Mark Doty: Phoenix Aflame

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“What did you think, that joy / was some slight thing?”

-Mark Doty, “Visitation”

Fire to FireIt is now a matter of public record that my company recently laid off 40% of staff. But numbers do not do justice to the sense of loss. Today I rifled through comments written in our software source code management system by ex-members of my programming team. Sprinkled among the technical remarks were little witticisms and the occasional wry geek joke, artifacts of camaraderie among the ash.

I have been cauterizing the wounds of loss with poems — more reading than writing lately, and catch-as-catch-can. I could not have willed my way toward a better book in this challenging time than Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire. Doty captures the fierce and sometimes terrible beauty of life with musical phrasing, stanzaic integrity, and the courage to look and look, deeper and deeper, into the human world. It is from loss that these poems are written, but their trajectory is towards awe — the hope that springs from amazement, the amazement that springs from deep observation, the deep observation that settles in the ashes of loss.

Doty’s carefully-measured stanzas seem to propel his poems like an engine — which is, after all, a series of well-timed explosions. Each little engine links together to drive us into the depths of the poem — be it the shell of a turtle, the smoky glitz of a cross-dressing bar, or the heart of a man care-taking his dying love. Doty is not afraid to hold with the poem until it opens up, frequently busting the page barrier in little epics that never feel watery, or strain to make a point. It is an inner fire he seeks in each poem, heating up line by line and phrase by phrase — his technique a poetic kiln. Thank you, Mark Doty, for firing your ovens, and plying your craft — producing stunning reminders of the beauty that can rise from flame.

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