My Alexandria by Mark Doty
I chose My Alexandria because I wanted to read something by Mark Doty, who came to my attention when he won the National Book Award in poetry for his collection Fire to Fire. My Alexandria was an award winning book in its own right (it won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993), and I found a copy that was available for free, so I decided to start there. These are long poems, most go at least three pages, some significantly longer, and the book is divided into three sections. I thought the final section was by far the strongest, nearly every poem in that section struck me in some way, and I found myself rereading that section a couple of times after I had finished. There is an underlying feeling of doom in a lot of these poems, AIDS is a persistent theme (as is the related theme of death), and it makes for an intense experience at times.
From the final poem “Lament-Heaven”
if we are continuous,
rippling from nothing into being,
then why can’t we let ourselves go
into the world’s shimmering story?
Who can become lost in a narrative,
if all he can think of is the end?
Doty works with a deft enough touch that the theme of sickness and death doesn’t become a preoccupation, but rather a filter which informs a lot of the observations and poems in this collection. I have seen this book classified as ‘queer lit.’ and perhaps that is because it dealt with AIDS at a time where that disease was considered synonymous with the gay community, but I didn’t find much that resonated with my perception of that classification. Granted ‘queer lit.’ isn’t a genre I’ve explored much, so it is entirely possible that there is more to the book than I appreciated.
The poems in this collection were not particularly dense, with a couple of passes through each one I felt like I grasped the key metaphors and messages. After reading this piece written by Doty on his poetry-writing process, it seems like that’s how he constructs his poems. He teases out the metaphors from his experiences and tries to write them into his poems. I think his poetry succeeds because of these keen observations and beautiful writing, not due to some ability to pack haystacks of meaning into a mere needle’s worth of words.
I really enjoyed this collection, it was dark and a bit morose at times, but the poetry was lyrical and beautiful, and I appreciated a great number of the compositions. My particular favorites were “Human Figures” about private moments that become public; “No” which begins with children and a turtle, but turns into an almost theological query; and “Brilliance”, a poem that approaches death head on, but does it in such a beautiful way that you can’t help but be moved.
…he says I can’t have
anything I can’t finish.
He says it like he’s had enough
of the whole scintillant world,
though what he means is
he’ll never be satisfied and therefore
has established this discipline,
a kind of severe rehearsal.
That’s where they leave it,
him looking out the window,
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,