Thursday, July 03, 2008

FIRE TO FIRE: new and selected poems, Mark Doty

With seven books of poetry to select from, the latest book from Mark Doty carries a treasury of favorites -- and an opening section of 23 new poems that can steal your breath. I already have a favorite for the evening: "Theory of Marriage." But that's the second time today that I've chosen one ... Doty read from his work this afternoon at Goddard College, where he and his partner Paul Lisicky have taught this week.

A polished entertainer, Doty offers precise diction and carefully timed pauses to deliver the sting and humor of his poems. He opened today with a classic 1970s-style tale of life on the Goddard campus on the day when he accepted a full-time teaching slot there -- complete with a man whose poem of the day was "I Love an Electric Snake" and a group of students tramping past the window garbed "only in mud." Ah, the good old days! He moved smoothly from a poem capturing a moment "back then" when children brought a wood turtle into the cafeteria ("No"), into more current work, such as "Pipistrelle" from the new section of FIRE TO FIRE, then into some of the Apparition poems from the same section: poems in which ghosts or poems of the past make an intrusion into now, he noted.

Although Doty does write some short poems, the most enjoyable for his audience were clearly the ones that told a good long story, and his swing from poetry into prose as he read from his most recent memoir DOG YEARS drew the narratives into longer, more flowing form. In response to an audience question later, he commented that he'd been hungry for the more elastic form of prose in the first year after the death of his partner Wally. Now he and Lisicky have settled into the comfort of a long-term partnership, more than a dozen years already, and the audience, or the reader of FIRE TO FIRE, follows the thread of work into this latter happiness, from which the poet seizes the landscape of vista and of desire, molding it into shapes. "An attempt to look at the physical world and to give it shape in the language is very much a part of this poem," Doty commented about his final choice today, "A Crippled King," during which quite a few people must have held their breath at the tension -- you could hear the joint sigh at the poem's end.

FIRE TO FIRE is a collection worth lingering with and lounging through, whether in Vermont's green summer or the thick air of the city that Doty paints so well. Coming next year: THE ART OF DESCRIPTION, from Graywolf: "how we reveal ourselves through saying what we see."

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