Saturday, May 06, 2006

Mark Doty in Manchester


Last night I went to an event organised by Commonword at St Ann’s Church in the middle of Manchester to hear the noted American poet Mark Doty, author of several collections of poetry including the immensely successful ‘My Alexandria’ and ‘Atlantis’. His work deals above all with love, loss, beauty, and the devastation of AIDS. I was fortunate enough to talk to him briefly before and after he read. When pressed, he described himself as a ‘lyrical narrativist’ and this fits his writing, or most of it.

He read seven poems in all, a mix of old and new work. He started with ‘Esta Noche’ (from ‘My Alexandria’) a major poem about performance set in a Latin drag bar in the Mission area of San Francisco in which ‘Lola stands unassailable, the dress / in which she is in the largest sense / fabulous: a lesson, a criticism and colossus / of gender, all fire and irony.’ Here, ‘perfection and beauty are so alien / they almost never touch.’ I was a little surprised when this and the other poems were received in polite silence and applause was reserved for the end of the reading. Ah well.

Next was ‘House Of Beauty’, a new poem about a beauty parlour on fire, ‘a charred rainbow.’ Here the exploration of what exactly beauty is gave much food for thought. In the third poem ‘Brilliance’, Maggie is a ‘buddy’ or visitor to an AIDS sufferer. This is a beautifully written, moving poem: ‘let me go, if I have to, / in brilliance.’

The next ‘Lost in the Stars’ – the title refers to a Kurt Weill musical – deals with Billy, a drag queen at a benefit night. How despite his incompetence this character was so bad as to be good. Then ‘At The Gym’ looked at weight training poetically and ‘Magic Mouse’, a recent work, dealt with a news vendor selling a toy for a dollar and shouting it out, so that ‘even halfway down the block / he’s altered the air.’ The final poem was one of my favourites, ‘A Display of Mackerel’. Unlike most of the other narrative poems, this is more of a lyrical meditation where nothing happens, no time passes, but the poet ponders the sameness of these mackerel ‘each a perfect fulfilment / of heaven’s template,’ then goes on to wonder whether this uniformity is where happiness is. The ‘fabulation’ of each mackerel recalls the fabulous nature of drag queens in many of his other poems.

There followed a brief question and answer session covering Mark’s life in Provincetown, some fairly standard gay issues, and some interesting comments about the difference between, on the one hand, Olson and the Black Mountain writers with their legacy of open-ended, mind-tracking, atomised sentences where the reader can veer off on one or more paths, and, on the other hand, the clarity of say Elizabeth Bishop. Doty expressed his predilection for the well scaffolded sentence on whose framework he could hang the exquisite observations, elegaic reflections and elegant lyricism that make up his narrative style.

Mark Doty reads his poems deliberately, weighing his syllables without being ponderous, in a rich, warm voice. There is nothing to beat not only hearing major poets reading their poems but also seeing them in the flesh. I’m glad I was there.

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