Mark Doty

Mark Doty is a contemporary master. His poems bring the reader to the brink of death and then straight back into the grip of life. His poetic production spans eight volumes, including the recently released Fire to Fire: New & Selected Poems. As W. S. Merwin says, “A new book of poems—or of anything—by Mark Doty is good news in a dark time.”

“If it were mine to invent the poet to complete the century of William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens,” said Phillip Levine, “I would create Mark Doty just as he is, a maker of big, risky, fearless poems in which ordinary human experience becomes music.” Eyes open—and seeing more than the world believes it has to show—Doty reminds us he is present in each moment, and still decidedly human after grief, “I want what everybody wants, / that’s how I know I’m still / breathing: deep mix, rapture / and longing.”

It is precisely this theme of longing that has brought Doty such warm acclaim for each of his collections, Turtle, Swan, Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, My Alexandria, Atlantis, Sweet Machine, Source, and School of the Arts. He has been honored with the Ambassador Book Award, the Bingham Poetry Prize, two Lambda Literary Awards, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Britian’s T.S. Eliot Prize.

Recipient of fellowships from Guggenheim Foundation, Ingram Merrill Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Whiting Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, Doty has also published three highly-regarded books of nonfiction and memoir and is widely anthologized and sought after as a reader and teacher. He currently lives in New York City and Houston, Texas.

Poetry Center Readings:

Spring 1999 (with Adrienne Su)

Spring 2008

A Green Crab’s Shell

Not, exactly, green:
closer to bronze
preserved in kind brine,

something retrieved
from a Greco-Roman wreck,
patinated and oddly

muscular. We cannot
know what his fantastic
legs were like –

though evidence
suggests eight
complexly folded

scuttling works
of armament, crowned
by the foreclaws’

gesture of menace
and power. A gull’s
gobbled the center,

leaving this chamber
–size of a demitasse-
open to reveal

a shocking, Giotto blue,
Though it smells
of seaweed and ruin,

this little traveling case
comes with such lavish lining!
Imagine breathing

surrounded by
the brilliant rinse
of summer’s firmament.

What color is
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die,

if we could be opened
into this–
if the smallest chambers

of ourselves,
similarly,
revealed some sky.

From ATLANTIS (Harper Perennial, 1995)

The Embrace

You weren’t well or really ill yet either;
just a little tired, your handsomeness
tinged by grief or anticipation, which brought
to your face a thoughtful, deepening grace.

I didn’t for a moment doubt you were dead.
I knew that to be true still, even in the dream.
You’d been out—at work maybe?—
having a good day, almost energetic.

We seemed to be moving from some old house
where we’d lived, boxes everywhere, things
in disarray: that was the story of my dream,
but even asleep I was shocked out of narrative

by your face, the physical fact of your face:
inches from mine, smooth-shaven, loving, alert.
Why so difficult, remembering the actual look
of you? Without a photograph, without strain?

So when I saw your unguarded, reliable face,
your unmistakable gaze opening all the warmth
and clarity of you—warm brown tea—we held
each other for the time the dream allowed.

Bless you. You came back, so I could see you
once more, plainly, so I could rest against you
without thinking this happiness lessened anything,
without thinking you were alive again.

From SWEET MACHINE (Harper Perennial, 1998)

My Tattoo

I thought I wanted to wear
the Sacred Heart, to represent
education through suffering,

how we’re pierced to flame.
But when I cruised
the inkshop’s dragons,

cobalt tigers and eagles
in billowy smokes,
my allegiance wavered.

Butch lexicon,
anchors and arrows,
a sailor’s iconic charms –

tempting, but none
of them me. What noun
would you want

spoken on your skin
your whole life through?
I tried to picture what

I’d never want erased
and saw a fire ring corona
of spiked rays,

flaring tongues
surrounding – an emptiness,
an open space?

I made my mind up.
I sat in the waiting room chair.
then something (my nerve?

faith in the guy
with biker boots
and indigo hands?)

wavered. It wasn’t fear;
nothing hurts like grief,
and I’m used to that.

His dreaming needle
was beside the point;
don’t I already bear

the etched and flaring marks
of an inky trade?
What once was skin

has turned to something
made; written and revised
beneath these sleeves:

hearts and banners,
daggers and flowers and names.
I fled. Then I came back again;

isn’t there always
a little more room
on the skin? It’s too late

to be unwritten,
and I’m much too scrawled
to ever be erased.

Go ahead: prick and stipple
and ink me in:
I’ll never be naked again.

From here on out,
I wear the sun,
albeit blue.

From SWEET MACHINE (Harper Perennial, 1998)