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

‘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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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