2008, Angel of Prague, Apparition (Favorite Poem), Cape Poetry, Jonathan Cape, Margery Williams, Mark Doty, Pipistrelle, poem, poems, Poetry, review, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Word, Theories and Apparitions, Theory of Beauty (Pompeii), verse
My childhood soft toy, a blue waistcoated Peter Rabbit, is a mess. You might expect him to be threadbare after a life in service but he’s missing an ear, buttons and, crucially, has my name emblazoned upon his right leg in huge letters, so that he didn’t go astray in hospital. This chimes with the words of the Skin Horse, one of characters in Margery Williams‘ The Velveteen Rabbit, who describes becoming ‘real’ (loved) as a process in which ‘your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand’. Okay, sentimental this might be but the core message rings true: to love someone, or something, is to be prepared to make a sacrifice.
In Angel of Prague, Doty’s speaker exists in the present tense excitement of the Velvet Revolution in which his role is to proclaim a revolutionary message from the façade of a church, dressed as an angel but ‘then I must balance // on the narrow pedestal, or lean / against her stone back to support myself, / which is all right until I look down / the cold dizzying storeys to the pavement // and gradually find myself furling / the cloth around her stone shoulders, / my legs trembling; it’s hard to hold out // your arms when you’re frightened / of being dashed on the stones below, and in a while I slink down, back into the crowd’. A city’s guardian angel is supposed to stand at the sharp end, protecting the city from fire, plague, or what you will. Just take a look at the archangel Michael, putting himself out there to defend Rome from plague atop the Castel Sant’Angelo; it’s not easy being an angel. Doty makes vertiginous use of the stanza break to present the void beneath the word ‘balance’ and, in the next line, the word ‘lean’ again abuts space. This refusal to take a personal risk might be seen as unloving but perhaps Doty’s conclusion is that any ideology, liberal or totalitarian, is not worth the sacrifice.
Mark Doty’s opening poem, Pipistrelle, also presents the conflict between ideology and the speaker’s companion Charles’s desire to, at all times, look steadily at his subject, as Wordsworth expresses it in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads. The poem’s speaker, looking at the bat asks, ‘Is it because I am an American I think the bat came / especially to address me, who have the particular gift / of hearing him? If he sang to us, but only I // heard him, does that mean he sang to me? / Or does that mean I am a son of Whitman, / while Charles is an heir of Wordsworth?’ Doty’s ability to question America’s sense of purpose and confidence makes him at once both an insider and an outsider, an American and one who would ask awkward questions of the US’s sense of vocation to support and spread democratic government. The poem begins with deftly sketched details that present his reader with a vivid sense of place and beauty like the ‘two twilight mares’ who ‘ignored us / and went on softly tearing up audible mouthfuls’ and the pipistrelle bat which ‘fret[s] the spaces between boughs / with an inky signature too fast to trace’ but becomes bogged down with questions. Doty rehearses a crisis of confidence and the heavy presence of Charles, the speaker’s alter ego, creates a sense of competition. Finally, the natural world steps in and ‘Shh, / says the evening near the Wye. / Enough, say the hungry horses. // Listen to my poem, says Charles. / A word in your ear, says the night’. After the speaker’s confused ramblings, the imperatives and end-stopping of these final lines endow nature with the power and decisiveness to make modern man shut up and enjoy the silence.
Pipistrelle’s references to the reading of Whitman and Wordsworth indicate Doty’s view of the importance of literature as a means of making sense of the world. This theme is developed in The Word and Apparition (Favorite Poem). In The Word, whose title plays with the opening of John’s Gospel, we’re presented with the statue of a puritan, a pilgrim, on a busy New York intersection, ‘White cotton cap, immaculate shoes / and stockings, black coat over starched dress’. Black and white suggest clear-cut moral teaching and the starch in the dress indicates a stern, unbending position. As she points to scripture, Doty’s language of beating, striking, wearing and shredding implies her tough position. Yet its location, ‘in the station at 34th Street and Sixth Avenue, // on a bitter night just after the turn of the year’ asks us to consider whether Christianity and its attendant moral teaching has anything more than an aesthetic role in the daily life of the new millennium, pushed to the margins as a cultural legacy, or does the statue’s location at an urban hub indicate its ongoing centrality?
In Apparition (Favorite Poem), Doty begins by implying the former, that twenty-first century society has disconnected from the texts it once set store by. ‘The old words are dying, / everyone forgets them, / pages falling into sleep and dust’ but then the speaker encounters a fourteen year old reciting a poem in a bookstore: ‘He makes the poem his own / even as he becomes a vessel // for its reluctance to disappear. / All right, maybe they perish, but the boy has the look of someone / repeating a crucial instruction / that must be delivered, word for word, as he has learned it: // My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair‘. Is the boy’s recitation an analogue of the forgotten Ozymandias‘s vainglorious inscription, or is the fact that the boy ‘makes the poem his own’ proof that the old words, the old values, are not dying? Re-reading The Word, it’s hard not to read echoes of Ozymandias into the statue of the puritan woman. Who cares about the rock upon which America was built, as we run for trains and queue for coffee?
In Theory of Beauty (Pompeii), children produce another epiphany, as the speaker sees a girl queuing with her mother in a café. ‘She’s reading POMPEII… Buried Alive! with evident delight. / Pleasure with a little shiver inside it // And that evening, I thought I was no longer afraid / of the death’s head beneath the face of the man beneath me’. Has childlike wonder endowed death with enough aesthetic quality to draw its sting? ‘I thought I was no longer afraid’ suggests that it did but only for a short time.
In Theories and Apparitions, Mark Doty seems to acknowledge, like Margery Williams, that love requires bravery, faith and the ability to take a risk. However, his poems view these ideals through the filters of frailty and fear, which makes them a tender, forgiving exploration of the painful business of being.