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My Alexandria: POEMS (National Poetry Series) Paperback – January 1, 1993
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A versatile, technically astute poet, Doty masterfully tackles themes of death, beauty and discovery in this collection. Particularly moving is "Days of 1981," in which he recalls the memory of his first gay lover--a sculptor he met in a bar. "Nothing was promised, nothing sustained/or lethal offered. I wish I'd kept the heart./Even the emblems of our own embarrassment/become acceptable to us, after a while." Doty derives much of his success by offering readers a full gulp of his longish verse, rather than teasing, incomplete sips. My Alexandria won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry for 1993. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Doty's ( Turtle, Swan ) third volume, selected by Levine for the 1993 National Poetry Series, is built around impermanence: a glass sculpture, a human lover. Opening the collection with a detailed portrait of a building being demolished, Doty moves on to describe the absolute innocence of first love, the lover whom the speaker wishes he could "call again / to apologize for my naive / persistence, my lack of etiquette." Readers are guided through a world of female impersonators, street musicians and homeless poets. There is an all-pervasive sense of doom, from the dying man who gives away all his animals to the dog shot in the head that refuses to take its final breath. Despite their endearing honesty, these poems reveal no kinship with the confessional poetry of Plath, Lowell or Sexton. Doty turns to technical devices as a checkrein: uniform stanzas, rhyme and off-rhyme keeping up a regular beat, form adding to the tension inherent in the subject matter. The shortest piece here is three pages, and most are longer, as if the inevitable outcome could be prolonged by words that take forever to reach their destination.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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The most moving poem in this collection is, "With Animals", which is wisely used in the closing third. Some of the work is empty and rich at the same time, which is a lot like a Hostess Cupcake, but we can't live on cupcakes. When Doty really reaches, his work is utterly transforming. Here it is progressive and showcases the talent he shows later in his career.
When Doty is inside this voice, I am given intimate access to the complications surrounding death and mortality. I have not lived through this experience, but I know the voice in these poems is interested in my understanding it; it is capable of holding the experience before me for consideration. Together we'll be devastated and coping and unable to go on, though we have to. This isn't to say that My Alexandria is an emotional pummeling. Maybe I could understand a book of poems like that. But Doty is sensitive to the scope of literature. In fact, I admire how often the book recognizes literature as an intellectual and emotional endeavor, not a reenactment. Can I truly understand what it is like to have a partner diagnosed with H.I.V.? Of course not. But then Doty points out neither can he. And he was the one who lived through it. I look at the transition from "Fog" to "The Ware Collection of Glass Flowers and Fruit, Harvard Museum." "Fog," for me, represents utter tragedy. To follow that with a poem that puzzles over glass sculptures of rotting fruit, calling them "lovely because they seem / to decay," sets art apart. It is merely mimesis. Art can only seem to express this tragedy. And yet, I felt a tragedy inside me when I read the poem. How can art only be something that seems when that feeling for me was very real?
I'm grateful to have the Stadium Arena Voice there as my guide, because the voice is capable of anything. Doty frames different views into his loss. The turtle that hides in its shell in "No." The wave that breaks into the statement You're dying in "Becoming a Meadow." In any frame, that voice is assuring and earnest. I might understand how to live with mortality, if only I listen. This speaker might too--however difficult it may be, he is trying to understand more about his experience. I think that's the touchstone of My Alexandria. This speaker who says, "Maybe, when we read through these poems together, I'll understand what I'm feeling." The poems mark the difference between knowing of devastation and living with it. It is the voice that negotiates between these two perspectives with such assurance. And it's the complexity of the Stadium Arena Voice that allows comfort to reside amidst all the tragedy.
I especially admire the fluent interweave of several different strands in Doty's longer poems. It reminds me that I first encountered it in Rilke's Duino Elegies, and Rilke's influence is unmistakable. To be sure, Doty's angels are drag queens, who represent not just artifice but Art, "the only night we have to stand on."
The city - artifice, illusion, the beautiful transvestites - is Doty's poems muse. He's close and nature and animals, but his love for the city, especially New York, is primary in My Alexandria. New York is for him what Paris was for Baudelaire and Alexandria for Cavafy: the city is poetry itself, "my false, my splendid chanteuse."
While "Chanteuse" isn't as successful as "Esta Noche," if you skip the preliminary details and start in the middle of page 26, with the drag queen, the poem's captivating music begins to unfold, a magic interweave of narrative and meditation:
her smoke burnished, entirely believable voice,
the sequins on her silver bolero
shimmering ice blue. Cavafy ends a poem
of regret and desire -- he had no other theme
than memory's erotics, his ashen atmosphere -
I'm dazzled by this paratactic leap into Cavafy. And what other poet would dare this transfiguration, when Doty describes the city while it's raining:
The rooftops were glowing above us,
enormous, crystalline, a second city
lit from within.
Doty is full of marvelous seductions and surprises. This is the opening of "Lament-Heaven," the last poem that could be stand next to one of Rilke's Duino Elegies.
What hazed around the branches
late in March was white at first,
as if a young tree's ghost
were blazing in the woods,
a fluttering around the limbs
like shredded sleeves. A week later,
against the dark of evergreen,
that skyrocket shimmer. I think
this is how our deaths would look,
seen from a great distance
I agree that "Bill's Story" alone is worth the price of the book. So is "Brilliance," "No," a fabulous poem about a box turtle, and "Lament Heaven." "Almost Blue," "Esta Noche," "Days of 1981" (the image of the lopsided valentine heart is perfect), "Fog," "The Advent Calendars" come close. But then there are no weak poems in this volume, unless the overlong "Wings" (the Rilkean angel now a little boy with snow shoes flung over his back).
In this age of attention deficit, it takes daring to write long poems. In the face of trendy bleakness and the poetics of ugliness, it's a miracle that we have a poet who believes in "an art / mouthed to the shape of how soft things are, / how good, before they disappear."
Doty doesn't hammer away at the fact that he is gay; it's just part of the picture, and not even the most important part. I think his worship of beauty comes first, and his ability to see beauty everywhere. At the same time he pays homage to the exuberantly daring and creative gay subculture.
Besides being a master of parataxis, Doty is skillful at interweaving the ordinary and the transcendent. He gives us flowers -- or birches coming into leaf, or the crystal roofs of New York during rain - and he gives us a simple, ordinary narrative (sometimes two or three simple narratives in one poem). The down-to-earth narrative makes the poems amazingly easy to read, simple but far from simplistic.
Doty invokes the transcendent, but also gives up the image of the girl violinist pushing her glasses back whenever she pauses. This prosy detail grounds us in the human, the real, the imperfect. Mortality is of course present everywhere; "Fog," in which Doty's partner is diagnosed positive for AIDS, is a masterpiece of rapture and grief. "I don't believe the lamenting / stops at the borders of this world / or any other," Doty writes. And yet all the poems in this magical volume are love poems to the world. Exquisitely attuned to the moment, this is timeless poetry.
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