The darkly graceful poems in Mark Doty's seventh collection explore the ways in which we are educated by the implacable powers of time and desire. The world constantly renews itself, and the new brings both possibility and erasure. Given the limits of our own bodies, how are we to live within the inevitability of despair?
This is the plainest of Doty's books, its language stripped and humbled. But whatever depths are sounded in these poems, their humane and open music sustains. Art itself instructs us. Lucian Freud's startling renditions of human skin, Virginia Woolf's ecstatic depiction of consciousness, Caravaggio's only-too-real people elevated to difficult glory -- all turn the light of human intelligence upon "the night of time."
Formally inventive, warm, at once witty and disconsolate, School of the Arts represents a poet reinventing his own voice at midlife, finding a way through a troubled passage. Acutely attentive, insistently alive, this is a book of "fierce vulnerability."
After a recent book reading, a questioner observed to Mark Doty that his poems often seem to start with a question to which his verse works out a response. In his reply, Doty made a minor correction: he frequently begins, he said, with an image or an observation that has caught his attention, and the resulting poem is his way of mining that image for its meaning, of teasing out its deeper significance. School of the Arts is filled with gem-like examples of that writing process. Whether it’s the mediocre paintings described in “The Art Auction” representing the inability of art to reproduce the true glories of nature, or the onward sweep of new construction beside historic Cape Cod structures in “School of the Arts” symbolizing the contrasting mix of freshness and decay in the tangy salt scent of the marsh breezes, Doty’s poems are masterpieces of crisply painted images and acutely expressed reflections. My two favorite poems from this collection, though, are “Now You’re an Animal” and “Heaven for Arden.” The former pulses with male sexuality, the poet imagining himself with antlers as he poses nude for a photographer. Later, dressed again and walking through a cold New York spring, Doty observes that[...] on the street a few men knew what I wished:that my plain clothes hid hooves and haunches.The latter, the closing poem of the volume, presents an everyday situation, taking a dog for a walk, but uncharacteristically leaves it completely up to the reader to make the unmistakeable connection to a larger truth. After turning around at the halfway point of the walk to head home, Doty’s dog shows obvious relief:Then he could take comfortin the certainty of an ending,and treat the rest of the way as a series of possibilities;then he could run,and find pleasure in the woods beside the path.Through experience with the certainty of endings, Doty too has learned to find pleasure in the woods beside the path, and reading his poetry the reader can share both the insights he has gained and the pleasure he has found.read more
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Doty's vivid, inviting, descriptive verse, his celebrations of gay men's sexuality, and his heartfelt, skillful elegies, many of them in response to the HIV crisis, were '90s mainstays. Though he begins this consistently moving seventh collection with poems about famous friends (Stanley Kunitz, the novelist Michael Cunningham), Doty soon reveals the book's major subjects: paintings and painters, life in New York City, aging bodies (his own and others') and the last years or months of Arden, his beloved dog. "Paintings of dying things," Doty remarks, show how "Flesh fails and failure/ is visited upon it"; "the principal beauty of New York lies/ in human faces," though the poet also finds it in sunflowers, in a lost tropical bird, in a darkened bar. Doty has also penned two memoirs (Heaven's Coast; Firebird), and many poems stay close to incidents in his own life; contrasts between day and night (or artists' versions of both), between an imagined heaven and an observed earth, also give the volume a clear structure. "You aren't supposed/ to talk about beauty, are you?" "The Pink Poppy" asks, though it is Doty's choice, and sometimes his triumph, that he talks about it anyway. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved