what is the grass? :: mark doty

On the margin
in the used text
I’ve purchased without opening

—pale green dutiful vessel—

some unconvinced student has written,
in a clear, looping hand,
Isn’t it grass?

How could I answer the child?
I do not exaggerate,
I think of her question for years.

And while first I imagine her the very type
of the incurious, revealing the difference
between a mind at rest and one that cannot,

later I come to imagine that she
had faith in language,
that was the difference: she believed

that the word settled things,
the matter need not be looked into again.

And he who’d written his book over and over, nearly ruining it,
so enchanted by what had first compelled him
—for him the word settled nothing at all.

brian age seven :: mark doty

Grateful for their tour
of the pharmacy,
the first-grade class
has drawn these pictures,
each self-portrait taped
to the window-glass,
faces wide to the street,
round and available,
with parallel lines for hair.

I like this one best: Brian,
whose attenuated name
fills a quarter of the frame,
stretched beside impossible
legs descending from the ball
of his torso, two long arms
springing from that same
central sphere. He breathes here,

on his page. It isn’t craft
that makes this figure come alive;
Brian draws just balls and lines,
in wobbly crayon strokes.
Why do some marks
seem to thrill with life,
possess a portion
of the nervous energy
in their maker’s hand?

That big curve of a smile
reaches nearly to the rim
of his face; he holds
a towering ice cream,
brown spheres teetering
on their cone,
a soda fountain gift
half the length of him
—as if it were the flag

of his own country held high
by the unadorned black line
of his arm. Such naked support
for so much delight! Artless boy,
he’s found a system of beauty:
he shows us pleasure
and what pleasure resists.
The ice cream is delicious.
He’s frail beside his relentless standard.

ararat :: mark doty

Wrapped in gold foil, in the search
and shouting of Easter Sunday,
it was the ball of the princess,
it was Pharoah’s body
sleeping in its golden case.
At the foot of the picket fence,
in grass lank with the morning rain,
it was a Sunday school prize,
silver for second place, gold
for the triumphant little dome
of Ararat, and my sister
took me by the hand and led me
out onto the wide, wet lawn
and showed me to bend into the thick nests
of grass, into the darkest green.
Later I had to give it back,
in exchange for a prize,
though I would rather have kept the egg.
What might have coiled inside it?
Crocuses tight on their clock-springs,
a bird who’d sing himself into an angel
in the highest reaches of the garden,
the morning’s flaming arrow?
Any small thing can save you.
Because the golden egg gleamed
in my basket once, though my childhood
became an immense sheet of darkening water
I was Noah, and I was his ark,
and there were two of every animal inside me.

deep lane [june 23rd, evening of the first fireflies] :: mark doty

June 23rd, evening of the first fireflies,
we’re walking in the cemetery down the road,
and I look up from my distracted study of whatever,

an unfocused gaze somewhere a few feet in front of my shoes,

and see that Ned has run on ahead
with the champagne plume of his tail held especially high,
his head erect,

which is often a sign that he has something he believes he is not allowed to have,

and in the gathering twilight (what is it that is gathered,
who is doing the harvesting?) I can make out that the long horizontal
between his lovely jaws is one of the four stakes planted on the slope

to indicate where the backhoe will dig a new grave.

Of course my impulse is to run after him, to replace the marker,
out of respect for the rule that we won’t desecrate the tombs,
or at least for those who knew the woman
whose name inks a placard in the rectangle claimed by the four poles

of vanishing—three poles now—and how it’s within their recollection,
their gathering, she’ll live. Evening of memory. Sparklamps in the grass.
I stand and watch him go in his wild figure eights,
I say, You run, darling, you tear up that hill.

demolition :: mark doty

The intact facade’s now almost black
in the rain; all day they’ve torn at the back
of the building, “the oldest concrete structure
in New England,” the newspaper said. By afternoon,
when the backhoe claw appears above
three stories of columns and cornices,

the crowd beneath their massed umbrellas cheers.
Suddenly the stairs seem to climb down themselves,
atomized plaster billowing: dust of 1907’s
rooming house, this year’s bake shop and florist’s,
the ghosts of their signs faint above the windows
lined, last week; with loaves and blooms.

We love disasters that have nothing to do
with us: the metal scoop seems shy, tentative,
a Japanese monster tilting its yellow head
and considering what to topple next. It’s a weekday,
and those with the leisure to watch
are out of work, unemployable or academics,

joined by a thirst for watching something fall.
All summer, at loose ends, I’ve read biographies,
Wilde and Robert Lowell, and fallen asleep
over a fallen hero lurching down a Paris boulevard,
talking his way to dinner or a drink,
unable to forget the vain and stupid boy

he allowed to ruin him. And I dreamed
I was Lowell, in a manic flight of failing
and ruthless energy, and understood
how wrong I was with a passionate exactitude
which had to be like his. A month ago,
at St. Gaudens’ house, we ran from a startling downpour

into coincidence: under a loggia built
for performances on the lawn
hulked Shaw’s monument, splendid
in its plaster maquette, the ramrod-straight colonel
high above his black troops. We crouched on wet gravel
and waited out the squall; the hieratic woman

—a wingless angel?—floating horizontally
above the soldiers, her robe billowing like plaster dust,
seemed so far above us, another century’s
allegorical decor, an afterthought
who’d never descend to the purely physical
soldiers, the nearly breathing bronze ranks crushed

into a terrible compression of perspective,
as if the world hurried them into the ditch.
“The unreadable,” Wilde said, “is what occurs.”
And when the brutish metal rears
above the wall of unglazed windows—
where, in a week, the kids will skateboard

in their lovely loops, and spray their undecipherable ideograms
across the parking lot—the single standing wall
seems Roman, momentarily, an aqueduct,
all that’s left of something difficult
to understand now, something Oscar

and Bosie might have posed before, for a photograph.
Aqueducts and angels, here on Main,
seem merely souvenirs; the gaps
where the windows opened once
into transients’ rooms are pure sky.
It’s strange how much more beautiful

the sky is to us when it’s framed
by these columned openings someone meant us
to take for stone. The enormous, articulate shovel
nudges the highest row of moldings
and the whole thing wavers as though we’d dreamed it,
our black classic, and it topples all at once.

shaker orchard :: mark doty

Holding even flowers subject
to the principle of use,
the Shakers invented

the notion of packaged seeds
and a steam-powered
distiller for rosewater.

They uncluttered rooms
till space filled
with Universal Light—

white walls, a chest, a chair
hung on pegs beside a broom
so perfect in its simplicity

as to become a pure channel:
there was nothing in those lines
to impede the flow

of the divine, no ornament
to distract the mind from Love.
Work, Ann Lee said, as though

you had a thousand years to live;
thus the tiny stitches
in a sister’s cotton cap, the exact lid

of a pine box. Pestered
by holy doves delivering
gifts—exotic telegrams of fruit,

flower and verse—Mother Ann danced
to come to terms with the demands
of angels. In one print

the brothers and sisters
in their separate portions of the room
thunder on the polished floorboards.

They swept clean. Clear
the excess, they knew,
and light will pour in

as in certain American landscapes
where light itself occupies space,
whole regions of luminosity.

Seeing the turn of things
and unwilling to propagate,
they were swept away.

The last,
four elderly sisters,
live at Sabbathday Lake;

the brothers are twenty years gone.
In October their grapes yield,
suspended from the arbor

as if to recall a paradise of ease
where we had only to look upward
to be fed, and the apple trees

hold out their thousands of small victories,
having managed both to contain light
and to bear.

difference :: mark doty

The jellyfish
float in the bay shallows
like schools of clouds,

a dozen identical — is it right
to call them creatures,
these elaborate sacks

of nothing? All they seem
is shape, and shifting,
and though a whole troop

of undulant cousins
go about their business
within a single wave’s span,

every one does something unlike:
this one a balloon
open on both ends

but swollen to its full expanse,
this one a breathing heart,
this a pulsing flower.

This one a rolled condom,
or a plastic purse swallowing itself,
that one a Tiffany shade,

this a troubled parasol.
This submarine opera’s
all subterfuge and disguise,

its plot a fabulous tangle
of hiding and recognition:
nothing but trope,

nothing but something
forming itself into figures
then refiguring,

sheer ectoplasm
recognizable only as the stuff
of metaphor. What can words do

but link what we know
to what we don’t,
and so form a shape?

Which shrinks or swells,
configures or collapses, blooms
even as it is described

into some unlikely
marine chiffon:
a gown for Isadora?

Nothing but style.
What binds
one shape to another

also sets them apart
— but what’s lovelier
than the shapeshifting

transparence of like and as:
clear, undulant words?
We look at alien grace,

unfettered
by any determined form,
and we say: balloon, flower,

heart, condom, opera,
lampshade, parasol, ballet.
Hear how the mouth,

so full
of longing for the world,
changes its shape?