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Sweet Machine
Mark Doty

Sweet Machine
Mark Doty
Jonathan Cape
London 1998

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After the collections My Alexandria and Atlantis, Mark Doty is recognised and lauded on both sides of the Atlantic as a major poetic voice in his maturity, a writer of exultant and dazzling epiphanies in everyday life which follow the pain and confusion of loss. He is also (with Thom Gunn) the most moving and assured poetic chronicler of the tragedy of the AIDS pandemic. With this latest collection Doty extends the elegiac trajectory of My Alexandria further into richly textured celebration of friendships and loves which reverberate in the physical detail of his American landscapes. Both love and beauty begin with the certainty of loss, and the gentle force of his verse presses hard for moments of epiphanic recapture. In the opening poem ‘Favrile’, the poet considers a glassmaker’s term as a new word to describe this general sensation of evanescence:

For the sonnet’s

blown-glass sateen,
for bel canto,
for Faberge’.

For everything
which begins in limit
(where else might our work

begin?) and ends in grace,
or at least extravagance.
For the silk sleeves

of the puppet queen,
held at a ravishing angle
over her puppet lover slain…

The image of silk sleeves lightly anticipates the following poem ‘White Kimono’, which describes a rainy day spent with a friend browsing the impossible flimsy richness of kimonos in a shop; they finally buy three, ‘deep blue for Lynda, / lined with a secretive orange splendour of flowers; a long scholarly grey for me…’, and a wet-grass green for Wally, their friend who is already very ill. This intensely delicate and attractive poem remembers both Lynda and Wally.

And the ‘extravagance’ of favrile is an aspect of the poetry which comes under close srutiny here; for one of the features which Doty adds to his style in Sweet Machine is the ironic awareness of his ‘style’ as others see it and report on it. In two short poems both entitled ‘Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work’, the poet is wryly unembarrassed in living up to his reputation for shiny surfaces, for glitter and for camp:

— No such thing,
the queen said,
as too many sequins.

… an appropriate word, sequins, for the details which interconnect and achieve the integrity of Sweet Machine are small and striking — and as striking for their powerful smallness as for their powerful beauty. Glass, a favourite image/idea of Doty’s, continues to vibrate through this collection, as does the figure of the (poet as) glassmaker; emeralds and silk also; and there are the frequent appearances of dogs. (The one bad misfire, in my opinion, where camp lapses badly into whimsy and kitsch, is ‘Golden Retrievals’; it’s a tough call even for a poet as good as Doty to make a reader forgive a dramatic monologue by a dog.) The poem ‘Sweet Machine’ itself juxtaposes the erotic body of a young man on an advertising billboard with the contorted and diseased body of a young homeless man, as a binary focus for the myriad human transformations on the street. The extraordinary ‘Thirty Delft Tiles’ commemorates James Merrill, and includes the thrillingly eccentric image of a poet who equips his survivors with a Ouija board with ‘a slash mark, / so the spirits could indicate // a line break.’

Doty reaches out boldly to poetic allies. He makes contact with Yeats (‘a pair of golden birds […] stolen from Byzantium’)… to Shakespeare (he’s giving / his name back to airy nothing’)… to Ginsberg (‘I’ve seen // the bodies I most adored turned to flame / and powder’). In general this volume marks a new confidence in Doty that he can live and thrive in powerful company, and a newly urgent enquiry into the textures of his own style.

Reviewed by Michael Bradshaw


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