost, in the spirit of the place. I feel that way about where I’m speaking from right now: It’s sort of removed from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the world and you can hear yourself think here. You can see the stars.
I miss the stars.
This summer you have a book coming out called “The Art of Description,” [by Graywolf Press] about being able to say what you see. So how do you describe to someone how to describe what he or she sees?
I’ve always been really fascinated with the way that we translate perception into words to make the perception seem real to the reader or the listener. So this book is part of a series of books called “The Art of…” something or other, and they’re handbooks for writers in approaching a particular aspect of literary craft. I try to look at detail, at rhythm, at color, at all the kinds of elements of description, which go into contributing to a sense of the reality of things.
So, could I ask you a favor?
Are you somewhere near a window?
Could you look out and describe what you see?
I am looking at a thick crosshatching of privet [a shrub often used as a hedge] trunks; they are between my house and the neighbor’s; they’re slender branches. The largest ones are not as big around as my wrist and the smallest ones are the size of a thicker piece of spaghetti. The branches are really complicated in their colors. The predominant color is a kind of light, grayish, green sort of brushed on — it’s a lichenous shade of green — and it has a sort of milky tone. At the bottom of the trunks, [there’s] much more rust colored mottling, as if the bases of the bigger branches are made of iron and they’ve gotten wet. There are a few leaves still clinging to some of the smaller branches: I don’t know why in February there should be any leaves at all, but there are. There’s sort of this little speckling of eye-shaped green that kind of spots the crosshatching pattern of the branches. Just now there has appeared a chickadee up high in one of the branches, shaking its little black and white tail back and forth very rapidly. So that’s what I’m looking at.
Nice, very nice. This year at Rutgers, you are teaching a course on Emily Dickinson. What do you think it is about Ms. Dickinson that still keeps a hold on people today?
There’s a way in which her poems point towards meaning, or meanings, but don’t quite reveal themselves entirely. She says to us, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slanted.” You get that feeling reading the poems that you’re getting to see at an angle, you are getting to hear at an angle, so that you never quite get to the bottom of it. It’s also that she’s capable of expressing such intense feeling — so much despair, so much delight in the world, so much passion for another person — in an extremely contained space. So you read this tiny eight- to 12-line poem with very short lines, so much white space or silence around those lines, and you feel that you’ve been carriedto some position of great emotional intensity through extremely economic means. This is compelling to us that something so tiny can vibrate with such great intensity.
And it’s such a great story: Here’s this woman who can’t really publish her work, she can’t have the kind of career as an author or a public intellectual that an Emerson could have. And rather than choose to be a schoolmarm or a nurse or most likely a wife raising children, she chooses a life of a relative degree of isolation that grants her a huge amount of intellectual freedom so that she can say what she wants to and write what she wants. And proceeds to have herself a lot of dresses made and make gingerbread and garden and write poems for the rest of her life. It’s a very compelling kind of mythic figure: Everybody wants to know who she slept with. And nobody will ever know. It’s endlessly interesting.
[Laughs.] One more reason to love her.
I think while I’m on this phone, I have a confession to make: You know, when we used to live on the same street, you had such beautiful roses.
They were fantastic. And I, uh, sometimes borrowed a few of your roses.
I’m sure you weren’t the only one.
I just wanted to tell you that.
They were well loved by many.
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