Thursday, December 20, 2007

Our chests open, arms back,
the teacher said, “This is a a position

I thought, That's it, that's
exactly a position one could live
toward, to stand in permeable faith,

and yet such force in that stance,
upright, heart thrust out
to the world, unguarded, no hope

without the possibility of a wound.
“To hold oneself in this pose,” he said,
“takes incredible strength.”

(from “Notebook/To Lucien Freud/On the Veil” by Mark Doty, in School of the Arts, Harper Collins, 2005)

I have the biggest stack of books (not to be a size queen), all given to me in the last week by the wonderful folks in my life: The Collected Poems of James Merrill, Garcia Lorca's Poet in New York, the Hitchens-edited the Portable Atheist, John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds, Phillip Pullman's Dark Matters trilogy. In other words, a lot. And that's on top of some really freaking amazing books I picked up through and Book Bazaar on Bank St: James Dickey (yes, the Deliverance guy, he was a poet too), AE Housman, Noel Coward (yep, he also wrote poems), The Collected Edna St Vincent Millay...

So what made me pick up Mark Doty's School of the Arts today? It came recommended by David, the owner of After Stonewall, Ottawa's gay bookstore. I was in doing other shopping but I couldn't resist. I'm glad I didn't.

Doty is a gay American poet, mid-career, with seven collections of poetry under his belt at the time of School of the Arts. Maybe there's a new one. He's a professor at the University of Houston and lives in Provenance and New York, according to the back of the book. I first encountered him a few years ago in Outside the Lines, a wonderful book of interviews with gay poets (Doty, Carl Phillips, David Trinidad, Thom Gunn...) but yeah, I'm sad to say it took a little extra push to pick up one of his trade collections.

The above is a slice from a series of fragments, written by Doty collaged with quotes from Lucien Freud's notebooks. Listen to the delightfully direct voicing. It's deceptive. Appearing elswhere, a line like “I thought, That's it” would be an instrument of flabby verse; here it's the simplest way of bridging away from the yoga instructor's (or is he a Body Electric instructor?) thoughts and to the speaker's: it's not superfluous, it's actually incredible condensation. There's a lot of that.

The more or less stable line breaks of the first quoted stanza lull you. Then wham! Doty breaks over “a position one could live / toward” and he's totally fooled you. He does it a second time in the quoted passage, here “no hope // without the possibility of a wound.” Zap! I don't think that the enjambments would have as much strength if the poet were showy in his word choice – which here is kept very spare with a couple of exceptions, “permeable faith” for example, which is in my opinion the weak link in the passage...

There's nothing more satisfying than a well-executed suggestion.


Anyway, happy holidays to you and yours. I'm travelling tomorrow morning to visit my folks in Hamilton. Back at the end of next week. Lots of love.