A House Full of No One

Colm Tóibín

  • Heaven’s Coast: A Memoir by Mark Doty
    Cape, 305 pp, £16.99, October 1996, ISBN 0 224 04390 0
  • Atlantis by Mark Doty
    Cape, 95 pp, £7.00, July 1996, ISBN 0 224 04400 1
  • This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death by Harold Brodkey
    Fourth Estate, 177 pp, £14.99, November 1996, ISBN 1 85702 546 6
  • PWA: Looking Aids in the Face by Oscar Moore
    Picador, 185 pp, £6.99, November 1996, ISBN 0 330 35193 1

The words ‘HIV Positive’ and ‘Aids’ do not appear in the poems in Mark Doty’s My Alexandria (1995); instead, they hover in the spaces between the other words, and they govern the tone of almost every poem. Now, with the appearance of Heaven’s Coast: A Memoir, we know that Doty’s boyfriend Wally Roberts was dying slowly from Aids when these poems were being written. Doty also kept a diary during that time, some of which he quotes in the memoir. Heaven’s Coast deals with each change in Wally’s illness; the book is a charting of the mixture of the mundane and the miraculous, if I can use that word, in the manner of Wally’s dying. Thus the poems don’t need to tell the story, they don’t depend on the medical details or the days when things happened. They seek instead, desperately, to find images and rhythms which will make sense of this illness, a scheme which can accommodate this illness, however fitfully and sadly. They seek to describe the world in all its wonder, as though it were the world which were being slowly eaten away by this disease, as though it were nature itself that would soon disappear and would not come back. In the first poem in My Alexandria, ‘Demolition’, Doty invokes the ghost of Robert Lowell: many of the poems take their bearings from Lowell’s clotted diction, from what Doty calls his ‘ruthless energy’, from Lowell’s interest in burning the poem onto the page, heaping on adjectives to fuel the fire, invoking the Old Testament; writing, if he possibly could, his own Old Testament.

Doty’s is a land of plenty, his poems celebrate abundance. In ‘The Wings’, he and his companion find an abandoned orchard, ‘the long flattened grasses’ are ‘gorged’ with windfalls; in the same poem

      the auctioneer holds up

now the glass lily severed
from its epergne, now the mother-of-pearl
lorgnette.

‘Some days,’ he writes,

                                   things yield

such grace and complexity that what we see
seems offered.

The landscape of these poems is over-rich, almost sated, with images of redemption and beauty; the material world is for Doty ‘a permanent harvest’. In another section of the same poem he and his companion see an Aids quilt exhibited which bears ‘the unthinkable catalogue of the names’; some panels display items of clothing, jeans or a shirt stitched onto the quilt:

One can’t look past

the sleeves where two arms
were, where a shoulder pushed
against a seam, and someone knew exactly

how the stitches pressed against skin
that can’t be generalised but was,
irretrievably, you, or yours.

Here the voice stops oddly, almost catches, on the ‘were’ and the ‘was’; in these poems Doty lets the pain of what is happening to him over these two or three years write itself into the structure of the lines.

At times he puts moments from the story into the poems: his own first homosexual experience in ‘Days of 1981’; Wally’s testing positive (‘I would say anything else/in the world, any other word’) in ‘Fog’. But most of the time, the references to his lover’s dying are oblique, buried in the text, and more powerful for that. At times it helps to know the story, to have read Heaven’s Coast and thus know the context for a poem like ‘The Ware Collection of Glass Flowers and Fruit, Harvard Museum’, which ends with an image of glass-blowing as

                           an art
mouthed to the shape of how soft things are,
how good, before they disappear.

To know the facts which underlie the manic melancholy of these poems, the reason for the creation of images of pure, shared, intense, private happiness and the constant search for transcendence, does not rob the poems of their mystery as much as emphasise how artful and trusting in the processes of poetry they are.

In My Alexandria, the garden in September is ‘this ordered enactment of desire’: in the first poem in Atlantis, Doty asks: ‘What is description, after all,/but encoded desire?’ And now he can equate ‘the ferocity of dying’ with ‘the luminosity/of what’s living hardest’. The tone here has become very much more relaxed:

Autumn’s a grand old drag
         in torched and tumbled chiffon
                      striking her weary pose.

This is a looser music, at times almost slack. (‘All afternoon the town readied for storm,/men in the harbour shallows hauling in small boats/that rise and fall on the tide.’) The echoes of early Lowell and Keats and the Old Testament have given way to echoes of Elizabeth Bishop and William Carlos Williams. (In one poem, ‘Grosse Fuge’, perhaps the least successful in Atlantis, there are direct references to lines from Bishop and Williams.) Some of the sentiments here are too easy; in ‘Description’, he writes: ‘I love the language/of the day’s ten thousand aspects.’ In ‘At the Boatyard’:

What I love at the boatyard,
at the end of Good Templar Place,
is the scraped, accidental intensity

of colour.

In ‘To the Storm God’: ‘I love the wet ideograms/scrawling the houseboat.’ In ‘Fog Argument’:

                              What I love

is trying to see
the furthest grassy extreme ...

In ‘Wreck’: ‘I love this evidence.’ In ‘A Letter from the Coast’:

                                      I loved
the flash of red excess, the cocktail dress
and fur hat.

In some of these poems Doty is more explicit about what is happening in his life, not just in the dealing with death and wreckage, with regret (‘I wish you were here’) and being a lone observer, but in ‘Grosse Fuge’ with the arrival of a friend who is suffering from dementia. Finally, now, the word can be mentioned, the spell broken:

In one of these, he says, is the virus,
a box of Aids. And if I open it ...

In the title poem he writes directly about Wally dying:

and I swear sometimes
when I put my head to his chest
I can hear the virus humming

like a refrigerator.

He writes about the dogs which he and Wally owned, and the landscape around Provincetown where they lived. The poems are competent and interesting, but the intensity and the fierce concentration are gone, and it is easy to understand why when you read Heaven’s Coast: all the genius which Doty displays in My Alexandria has been transferred to this memoir, to prose rather than to the poems in Atlantis.

Heaven’s Coast tells the story of Doty’s life with Wally and then of Wally’s death: the tone is meditative, comforting, uplifting, almost religious throughout. It is hard to think of another book outside straight-forward religious writing which approaches memory, death, disease, love and nature in tones of such respect and forgiveness and awe. There is something very fundamentally American about Doty: he is never prepared to give up hope that there is meaning in all of this; again and again he is prepared to ask the landscape around Provincetown to throw light on what is happening to him, to offer redemption to him and his lover. He is ready to write beautifully if he must, ready to risk everything in the distance he will push his language.

At low tide it’s entirely dry, a Sahara of patterned sand and the tough green knots of sea lavender, beach grass around the edges of the beds of the tidal rivers gleaming as it bends and catches light along the straps of its leaves. As the tide mounts, twice a day, this desert disappears beneath the flood. It is a continuous apocalypse; Sahara becomes sea becomes sand again, in a theatre of furious mutability.

Some moments like this are repeated in the poems, but are almost always better in prose. One Christmas in Boston, for example, they open the window and the wind blows the tiny flakes on the Christmas tree all over the room. In the poem ‘Chanteuse’ this becomes:

                      We were awash in

a studio-sized blizzard, snow
on your sleeves and hair, and anything
that divided us then was bridged

by the sudden graceful shock
of being inside the warmest storm.

In Heaven’s Coast:

We were englobed, inside the shook heart of a paperweight. Our room, which already felt outside the rush and pour of things, seemed still further set aside in space and time. In memory, that snow spins still; our laughter and our wonder in the storm’s interior, lovers suddenly stunned into recognising how small what’s divided and troubled them has been, how lovely their singular, flake-streaked moment is.

Although the prose book is in search of transcendence, there are also sections of plain, well-written narrative, including an account of Doty and Wally meeting and then living together in Boston, in a building which Doty revisits after Wally’s death and finds almost empty (‘this was a house full of gay men, in 1981, and now it’s a house full of no one’), making a home together in rural Vermont against all the odds, moving to Provincetown, in love with interior decoration and planning the future. And then, in May 1989, they both took the test, Wally tested positive and began to die. ‘At nine o’clock on a weekday morning, late in May 1989, the public health care worker who’d come to tell us our test results blasted the world apart.’ Doty writes with great subtlety and care about the process of dying, seeking to surround every possible moment with a halo. ‘Provincetown, 1990. The universe, God, the essence of benevolence gives us the unmatchable autumn of our lives: brilliant days brimming with warm October light that seem never to end.’ Wally is slowly becoming paralysed; he does not suffer from most of the illnesses normally associated with Aids. A few times Doty is in a rage with doctors; he writes well about the innumerable helpers who come. Always the dogs and the salt marsh and the sea offer him great comfort; but there is something intensely fragile about the solace he gets from writing itself, or from being in New England, or from reading Rilke or Cavafy or the Book of Job. There is a continuous striving in the book to keep blackness and despair at bay, and thus the reader feels their proximity. That nature is blank and offers no comfort, that the virus has no meaning beyond causing meaningless suffering, that death is a black hole, these possibilities remain all the closer to the page for not being entertained.

Harold Brodkey died of Aids in January 1996; Oscar Moore died in September 1996. Brodkey wrote about his illness for the New Yorker; Moore for the Guardian. Obviously, when they wrote their articles neither of them knew when they would die, but since each article is dated, it is now possible for the reader of these two books to know how long they have left, and there is a stark, urgent edge to their accounts of what it is like to live with Aids. They mean what they are saying, and while there is a certain comfort in the fact that both of them are so brave in the face of illness and death, and so determined to carry on writing, the idea that they are dead now makes these books sad and frightening when you put them down, but intriguing and fascinating as you join the authors in letting details and memories and wry observations draw your attention away from what must inevitably come.

Brodkey’s voice is grave and grandiose, as befits the author of The Runaway Soul. His vanity about his work and his looks (‘Do you know the myth of my irresistibility?’) is on an Old Testament scale. He is capable of the most extraordinary sentences. His parents and grandparents were ‘insanely brave’, he says. ‘They, each of them, had a strong tropism towards the epic.’

He tries not to be frightened by the news that he has Aids, and the book becomes a battle between his effort to resist fear and his ability to do everything with death (‘Death itself is soft, softly lit, vastly dark’) except face it. There is a terrible sadness to his tone, a sense that he, of all people, is being slowly defeated and crushed. He has double-glazing and wall-to-wall industrial carpeting in his apartment in Manhattan to keep the noise out, but now, in hospital, ‘there was a woman in an adjacent room who insisted on screaming at the top of her lungs. She was told that this was very disturbing to the people around her ... and she screamed that she didn’t care. “I want to upset everyone,” she paused to reply when the nurses tried to reason with her.’

The heroine of this book, acting in the same way almost as the natural world in Mark Doty’s book, is Brodkey’s wife, Ellen Schwamm. ‘She insists that she regrets nothing. This is her discipline and self-assertion when, openly or not, one is in her charge.’ And: ‘I lived through Ellen’s will from time to time during those days. I had her agility and her subtlety vicariously. I had that merciful depth of her female self at my disposal ... Our regular lives, our once-usual life together, had been reproduced in a truncated form in a hospital room.’

One of the saddest moments is when Abner, Brodkey’s four-year-old grandson, arrives to visit. He ‘came over and took my hand and generally didn’t leave my side. But the horror was I had no strength to respond or pretend after only a short while, less than an hour. I am not able to be present for him and never will be anymore.’ In a way, the drama of this book comes from Brodkey learning, after all those years of tropisms towards the epic, to write as plainly as that.

After the diagnosis the doctor tells him he can have a few good years, and he manages two years without any opportunistic infections. ‘As a prize, as goal,’ he writes, ‘it is not very American ... The American daydream, as in Twain (and Hemingway), is about rebuilding after the flood, about being better off than before, about outwitting this or that challenge, up to and including death. Well, how do you manage to be optimistic for the moment? Without hope?’ Like Doty, he is prepared to believe that nature is almost alert, in league with him. In the country he looks at the autumn leaves: ‘they and I are dying together,’ he writes. ‘Much of the time I do nothing. I lie in bed or on the porch. I stare at death, and death stares at me.’

He travels to Venice (‘I am dying ... Venice is dying ... the century is dying’), he muses about writing, he goes back over his childhood and his sexual history. He still has a tendency to write as though he is God the Father. He remembers two men who lived with him years before, Charlie and Douglas. ‘I would fuck them occasionally, usually one by one,’ he writes. One wonders what happened when he didn’t fuck them one by one; in fact, one wonders if Brodkey, God rest him, did not, as his prose style often suggests, have two penises. But towards the close of the book there are fewer and fewer grandiloquent remarks. He writes in one of the last pages that he has been ‘in bed, in the foetal position, for two weeks’, and that is not the way things should have ended for him. His last entry is dated Late Fall, 1995.

Oscar Moore comes from a different world from Doty or Brodkey. It is not his style to meditate on large issues such as Venice or the century. He was born in 1960; he is sceptical. He is interested in cities and discos, drugs and movies. He is clever: he can hardly let a sentence go by without making a pun. He would have written brilliant advertising copy. He has strong views about being gay; he dislikes Andrew Sullivan’s book Virtually Normal (‘we didn’t create a flamboyant counter culture to find ourselves co-opted into demographic condominiums’). He hates Forrest Gump (‘this apparently artless film is the latest and most formidable attack on all the values I have been taught to cherish – most particularly intelligence, scepticism and disobedience’). Moore, despite or perhaps because of, his constant insistence on being streetwise and a smartass, somehow manages to make the reader like him enormously and wish him nothing more than a long life and a good time.

He suffers greatly in the pages of this book: shingles in the gut, vicious headaches, Kaposi’s sarcoma, chronic diarrhoea, virtual and then total blindness, constant hospitalisation (‘my main communication with the outside world was via Interflora’). He is too ironic and self-conscious to write about God or Death. When a friend gives him a Bible, he is appalled by the tacky cover and the Revised Version and then:

I froze, and shortly afterwards he left, made uneasy by my talk of earlier failed flirtations with faith. Maybe I shouldn’t be so suspicious, but I’m wary of anyone who peddles fantasy answers to real questions, like, Why is this happening to me? When is it going to stop? And what happens when it does? I’ve been avoiding these questions for the past seven years, especially the last one ... I was intently focused on the immediate crisis, determined to deal with today before worrying about tomorrow, and avoiding altogether the Day After.

Moore faces his own death in a way that Brodkey does not; this book is all about his body and its slow deterioration. When Moore’s column appeared sporadically between 1994 and 1996 in the Guardian on a Saturday, you hoped that he was going to announce that he had been away in the sun. Sometimes, instead, what he described made you aware, in case you needed to know, just how slow and punishing and relentless Aids is: for example, the column in December 1995 in which he describes watching the credits for The Brothers McMullen, presuming they are out of focus, and then slowly realising that his left eye is the problem, his right eye having been the problem for some time.

By the autumn of 1995 both Moore and Brodkey are taking 3TC with AZT (‘a toxic, limited miracle’, in Mark Doty’s phrase), and the new drug may have given them some extra time. In May 1996 Moore starts on indinavir, a protease inhibitor; he has also been told that he may have only four weeks left of sight. In July he writes: ‘My eyes have become so weak they don’t even have the strength to hallucinate and I am typing this strictly by trial and multiple error.’ In his last column in August he writes: ‘Would someone turn the lights back on, please? I can hear the splash and swish of car tyres on wet tarmac outside my window and I can hear rain rapping like fingernails on the glass, but I cannot see across the room, let alone outside, into the street.’