FIRE TO FIRE -- one of contemporary poetry's most lauded and recognizable voices speaks to the crises and possibilities of our time
Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems by Mark Doty (2009, HarperCollins; 336 pages)
Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire is a collection of his poems from 1987 to 2008. The poems are filled with questioning as well as vivid and surprising language and imagery. Throughout his poetry there is a sense of wonder for the world he closely observes and experiences. The wonder is more than a gap-mouthed awe, however; it is also a pondering and questioning.
One poem in particular captures well these traits of Doty’s poems, his questioning, observing, wondering, and it also meditates on the idea of longing. In “Difference,” he carefully shows us jellyfish, and immediately begins to wonder about them:
is it right
to all them creatures,
these elaborate sacks
He carefully describes them and their many shapes:
[the] rolled condom
or a plastic purse swallowing itself,
that one a Tiffany shade,
this a troubled parasol.
But for all its beautiful description, it is with questioning and desire that Doty ends his poem; he ends with the question:
Hear how the mouth,
of longing for the world,
changes it shape?
Even the way Doty breaks the lines creates desire, creates that very longing about which he writes. I see an abundance—“so full”—contrasted with a desire for even more.
Another poem I am particularly drawn to out of admiration for Doty’s skill as a poet is “Charlie Howard’s Descent.” What strikes me about this poem is the way Doty unravels the plot of the poem. The story is woven into a complex timeline so that it is not told directly but pieced together between questioning and snippets of information about the characters. The poems open in such a way that the reader doesn’t know why the fall is happening or how. Did Charlie Howard jump? To kill himself? To go for a swim? Was he pushed? Did he slip? The ugliness attached to Charlie Howard’s falling is made evident quickly, however, and as a result the questions arising from the opening begin to color with darkness. This coloring enters with the phrase in the second stanza that he is falling because of “the gulf/between what he knew and how/he was known.” Then enter the “laughing/stock-clerks” who make fun of “his gestures.” As this ominous and sad tone grows (“he could not meet/a little town’s demands;” “he took the insults”) the story is becoming clearer and I see Charlie Howard jumping to his death. Later, however, more details are revealed and it finally becomes clear that Charlie Howard was “hurled from the edge” by “three teenage boys.” By the end of the poem it also becomes clear that the fall was fatal.
Fire to Fire is a stunning book of poems. One a reader can delight in for its descriptions and imagery, language and humor. And a book, too, that guides the reader into her own wondering and questioning.
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