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Strange Paradise: An Essay on Mark Doty


by Tim Dean

It was Mark Doty’s third volume of poems, My Alexandria (1993), that gained him widespread acclaim and critical recognition. His first two volumes, Turtle, Swan (1987) and Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (1991), have recently been brought back into print by University of Illinois Press in a single volume. This earlier work allows us to see Doty establishing his characteristic themes—beauty, mutability, aesthetic invention—and exploring his admiration for other poets and artists, such as turn-of-the-century Alexandrian homosexual poet C. P. Cavafy, to whom one of the central poems of Turtle, Swan is addressed and whose influence pervades My Alexandria.

Doty is a gay poet and a poet of the AIDS epidemic. Almost all of the poems in My Alexandria were composed in the wake of learning that his lover, Wally Roberts (1951-1994), was HIV-positive. The story of Doty’s life with Roberts is told in prose in the memoir Heaven’s Coast (1996), a powerful philosophical meditation on living in the time of plague. Doty’s originality lies in his making AIDS part of his poetic perspective, rather than treating it simply as an object of contemplation or analysis. Reflecting upon his increased absorption in the epidemic, Doty explains that "AIDS is no longer something I write about, but is part of the way I see or speak."

As a result of this alteration in perspective, poems that apparently have nothing to do with AIDS or gay sexuality become infused with a vision that is shaped by the pressure of this form of accelerated mortality. In the title poem of Atlantis (1995), Doty’s fourth volume, the speaker refers to AIDS as

not even a real word
but an acronym, a vacant
four-letter cipher

that draws meanings into itself,
reconstitutes the world.

This reconstituting of the world—not just by the virus but also by the poetic imagination—represents one of Doty’s principal subjects. The world needs reconstituting because it is ceaselessly falling apart, whether as a consequence of AIDS or of other forces. Doty remains fascinated by the intensification of life exhibited by people and objects in decline or decay. "My art," the speaker of "Two Ruined Boats" declares, "could only articulate the sheen, / or chronicle the fashion in which // the world gains luster as it falls apart" (Atlantis 89). Or, as a terse line from "Murano" puts it: "Broken, the better to glitter" (Sweet Machine 55). Doty is a poet of the unmaking and remaking of the world, and of its shifting luminosity throughout decomposition and recreation.

Much of his poetry "chronicles" changes in the landscape, whether urban or natural. He is a great poet of description, having learned from Elizabeth Bishop how to look at objects closely yet obliquely, seeing more in them than is ostensibly there. Many of his poems describe broken, abandoned, or ruined things. For example, the opening poem of My Alexandria, "Demolition," considers the destruction of an old New England rooming house. By the end of the book we understand that the demolition or crumbling of buildings and cities is connected to AIDS; we realize too that Doty, exercising a supremely American impulse to "make it new," has reinvented the millennia-old poetic topoi of death and mutability in response to contemporary conditions of mortality. And since AIDS permeates his poetic perspective, he works within the form of elegy, loosely construed.

Doty’s poetic speakers find beauty everywhere, even or especially in ruin. Looking at the world, Doty’s vision transforms almost everything into objets d’art. More than simply elegiac, his characteristic poetic mode is ekphrastic; his writing is about translating the art of visual appearance into words. Often Doty’s speakers become enraptured by what they gaze upon; his attentiveness to the life around him is so acute that sometimes his poems depict the speaker’s blending with the objects of his regard. His poetic self is highly porous, apt to become infused by what it encounters. Thus although Doty is a gay poet, he’s not a poet of identity, not a believer in the securely bounded self. For example, in "A Display of Mackerel," a poem of ecstatic description, he invites the reader to consider becoming as impersonally beautiful as the fish:

Suppose we could iridesce,

like these, and lose ourselves
entirely in the universe
of shimmer—would you want

to be yourself only,
unduplicatable, doomed
to be lost?

The poem ends by pointing to the incompatibility between beauty and identity, imagining the fishes’ contentment, even though they’re dead:

            . . . How happy they seem,
even on ice, to be together, selfless,
which is the price of gleaming.  (Atlantis 15)

Paradoxically Doty’s poems view the world from a gay perspective, yet they release that perspective from the constraints of identity and thus from any single point of view.

This combination of specificity and the expansion of perspective helps account, I think, for his poetry’s accessibility. Recognized by the many awards it has won, his work is popular among undergraduates and other non-experts, as well as being admired by his peers. Although Doty’s poems are fairly long by contemporary standards, they remain unintimidating. "Homo Will Not Inherit," the poem by which Doty is represented in Anthology of Modern American Poetry, is exactly 100 lines long—the length that Edgar Allan Poe recommended for a poem to achieve its optimal effect.

When Mark Doty visited my undergraduate class at University of Illinois on February 16, 1999, he reminded us that "the poem itself is the most articulate statement of what it is about." The reader may wish to bear that in mind as he or she considers the discussion of two poems that follows.

"Homo Will Not Inherit"

This poem takes its title from a flier that someone has posted on a downtown wall. The legend on the flier reads: "HOMO WILL NOT INHERIT. Repent & be saved." Doty’s poem picks up this anonymous, explicitly antigay text, and replies, in effect, that no repentance is necessary for salvation. Instead, the poem’s speaker embraces carnality and finds redemptive transfiguration in the netherworld of urban gay public sex. Rather than simply rejecting the Christian doctrine that views homosexuality as an abomination, this poem converts the abomination into something holy. We might say that the poem’s wager is not to forgive but to sanctify sin. According to "Homo Will Not Inherit," gay people don’t need to be accepted by the Christian church, because homo sex is itself a religious experience. For Doty the spiritual world is reached not by denying the flesh, but, on the contrary, by indulging it. In this conviction he follows Allen Ginsberg in Howl, who in turn was following William Blake.

The poem’s tone is both ecstatic and defiant. It is risky to take a legend that authoritatively spells out damnation for one’s very being—"Homo will not inherit"—and make it the title for one’s own statement of religious belief. In doing so, Doty is treating the antigay phrase in the way that some people recently have treated the antigay epithet queer, appropriating it as a term of proud defiance. This poem is important because it articulates a kind of credo, an affirmation of spiritual principle. If, as Scott Herring has remarked, for Doty poetry is a variety of religious experience, then a poem affirming his religious persuasions can tell us something about his idea of poetry too.

We see this affirmation of belief most clearly at the moment when the poem segues from description to reflection:

                        . . . I say it
without arrogance, I have been an angel

for minutes at a time, and I have for hours
believed—without judgement, without condemnation—
that in each body, however obscured or recast,

is the divine body—common, habitable—
the way in a field of sunflowers
you can see every bloom’s

the multiple expression
of a single shining idea,
which is the face hammered into joy.

These lines form a single sentence that stretches easily, without convolution, over several stanzas. (Look again at the poem’s opening sentence, which takes up its first seven verses and culminates in the quote from the flier.) There is something of Walt Whitman in these long, prosy lines and in the poet’s organizing them by the repetition of parallelism and anaphora (repeated line-beginnings), rather than by the repetition of end-rhyme: "And I have been . . . / I have been . . . / . . . I have been . . . / . . . I have been. . . ."

"I have been an angel," the speaker says, invoking one of the dominant images of Doty’s previous book My Alexandria, in whose central poem, "The Wings," an angel is described at one point as "that form // between us and the unthinkable." The angel is a spiritual mediator, a being on the border between this world and the next. As a liminal creature, the angel is a figure for the geographical and social margins pictured in "Homo Will Not Inherit." "I’ll tell you what I’ll inherit," the speaker defiantly replies, "the margins / which have always been mine." The angel is associated with "the margins," which in this poem take the form of an urban wasteland populated by the socially marginal—gay men cruising for sex through "downtown after hours / when there’s nothing left to buy." Doty is a poet of the marginal, the edge, the border, the coast; as he says in "Description," the prefatory ars poetica of Atlantis, "what I need to tell is / swell and curve, shift // and blur of boundary." The angel is a figure—though certainly not his only one—for "blur of boundary."

But angel is also a slang term for a gay man, and the poem converts this vernacular meaning back into religious significance. Describing a man he encounters in the steamroom, the speaker transfigures anonymous sex into a virtually biblical allegory of spiritual possession:

I’ve seen flame flicker around the edges of the body,
pentecostal, evidence of inhabitation.
And I have been possessed of the god myself[.]

Here the hunk is a god, or a sign from God; and being sexually possessed by another man becomes a figure for the Holy Spirit’s visitation. Doty’s stunningly sacrilegious metaphor finds a similarity between the Spirit’s tongue of flame that lodges inside the believer and another man’s penis or tongue inside his own body ("I have been possessed of the god myself"). Whereas in orthodox Christian doctrine only Jesus incarnates divinity, in this poem "the divine body" inhabits everyone in a form of theological promiscuity.

The poem immediately cascades into another analogy to illustrate this principle, offering one of Doty’s favorite images, the sunflower, to insist that "you can see every bloom’s // the multiple expression / of a single shining idea, / which is the face hammered into joy." (For dilation upon this image, see "Four Cut Sunflowers, One Upside Down" and "In the Community Garden," both in Atlantis.) The "face hammered into joy" is both the flower’s face, its radiance personified, and that of the guy in the sauna who is "hammered into joy" by "some towering man" who fucks him. The verb hammered, which recurs throughout Doty’s work, has a double resonance here, connoting both vigorous sex and artistic creation—the way a smith hammers metal into something beautiful. To be "hammered into joy" is to go through pain and reach ecstasy, a trajectory the poem itself follows.

No small measure of this poem’s pain and defiance comes from the direction of its address—the fact that its second-person singular you turns out to be the anonymous author of the antigay legend: "you who’s posted this invitation // to a heaven nobody wants." We do not discover that the poem addresses its enemy until more than halfway through, and it comes as a surprise because the opening words specify a generic or typical setting, "Downtown anywhere." Unlike the majority of his poems, "Homo Will Not Inherit" is confrontational; then again, seen from a broader perspective, it is—like all poems—a reply to an utterance that precedes it.

The poem is set in the "edges no one wants," an undesirability that the speaker sets about transforming almost immediately with his description of "the avenue’s // shimmered azaleas of gasoline," an image that sees oily puddles as beautiful blossoms. The poem’s derelict urban setting is significant because it points to the connection between homosexuality and city life; and Doty, like Whitman and Hart Crane before him, is very much a poet of the city. He’s a poet of New York, Boston, and (in Sweet Machine) Venice, but also of Provincetown, Massachusetts, the city he’s made his home for the past decade. Although not a major metropolitan area, Provincetown, like New York, is a gay destination, a place where gay men congregate. Doty is interested in how people make these places their own—how, for example, the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria was "transformed into feeling" by gay poet Cavafy, and how Hart Crane’s poetry does the same for New York City. The titles of Doty’s books are taken from these urban poets’ lovesongs to their cities: My Alexandria from Cavafy, and Atlantis from Crane’s poem of that title, his paean of praise to Brooklyn Bridge. Atlantis is the mythical lost island, not a city; but its name betokens a place that, while not exactly a utopia, is formed wholly from the imagination.

The downtown of "Homo Will Not Inherit" has been vacated by middle-class flight to the suburbs, a sociological phenomenon that made downtown anywhere a place for gay men to gather in "blackfronted bars," which assure anonymity, and adult bookstores, "where there’s nothing to read / but longing’s repetitive texts." Suburban flight meant that only the families of the dispossessed lived downtown in U.S. cities, which then could be zoned for sex businesses such as the porno stores, gay bars, and bathhouses sketched in this poem. "Homo Will Not Inherit" offers less a critique of this urban predicament than an account of the imagination’s power to transform blight and "ruin" into beauty. It is not a case of the socially irresponsible artist’s aestheticizing a material problem, but rather of showing how an oppressed minority uses imagination to make an inhospitable reality into its "kingdom." The transformation requires a subterfuge or inauthenticity that Doty associates with the paradoxical authenticity of art. For this poet, artifice is an honorific not a pejorative term; his art emphasizes its madeness, its fabulated qualities, rather than aspiring to the status of the natural. For a wonderful example of this commitment to fabulation, see the poem "Chanteuse" (in My Alexandria), which pictures "the rapt singer / who caught us in the glory / of her artifice."

Doty’s emphasis on artifice is submerged in "Homo Will Not Inherit" by his fierce spirituality; yet the imagination’s power to transubstantiate the given world is revealed in the way that gay men’s desire surreptitiously invents another city within the architecture of public urban space. After office hours, the "public city’s / ledgered and locked, but the secret city’s boundless." As with many of W. B. Yeats’s poems, the time of this lyric is "twilight, / permission’s descending hour," the time when appearances change and diurnal reality melts away. Thus the poem’s temporal setting, as well as its geographical locale, is liminal, transitional, a no-man’s land—or, in this case, a gay man’s land. The "permission" that descends can be understood as both erotic and poetic license: a sanction to desire and pursue other men, but also an authorization to see things differently, to invest mundane reality with fantasy.

But this does not mean abandoning or transcending material reality. On the contrary, Doty embraces the dirty, derelict city and its vices, picturing "downtown anywhere" as equal to the heavenly city promised in Scripture:

                . . . This failing city’s
radiant as any we’ll ever know,
paved with oily rainbow, charred gates

jeweled with tags, swoops of letters
over letters, indecipherable as anything
written by desire. I’m not ashamed

to love Babylon’s scrawl. How could I be?
It’s written on my face as much as on
these walls. This city’s inescapable,

gorgeous, and on fire. I have my kingdom.

This is the speaker’s final, triumphant riposte to the author of the poster that provides his poem’s title. Homo does not need to inherit the kingdom of heaven, because "I have my kingdom." The half-line, four-word closing sentence’s declarative assertion is particularly effective because it contrasts so sharply with the expansive syntax earlier in the poem. Notice how the attributes of "this failing city" reprise imagery that the poet has used already: the city streets "paved with oily rainbow" pick up "the avenue’s // shimmered azaleas of gasoline," which are enhanced by the symbolical resonance of the rainbow, God’s sign to Moses. His description of urban graffiti—"swoops of letters / over letters, indecipherable as anything / written by desire"—recalls the poet’s characterization of pornography as "longing’s repetitive texts," an echo that not only dignifies what conventionally is considered sordid, but also draws his own poem into the same orbit, since this lyric constitutes something "written by desire" and includes "a dirty story" too.

In the ironically labeled "dirty story" that the speaker relates, the man in the bathhouse "nudg[es] his key toward me, / as if perhaps I spoke another tongue." The key, like a tongue, is a physical sign of sexual invitation: Come to my room. The key is also, of course, a stereotypical phallic symbol, an image of sexual penetration (as immortalized by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams). But it also carries the biblical resonance of access to paradise, since Jesus presents the believer with keys to the kingdom of heaven. These connotations of the image of the key return at the poem’s end with the speaker’s characterization of the city as "inescapable"—not because it’s "ledgered and locked," but because "the secret city’s boundless," unconfined by physical parameters. This idea and its metaphoric elaboration owes something to Emily Dickinson’s brilliant exposition on the scope of poetic imagination, "I dwell in Possibility—" (poem 657).

In the end, Doty’s city is ablaze with a fire that may be both infernal, the hellfire of damnation, and "pentecostal," the divine fire of spiritual transformation, as invoked several stanzas earlier. The image of "charred gates" evokes the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed by the fire of God’s wrath for, among other things, the sin of sodomy. Yet there are also mythological and camp connotations to this image of the city "on fire," since it is both "the secret city" that arises, phoenix-like, from "the public city," and an urban space aflame with homosexuality (a flamboyant gay man is known colloquially as a flaming queen or, simply, a flamer). The phoenix is an important mythological reference for Doty, as the title of his most recent memoir, Firebird (1999), suggests. Indeed, for Doty, fire is an image not only of destruction but also of transformation, a figure for metamorphosis embodied by the phoenix. These multiple meanings are all condensed in the single phrase "and on fire."

"Homo Will Not Inherit" is a religious and a political poem. A brief summary of recent gay history may provide the context to help readers appreciate fully this poem’s ideological significance. Its second line refers to "bathhouse steam," and its "dirty story" describes a bathhouse sexual encounter. Bathhouses are gay sex institutions, places men go to have sex with each other. (Many of the scenes in Larry Kramer’s 1978 novel, Faggots, are set in bathhouses and convey their atmosphere well.) Bathhouses flourished in the 1970s and early 80s in U.S. cities, but in the late 80s and 1990s they were blamed for the spread of AIDS and, in major gay metropolitan centers such as New York and San Francisco, were shut down. As a poet of the AIDS epidemic, Doty is taking a political risk by describing bathhouse sex in such rhapsodic, unabashed terms. His poem’s title, "Homo Will Not Inherit," conjures the idea of inheritance as dependent on death. In the 80s, U.S. political discourse suggested that gay men had inherited death itself as a result of too much sex in places such as bathhouses. This political discourse overlapped with religious fundamentalist rhetoric, which claimed that AIDS was God’s judgment on unnatural sex (the fact that more heterosexuals than lesbians were dying from AIDS was conveniently overlooked). Doty’s poem turns these antigay assumptions on their heads by treating bathhouse sex as paradisaical and deeply spiritual. In his description of "worshipping a while in his church," he even alludes—comically and sacrilegiously—to a camp euphemism for cocksucking: having church is slang for blowing guys, because one kneels in front of a standing man in order to fellate him in a semipublic space. Church is also gay slang for the bathhouse.

When the speaker refers to the moment "after we’d been, you understand, / worshipping a while in his church," his idiomatic expression lightens the predominantly defiant tone of this poem with a comic note. And with the apparently throwaway phrase "you understand," we realize that he’s addressing not only the person who wrote the antigay slogan, but also his gay readers: the "you" who composed the slogan would not understand this euphemism for cocksucking, but the gay reader does. This style of double address—in which things are said that one audience will miss while another audience gets it—defines camp, a mode of presentation associated with both homosexuality and artificiality. Camp sensibility, which often comprises nothing more than a certain oblique way of looking at things, infuses Doty’s work without diminishing its seriousness.

Earlier in "Homo Will Not Inherit," there is another campy moment when the speaker describes "a xeroxed headshot / of Jesus: permed, blonde, blurred at the edges // as though photographed through a greasy lens." This is Hollywood’s Jesus, a figure so processed and contrived as to rival advertising images, 70s gay porn images, classic movie star images. This is kitsch Christ, the leader of a religion worthy of acolytes such as Tammy Faye Baker. We might even say that this Jesus—bleached, permed, and ready for his close-up—is in drag. The significance of drag in Doty’s work leads us to his poem on this website, "Esta Noche."

"Esta Noche"

This poem takes its title from a working-class gay bar in San Francsico’s Mission district, a down-at-heel area of the city inhabited primarily by African-Americans, Latina/os, and other ethnic minorities. The bar’s name is the Spanish word for "tonight," and on the night in question a female impersonator who calls herself la fabulosa Lola acts as the mistress of ceremonies for a drag show. In spite of its subject matter, Doty’s poem belongs to a very ancient tradition of epideictic verse—the poetry of praise. Unlike traditional epideixis, however, the object of the speaker’s praise, Lola, is neither a hero nor his beloved, just as she is neither exactly a man nor a woman, but a beguiling combination of both. Lola is also, significantly, a singer, like the poet himself—even if she is only lip-synching.

        . . . [S]he tosses back her hair—risky gesture—
and raises her arms like a widow in a blood tragedy,
        all will and black lace, and lipsyncs "You and Me

against the World". . . .

This is classic camp: an imitation of high cultural seriousness—the grief-stricken widow in a tragedy—rendered hilarious by its inauthenticity and the incongruity of its context. As with the kitsch Christ in "Homo Will Not Inherit," camp often works by presenting an emotionally serious subject in a trashy or parodic frame. The tone of defiance that was treated soberly in "Homo Will Not Inherit" is here handled irreverently; and the interpolated phrase "risky gesture" clinches this attitude of impiety. In other words, the widow’s moment of bravado, in which she throws back her hair, is instantaneously undercut by the hint that she’s wearing a wig that might fall off. When her wig becomes dislodged or falls askew, the drag queen is undone.

While the poem takes as its theme aesthetics—the study of beauty—and marvels at how "perfection and beauty are so alien / they almost never touch," Doty nevertheless treats this serious topic as an occasion for comedy. We are supposed to find "Esta Noche" funny as well as poignant. The poem does not make fun of the drag queen so much as it ventriloquizes her sense of humor, having learned from Lola’s sensibility. This comic tone is introduced in the poem’s second line with the single word "late," which is set off by medial caesurae:

la fabulosa Lola enters, late, mounts the stairs[.]

The line forms a symphony of hard and soft consonants, with the apparently dispensable word "late" prolonging the alliteration of l sounds in the title that the queen has conferred upon herself. The word "late" also echoes the plosive t sounds in the words that surround it: enters, mounts, stairs. We might even say that the repetition of this hard consonant creates a clattering sound in the line that mimics the noise of Lola’s heels as she ascends the stairs to the stage. But the word "late" is interpolated into this line to indicate above all that Lola follows what is known as "gay time." No drag queen in the world has ever shown up on time for anything. We do not need the word "late" in this line for purposes of narrative or of realism; the word is there primarily to make us smile, and to suggest—via the economy of a single crisp syllable—that the poem inhabits a stereotypically gay context.

Hence part of this poem’s complexity lies in its rendering Lola as both a comic and a serious figure. Although drag queens appear throughout Doty’s work, one of Lola’s most significant prototypes is, curiously enough, the nightingale in Keats’s famous ode. Keats’s poetic speaker identifies his voice with that of the beautiful singer, a bird that flies straight out of the English countryside into the space of mythology: "Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird," Keats’s speaker apostrophizes the nightingale. Somewhat similarly, Doty models his poetic voice on that icon of artifice and in-betweenness, the drag queen. This gesture of imitation emerges most definitively a few poems later in My Alexandria, in "Chanteuse," where

in a nearly empty room over a crowded bar,
a beautiful black drag queen—perched
on the edge of the piano, under a blue spot,

her legs crossed in front of her
so that the straps of her sparkling ankle shoes
glimmered—sang only to us.

One effect of this iconic moment is to encourage an identification of her song with his, thereby repeating the structural trope of Keats’s Romantic ode. Unlike most contemporary poets, Doty does not aspire to a natural voice; and in this respect he departs from the strong influence on modern American poetry of Whitman, of Ezra Pound, and of William Carlos Williams, all of whom in their various ways aspired to make poetry conform to the idioms of natural American speech. Thus despite his poetry’s accessibility and popularity, and despite his poems describing natural scenes and objects, Doty is a poet contra naturem, a poet of the made (and made-up) rather than of the given. He takes the ancient and persistent charge against sodomy—that it is a crime "against nature"—and makes of the unnatural a virtue rather than a vice.

If the angel is one of his poetic figures for liminality and the coastal shoreline is another, then the drag queen represents a hybrid figure that combines "blur of boundary"—"shifting in and out of two languages like gowns / or genders"—with the achievements of artifice. The drag queen, like the poem, is a work of art; and it is Doty’s inclination to find works of art in the unlikeliest of places, to find loveliness in ruin. He does this in almost all his poems, showing us the radiance in what has been discarded or deemed undesirable. In "Esta Noche" he finds beauty in both the figure of the drag queen and in her dilapidated setting:

            . . . She’s a man
    you wouldn’t look twice at in street clothes,
two hundred pounds of hard living, the gap in her smile
    sadly narrative—but she’s a monument,

in the mysterious permission of the dress.

We notice here that the dress grants "permission," just as twilight ("permission’s descending hour") did in "Homo Will Not Inherit." This word "permission" signals in both poems an impending metamorphosis, an almost magical transformation. "The costume is license / and calling," we are told at the end of "Esta Noche," in an avowal that could be spoken by either Lola, the speaker, or a hybrid voice that fuses their subjectivities. More than merely "permission," the dress is also a "calling," a vocation, as if from God or the poet’s muse. Thus more than a nightclub entertainer, the drag queen has become by the poem’s end another kind of poet, transfigured by his or her vocation.

The poem is attentive to the tawdriness of the scene—"the plywood platform," "the wobbling spot [light]," the "unavoidable gap in the center of her upper teeth"—and thus to the miracle of transformation, given how unpromising are the raw materials of this spectacle. Yet the spectacle reaches out to encompass the whole of nature, so that by the close of the poem the sky itself is seen as in drag:

        . . . She says you could wear the whole damn
    black sky and all its spangles. It’s the only night
we have to stand on. Put it on,
    it’s the only thing we have to wear.

The starry sky has become a sequined dress, and the cosmos is revealed in its most elemental as drag material. "Esta Noche" makes nighttime itself into a realm of artifice, as if artifice were unavoidable—"the only night / we have to stand on." This curious locution treats the sky as a glittery fabric—"the rippling night pulled down over broad shoulders / and flounced around the hips"—yet also as something about which one has no choice: "it’s the only thing we have to wear." In this way of seeing things, artifice is ineluctable and yet there is something poignant about this inevitability. If in "Homo Will Not Inherit" "twilight, / permission’s descending hour" suggested a luxury that made anything seem possible, in "Esta Noche" the possibilities of night seem more like necessities for survival.

This idea of drag as necessary and inevitable, rather than optional and decadent, appears also in the earlier poem "Playland" (Bethlehem in Broad Daylight 98-100), and in "CrÍpe de Chine," a poem from Atlantis that might be paired with "Esta Noche." Promenading down a Manhattan street and imbibing the sensuousness of commercial display, the cross-gendered speaker of "CrÍpe de Chine" echoes Lola in her chant:

I want to wear it,
I want to put the whole big thing
on my head, I want

the tumbling coiffeurs of heaven,
or lacking that, a wig
tiered and stunning as this island.

That’s what I want from the city:
to wear it.
That’s what drag is: a city

to cover our nakedness[.]                  (Atlantis 72)

Here as elsewhere the poet is not so much describing the drag queen as speaking in her voice and adopting her point of view. It’s not simply a matter of giving voice to the marginal figure of the drag queen, but of extending her sensibility, seeing the whole world through her eyes. Doty expands this sensibility—an appreciation of artifice learned as much from downtown gay bars as from Wallace Stevens’s aestheticist philosophy—by identifying it with urban architecture and cosmopolitan space as such. To want to wear the city—to describe drag and the city in terms of each other—is to desire an intimacy with urban space that suggests the poetic speaker’s dissolution into the very shapes and surfaces she beholds.

It is important to distinguish this approach from that of Whitman’s poetic speakers, who, when they move through the city, aspire to absorb what is seen into the poet’s self. Whereas the Whitmanian poetic self may be termed all-encompassing, Doty’s poetic self would be characterized more accurately as all-adoring. His poetic self exhibits a porosity that makes contact with urban forms and surfaces of all kinds endlessly stimulating and delightful. In experiencing sensuousness almost everywhere, this porous poetic self finds aesthetic pleasure in abundance. Doty seems to appreciate both the trashy and the sublime, the beautiful and the dilapidated—or, more precisely, his poetic sensibility refuses to draw a hard-and-fast line between these conventionally polar categories. This sensibility is part of what makes his work "queer." It is also what has led some critics to censure his work, to find it either excessive or inadequate.

In the end, what a certain critical position finds objectionable in Doty is his poetics of praise. When Doty’s poetry appears too concerned with surfaces and with glitteriness; when he piles adjective upon adjective, what some critics find uncongenial is his poetic speakers’ adoration of the objects of their sensual apprehension. Without being fully aware of it, these critics (Harvard’s Helen Vendler among them) are objecting to what Doty loves. Their critique of his aesthetic is, at bottom, antigay—or, more precisely, antiqueer. Two comic poems in Sweet Machine, both of which are titled "Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work," respond to this denunciation of his delight in surface, artifice, and sensuousness. Both poems are antiphonal, structured as quotation and reply, and both crystallize themes evoked in "Homo Will Not Inherit" and "Esta Noche." The first version of "Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work" employs the genre of the drag queen’s snappy comeback, replying to the critique with this camp riposte:

—No such thing,
the queen said,
as too many sequins.            (Sweet Machine 36)

For this sensibility, excess is not superfluous but vital. The second, much longer version of the poem elaborates on the first version’s epigrammatic rejoinder by explaining that "Every sequin’s / an act of praise." Appreciating the surface of what he encounters, Doty elevates this appreciation into a poetics of praise—a mode, that is, of honoring the broken, the marginal, the dispossessed, the abandoned, the artificial. In the end, Doty is a love poet, though his love is rarely directed solely at other persons. His is a truly promiscuous aesthetic, one that finds beauty and therefore something to praise virtually everywhere it turns.

Copyright  © 2000 by Tim Dean


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