Romanticism and Contemporary Poetry and Poetics
Darkness Audible: Negative Capability and Mark Doty’s "Nocturne in Black and Gold"
Ellen Keck Stauder, Reed College
- In the poetry issue of The Paris Review for spring 2000, the editors announced a special feature for the issue: selected drafts of works-in-progress by prominent eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poets commented on by contemporary poets. This feature was occasioned by a tour the editors took of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, to whom they had sold the magazine’s archives. Each contemporary poet was assigned one manuscript for comment "in general and in respect to their own work" (Plimpton 21). No principles of selection are given in the editorial notice; however one cannot help but think that the choice of the opening of Keats’s "Endymion" for Mark Doty was a prescient one. Keatsian issues run deeply throughout Doty’s work in both poetry and prose. For instance, towards the end of his most recent prose book, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Doty admits that his arguments about the importance of Dutch still life paintings, on which he has lavished such elegant attention, might be seen as out-of-date, in much the same way that Keats’s emphasis on the endurance of beauty might be regarded as naive in a post-structuralist, anti-essentialist world. Though Keats is not directly named in this passage, the emphasis on beauty, and in a later part of the passage, on "meaning through wordlessness" and the timelessness of things "permanently caught in time" (SLOL 66) brings us close to the world of Keats’s odes. Doty recognizes the potential criticism of his work and offers a brief defense:
I know that all of this might be taken as precious, a hymn to so much useless beauty, in an hour when the notion of beauty is suspect—when it seems to suggest a falsely bright view of the world, or a narrow set of aesthetic principles related to the values of those in power, an oppressive construction.At one level, this explanation satisfies but at another, it raises questions: how do these paintings move beyond the world of the museum? How do they avoid self-referentiality? To what do they give honor beyond themselves? If they manage not to elide death, how then does death figure? What is the "given" these paintings are about? And finally, how are these questions relevant to Doty’s poems, which he sees as analogous to the work of these still life paintings?
And indeed it might be so, were what matters about still life simply confined to the museum, if these paintings were solely self-referential, removed from the world, an elaborate language of hymns to themselves. If they elided death, the fact of our quick transits in time.
But still life is about the given. (SLOL 66)
To get at these questions, I want to go first to Doty’s commentary on Keats, looking at the way the poetic process is figured as a conversation between the given and the made but also between the dark, unconscious world and the active, intellectual world of the will. To understand the workings of the given, associated both with the unconscious and with death, I turn to recent work by Daniel Tiffany on the role of obscurity in poetry. This will allow me, in turn, to consider in detail Doty’s "Nocturne in Black and Gold," the penultimate poem in his 1995 book, Atlantis, which explores leave taking in the form of an embodiment of shadow. Beginning with its epigraph from St. Augustine, "Shadow is the queen of colors," the poem investigates the color and substance of shadow or nothingness via an engagement with three sources: Whistler’s painting, after which the poem is titled, Keats’s notion of a happiness of the moment, and the figure of the Queen of the Night from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
Doty’s comment on the beginning of "Endymion" is only a page and a half long with two additional pages of illustrations, one of the first manuscript page of Keats’s poem and the other, a deathbed portrait of Keats by Severn, addressed to John Taylor from Rome, January 21, 1825. Brief though the commentary is, it gives us certain clues about these large-scale questions of beauty and about how Doty’s reading of Keats is relevant for his own poetics. The gist of the commentary is the idea that the "process of drafting a poem is . . . a conversation between what arises and what’s willed, between the given and the made" (233). Doty traces this conversation through the opening lines, noting first the boyish self-confidence of Keats’s handwriting, which announces his epic ambitions, followed by the unblotted first lines, lines that show no hesitation or reconsideration. As Doty notes, "These first lines have the quality of swimming up unbidden out of the dark, arriving startlingly whole, alive with ‘quiet breathing’." These qualities lead him to conclude that "these words have been said, again and again, first in the chambers of maiden thought, subtlest inner speech beginning to find its form in the muscle of the tongue and jaw, in the ear . . . " (233). It’s worth noting here the relationship between what Keats’s beginning lines actually say and Doty’s sense of their etiology. Keats insists, in these famous lines, that beauty will survive, even increase in magnitude, in the face of nothingness: "A thing of beauty is a joy forever: / Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness" (1-3). In locating the origin of this poetry in the dark, aligned with the physical, almost pre-linguistic production of speech, Doty in effect sees poetry as arising from the very nothingness which Keats’s things of beauty are meant to triumph over. One is left to wonder whether the origin of poetic speech in this darkness is not essential to the way the beauty it becomes resists the return to these origins, a point I will return to shortly.
Keats’s next lines elaborate how the shapes of beauty resist darkness:
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. (6-13)
Doty traces in these lines the shift from Keats’s confident beginning to the first instances of the maker at work in revision. The first evidence of major reconsideration in these lines, the first interruption of the flow of the given, occurs at line 10 where "days" replaces "ways"; shortly thereafter Keats more boldly crosses out a line and two half lines. Doty sees this corrective passage as one that comes "as if in response to this incursion of darkness, and to the poem’s brief list of those glooms that beauty resists. . . . Here is the first visible sign of Keats the technician making adjustments in the stream of music that intuition produces" (233). As Doty notes, Keats’s instances are both "celestial and earthbound," external as well as the internal workings of the imagination. He concludes his brief excursion through "Endymion’s" opening lines by summing up their prevailing movement: "Where the poem began in a great claim—a given one, welling up in clear firm penmanship out of the darkness of unconscious song—now it has moved toward an even larger one, held up to us in the light of conscious making" (235).
This interchange between the given and the made that Doty sketches out in Keats might be understood to reproduce, in a different vocabulary, a notion of the lyric articulated by Blanchot and recently given new form in an essay by Daniel Tiffany, "Lyric Substance: On Riddles, Materialism, and Poetic Obscurity." Tiffany looks at the relationship between philosophical materialism and lyric poetry, particularly the problem of literary obscurity. He takes riddles as a paradigmatic case study of the obscurity of lyric in general. The riddle "simultaneously illuminates and obscures its object" (80), allowing the object to speak, yet veiling its identity in mystery through language itself. Tiffany turns to Blanchot’s theory of literature in order to understand the obscurity or darkness of both objects and lyric poetry. In "Two Versions of the Imaginary," Blanchot argues that there are two versions of the image (or the imaginary), the ideal and the material. These are produced by the way that literature negates the world. Tiffany points out that this idea has its origins in a Heideggerian notion of the world, specifically,
as the effect of a primary negation and idealization of ‘things,’ resulting in the mediated phenomenon we call the ‘world.’ Literature—and more precisely the literary image—thus constitutes a second moment of negation, destroying the world as we know it and exposing us to what cannot be fully grasped, that is, whatever exists in a purely ideal or purely material state. The two versions of the imaginary (namely, the two aspects of the image) therefore correspond to whatever precedes the world (things) and to whatever comes after the world (ideas), both of which are equally remote from understanding. (83-84)In distinguishing between the "ideal, transparent and meaningful aspect" of language and the material, "obscure and meaningless" (84) aspect, Blanchot emphasizes the way the material image is connected to the figure of the cadaver. As Tiffany demonstrates, the strangeness of the image is parallel to and figured by the strangeness of the cadaver.
The cadaverous aspect of the image is the remains of the world after its negation by words: ‘what is left behind is precisely this cadaver, which is not of the world either—even though it is here—which is rather behind the world . . . and which now affirms, on the basis of this, the possibility of a world-behind, a return backwards.’ The analogy of the corpse thus depicts the resistance to understanding—the backwardness—of the orphic measure and of things prior to the ‘world.’ (84)Though the cadaver, for Blanchot, exists on the side of the material rather than the ideal image, he does not regard it either as a thing or as an object. Instead, "the corpse is continually transformed by ‘infinite erosion’ and ‘imperceptible consumption,’ properties that emphasize its partial and unstable identity and that help to explain its aesthetic allure" (84). The beauty of the corpse is signified as a "‘luminous formal halo’," its substance at once palpable and an invisible irradiation, beautiful and yet indistinguishable from "what exists prior to, or behind the world" (85).
Turning back now to Doty and Keats, we might say that Doty’s characterization of Keats’s opening lines as "swimming up unbidden out of the dark" (233), as a physical gesture, locates Keats’s poetic origins clearly on the side of Blanchot’s material image. Throughout his work Doty repeatedly traces the incursions of darkness, gloom and obscurity as they push against the shapes of beauty, suggesting that these powers are ultimately not mortal opposites but partners in a single project. The conversation between the given and the made, the material and ideal aspects of the image, inevitably turns to the backwardness of poetry itself, to the Orphic glance back towards the "essential night" (84), which is contained moment by moment within and by the measure of language. Curiously, and perhaps by no decision of Doty’s, his brief Keats essay is accompanied not only by the illustration of the manuscript page but by Severn’s deathbed portrait of Keats. Keats’s head is clearly surrounded by a halo, seen as a dark shadow behind his head. Alternatively, since Keats’s head is curiously disembodied (though his body is faintly outlined), one might view the whole whiteness of the surrounding page as a kind of second halo. In any case, the text and its illustrations give the impression that the conversation between the unwilled and unconscious obscurity of the given and the made takes place not only within Keats’s text but in the relationship between the two poets, in the very act of reading itself.
From My Alexandria (1993) forward, each of Mark Doty’s books has, at some level, attempted to deal with the illness and death of his lover, Wally Roberts, in 1994. Atlantis, published in 1995, is a book preoccupied with a particular stage in this process, the coming death and the questions attendant upon that anticipation—what’s the nature of the body, the meaning of death, the future, the nature of constancy and change, the significance of gesture, the efficacy of language and the place of beauty. The final section of the book turns explicitly to the problem of description, an issue already identified in the opening poem of the book, "Description," which concludes: "What is description, after all, / but encoded desire? // And if we say / the marsh, if we forge/ terms for it, then isn’t it // contained in us, / a little, / the brightness?" (5). The question marks are telling and they help underline the skepticism stated earlier in the poem about the validity of the time-honored claim that one understands the universal through the particular. In contrast, the speaker writes: "what I need to tell is / swell and curve, shift // and blur of boundary, / tremble and spilling over, / a heady purity distilled // from detail" (4). Indeed, this middle ground, between universal and particular, the realm of details on the boundaries and margins of definition, is what Doty explores at length in Atlantis, spurred on by the sense that description is the only possible activity in the face of coming death. As he writes in "Two Ruined Boats," "Description is itself a kind of travel, / and I can study all day in an orient / of color. . . . // That’s all I can do, describe. // I’ve nowhere else to go, nothing else / to make" (90). The final section of the book, beginning with "Fog Argument," and including "Nocturne in Black and Gold," examines the poetics of description, especially the "gorgeous disarray" (91) of conditions of dissolution or marginality. Doty sees into that veil "between this life and the next, / now and ever" (101), his acts of description marking the temporal locus of the body, even as it moves into a nowhere, an obscurity, that is, by conventional definition, beyond language.
The geography of these poems is rife with the "infinite erosion" and "imperceptible consumption" that Blanchot and Tiffany associate with the cadaver. The first section of "Fog Argument" talks about the speaker’s all too self-assured assertion that "Of course I know it [the salt marsh] ends" and his observation that from his vantage point, "here," the "blond acres / vanish at the rim // into the void, / a page on which anything // might be written, / though nothing is" (83). This site, the vanishing rim, is significantly, a site of writing, at once identified as such and thwarted. Similarly, in the second poem of "Fog Argument," "Beach Roses," Doty uses the image of the luminescent white sea roses, layered over a picture of clouds broken into "fourteen gleaming islands / hurrying across a blank plain of sheen: / nothing or next to nothing // —pure scattering, light on light, / fleeting" (85). The obscurity of death, its precise onset as indefinite as the white roses—"when they are almost nothing, / only a little denser than the fog, // shadow-centered petals blurring, / toward the edges, into everything" (85)—is here given, like Blanchot’s cadaver, a halo, a sheen. Rather than fending off death, Doty moves ever further into the beauty of this void. Having looked with the reader into the penumbral sheen, Doty dares the reader to "talk / as if death were a line to be crossed." Then, instead, he urges: "Look at them, the white roses. / Tell me where they end" (85).
Having provided some context for "Nocturne in Black and Gold" within this suite of poems, I want to turn to the poem itself. The title is indebted to Whistler’s "Nocturne in Black and Gold," subtitled, "The Falling Rocket." It was Whistler’s most famous painting because of the controversy it aroused, stemming from Ruskin’s derogatory comments about it and the subsequent lawsuit. Whistler exhibited the painting at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 and Ruskin’s response, recorded in Fors Clavigera, was highly inflammatory: "I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face" (Holden 38). Whistler sued Ruskin for libel, winning the case; however, he received only a farthing in damages, far too little to cover his hefty legal costs and he was forced into bankruptcy. The painting takes as its subject the fireworks display in the Cremorne Gardens in London. On a representational level, Whistler frames the central fireworks explosion, to which the eye is immediately drawn in a strong vertical thrust, with a tree on the left and three onlookers painted in the foreground. The area surrounding the figures is painted in warm tones that are visually echoed by the fireworks (Harden; Holden 38). However, the dominant tonality of the painting is the nocturnal black and grays of the evening in smoke and fog-like atmosphere.
Though Doty does not name the Whistler painting until the end of the third stanza, the opening description could easily apply to any number of Whistler paintings:
Tonight the harbor’sIn the preceding poem, "March," the speaker refers to some gulls on an icy pond as posing "for Whistler, a composition in twenty aspects // of gray" (24-25). "Nocturne" starts from a similarly painterly situation, a space where Doty composes the warm gray air through material textures, "mourning dove, moleskin, gabardine," more than through colors per se. Or, put differently, color here is never abstract, but is always a feature of bodily presence. The bay itself is "black unguent," suggesting a sense of thickness, of paint as gooey and substantive as ointment. As Doty notes a few lines later, the viewer can barely make out any objects in the "Nocturne," "or rather there are no solids, // only fields of shimmer,/ fitful integers of gleam, / traces of a rocket’s shatter, // light troubling a shiver of light" (12-16). The very substance of the black and gray paint, a substance characterized by its activity, its shimmer and gleam, make it possible to imagine the harbor as "one lustrous wall," a type of vision that Whistler clearly sought in his paintings and that Doty was drawn to both in the sheen of white sea roses and the glimmer of a night canvas. Black and white, whether Keatsian halos, or the textures of the natural or painterly worlds, figure not so much as opposites as constantly shifting negative space for a single engagement with a looking into the void.
one lustrous wall, the air a warm gray
—mourning dove, moleskin, gabardine—
blurring the bay’s black unguent. (1-4)
Doty calls attention to Whistler’s ideas of painting in this opening description; the "one lustrous wall" acts as both the painterly canvas and the harbor scene at hand. Two aspects of Whistler’s painting practice and theory are relevant here: his foregrounding of darkened light as a way of eliminating superfluous detail in favor of major shapes and his definition of the canvas as a two-dimensional surface, i.e., as a "lustrous wall." These and other ideas about what painting should do were part of Whistler’s reasons for undertaking the lawsuit against Ruskin. The trial provided him with an opportunity to put before the public his ideas about art. During the trial he did not refer to his paintings as such but called them "‘arrangements,’ ‘nocturnes’ and even ‘a problem that I attempt to solve’" (Harden). Rather than seeing the canvas as defined by linear perspective, carefully arranged receding planes, and clearly defined objects, Whistler asked that the viewer imagine space as the two dimensional surface of the painting. A third dimension could be suggested beyond the picture frame, "but the artist’s primary job was to organize flat shapes on this flat surface" (Holden 17), a conception that makes the canvas into a type of poetic page. The result was a highly organized geometry that used the four sides of the canvas and the linear features of objects on the canvas to create an "arrangement" that allowed the beholder to perceive a dynamism of shapes in relation. The monochromatic effect of these nocturnes, ostensibly almost entirely of grays and blacks, but which are actually made up of many tiny daubs of color, read out all distracting detail in favor of a movement of large shapes. This effect is true even of his more radical portraits, of which he wrote: "‘As the light fades and the shadows deepen all petty and exacting details vanish, everything trivial disappears, and I see things as they are in great strong masses: the buttons are lost, but the sitter remains; the garment is lost, but the sitter remains; the sitter is lost, but the shadow remains; the shadow is lost, but the picture remains. And that, night cannot efface from the painter’s imagination’" (quoted without attribution in Holden 16). This passage suggests not only Whistler’s ambition to rid painting of conventional subject matter and detail but also that the painting, finally, has the stubborn capacity to endure because of its reduction to the facticity of its material existence. Whistler conceives the act of painting as fending off "night." While Doty may be less certain of art’s ability to triumph over night, he is clearly, like Whistler (and Keats), drawn to the surface or page gleaming in darkness on the brink of dissolution.
The speaker closes out the description of Whistler’s "Nocturne" with a move that takes us from the descriptive, visual surface to a state of consciousness, a move that would, no doubt, have been much to Whistler’s liking since his expectation was that his audience should be much more active viewers of his paintings than of conventional art works. "If the painting will not reach out and collar him, then the viewer must step forward—into the picture, if you will—and immerse himself in its atmosphere" (Holden 16). This is exactly what the next few lines enact: "Fogged channels, a phantom glow / on the face of this harbor, // midway between form and void, / without edges, hypnagogic" (17-20). The speaker here not only enters the painted scene, the "fogged channels," he enters the middle ground between form and the void. The canvas, like the cadaver, creates a luminous formal halo, allowing us to see into the darkness of death.
Turning from impressions of Whistler’s canvas, Doty’s speaker in "Nocturne" addresses the reader, making the language of night into an act of listening (one cannot help but hear the echoes of "Darkling I listen . . . " from Keats’s "Ode to a Nightingale"): "Listen, I carry myself // like a cigarette lighter / wrapped between hands in the dark / and so feel at home in the huge // indefinition of fog, the same / sort of billowing I am: charcoal, black on black, / matte on velveteen, a hurrying sheen // on gleaming docks" (21-28). The speaker locates himself, not over against the dark, but within it, part of its indefinition and billowing, but also as a light within the darkness. This indefinite place is also presented as a series of textured surfaces, again connecting the speaker’s experience with Whistler’s characteristic canvas constructions and to the act of making itself.
The act of listening in the dark takes the speaker directly into Keats who seems to emerge unbidden from the shadows, as if the act of gazing into the darkness brought him to the surface. Juxtaposed to the conclusion of the Whistler description, Keats arrives midway through line 28: "on gleaming docks. Keats: If a sparrow / come before my Window / I take part in its existence // and pick about the Gravel" (28-31). The Keats quotation comes from his letter to Benjamin Bailey, dated November 22, 1817, a letter preoccupied with the relation between truth and beauty. Towards the conclusion of the letter, Keats turns to the question of worldly happiness, asserting that it cannot be counted on. "I look not for it if it be not in the present hour—nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights—or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existince [sic] and pick about the Gravel" (I: 186). Doty’s speaker takes this assertion as a principle, almost a justification, for an argument against the fear of death. Having arrived, via Whistler, at a self-definition parallel to the indefinite billowing of the fog, he argues via Keats that if one immerses oneself in whatever appears before one at the moment, it shall be sufficient for the moment. Perhaps Keats would have been more comfortable with the notion that the moment would be filled with sunsets or sparrows; nonetheless, Keats’s own poetry and letters make it clear enough that he did not eschew entering the darkness of a given moment. Indeed, it is a hallmark of the highest poetic gift, defined by Keats in his letter to George and Thomas Keats written a month after the letter to Bailey, as Negative Capability, i.e., "when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason" (I: 193). Such uncertainty leads, for Keats, not to pessimism or skepticism but to the conclusion "that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration." Doty prolongs his moment of being in dark uncertainty into an extended meditation on the beauty and allure of this moment. "Having been a thousand things," he asks, "why not be endless?" (36-37). The answer is given by one of the great performers of the dark, Mozart’s Queen of the Night.
For Doty, the Queen of the Night, besides inhabiting the shadows, is important as a vocal performer. In a 1994 interview with Mark Klein, Doty talks about his fascination with divas and drag: "In Wayne Koestenbaum’s book The Queen’s Throat, he talks about the diva—that diva-dom has nothing to do with one’s gender, that it’s an attitude, a kind of fabulousness, a grand vocal performance" (Klein 131). He gives as an example of how the diva has influenced his work another poem from Atlantis, "Couture." But "Nocturne" is, in a more complicated way, also about grand vocal performance with the Queen as a kind of Orpheus figure in drag. As such she occupies the roles of both Orpheus and Eurydice, acting as the subject of song and the song’s singer as well as the unseen denizen of hell’s depths and night’s self-proclaimed beholder. Like Blanchot’s cadaver, the Queen is a figure constantly teetering between erosion and consumption, pointing towards "what exists prior to, or behind the world" (Tiffany 85; see paragraph 5 above). Her vocalization of the night, of shadow, allows her to be, ultimately, not only the Queen of the Night but, as Augustine would have it, the queen of colors. To see how and why this happens requires several steps.
Within the context of The Magic Flute, the Queen is clearly aligned with the forces of the dark side. Yet her second act aria to which Doty refers is one of the most treasured standards of operatic literature, full of vocal complexity and demands, as well as beauty. Evil or not, the listener cannot help but be transfixed by the Queen’s powerful and passionate song. Her work for the dark forces also has important gender overtones. In the mythology underlying the opera’s story, the Queen fights on the side of a matriarchal social order entailing husband sacrifice. She willingly sacrifices successive husbands in order to guarantee the successful enthronement of her daughter, Pamina. Not surprisingly, this state of affairs is not allowed to continue and the matriarchal order is broken by a rebelling husband. Sarastro takes the precaution of protecting Pamina, the matriarchal heir, so that she will wed his successor, "thus re-establishing the old link between night and day on a new and proper patriarchal footing" (Mann 2). To be sure, the defeat of the Queen does not mean the eradication of female beauty and power but rather its "proper" placement within a social philosophy emphasizing "stability and tolerance and discretion." The Queen will "not be destroyed but merely changed" (Mann 3).
Doty’s interest in the Queen stems from both the given and the made. Her essential alliance with the pre-linguistic, pre-civilized matriarchy (as a kind of eighteenth-century Fury) aligns her with the unbidden darkness of the given, while the Queen’s (and Mozart’s) musical virtuosity creates a highly crafted voice that powerfully and unabashedly sings of the dark underworld. In other words, she is like Eurydice who is, according to Blanchot, "the limit of what art can attain; concealed behind a name and covered by a veil, she is the profoundly dark point towards which art, desire, death, and the night all seem to lead. She is the instant in which the essence of the night approaches as the other night" (99). But she is also like Orpheus in her containment and expression of that night through the order and "measured space" (Blanchot 103) of her song. Her Act 2 aria open with these words: "The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart; / death and despair flame around me!" (Schikaneder). The Queen gives us, if not darkness visible, then at the very least, darkness audible.
In vocalizing darkness audible, the Queen has much in common with the black drag queen vocalist of "Chanteuse" from Doty’s 1993 volume, My Alexandria. Though not ostensibly a poem focused on night or nothingness—indeed the only blackness is the singer him-/herself—the poem plays repeatedly on the refrain, "name the colors." In a reversal of "Nocturne" the Augustinian shadow is approached here through color and the shadow is the looming possibility of the failure of self-invention and memory. The drag queen sings against or into this shadow:
As she invented herself, memory revisesThe chanteuse and the Queen of the Night occupy unstable gender positions, in both cases exposing the cultural rather than natural underpinnings of gender categories. At the same time, their play with, even erasure of, gender boundaries is a form of negative capability that is psycho-social as well as artistic. By the end of "Chanteuse," the speaker emphatically and possessively names the features of the city the singer has restored to him through her song/memory, but the list includes the singer’s very self, characterized as both false (an illusion) and splendid. The language seems to anticipate "Nocturne in Black and Gold" in its description of the haze, glow and skyrockets of the cityscape.
and restores her, and the moment
she sang. I think we were perfected,
when we became her audience,
and maybe from that moment on
it didn’t matter so much exactly
what would become of us.
I would say she was memory. (97-103)
. . . my Alexandria,This vocal performance has harnessed the details of memory and made them into song but, at the same time, one cannot help but realize that the steady accumulation of detail, reminiscent of the Kantian sublime, verges constantly on dissolution. The emphatic "my" plays against the sense of threatened dissolution beyond the edges of the vocal moment. Similarly, Doty describes the Queen of the Night as a voice so spectacular that "this isn’t a voice at all; / she’s become an instrument, an instant’s pure // erasure, essence slipped / into this florid scatter" (43-47). Just as the magnitude of the sublime comes from the unrealized threat of obliteration, the Queen’s vocalization of night is so complete as to exceed voice itself. She enters a realm of boundlessness which the speaker, a few lines later, tries on "like mutable, starry clothes" (59-60). The erasure of voice brings with it, not a disappearance but the embodiment of this night or nothing. Though the Queen’s voice is a "dizzying pour / . . . a voice becoming no one" (68-69), and "no longer even human" (76), it’s also "a gilt thread raveling/ in the dark" (77-78).
my romance, my magnolia
distilling lamplight, my backlit glory
of the wigshops, my haze
and glow, my torch, my skyrocket,
my city, my false,
my splendid chanteuse. (108-114)
"Evanescent / and indelible" recalls Blanchot’s language for the cadaver who is continually transformed through "infinite erosion" and "imperceptible consumption" while wearing the luminous halo, here suggested through the "gilt thread" of the Queen’s voice. To be contained by the formal song means that this night, which is inherently boundless, is itself enclosed and bound, directed by the powers of order and law. Orpheus’s real freedom, Blanchot argues, comes in his gaze which breaks these codes, setting night into its full boundlessness. Through this act, Orpheus is no longer concerned with his work or himself. "In this decision, the origin is approached by the force of the gaze, which sets free the essence of the night, removes concern, interrupts the incessant by revealing it: a moment of desire, unconcern, and authority" (Blanchot 104). It’s important not to underestimate Blanchot’s claim here. He argues not that song is a compensatory gesture for the loss of the beloved and the immersion into the "other" night but that Orpheus’s gaze, his unconcern, entails precisely a forgetting of the work. "Orpheus’ gaze is Orpheus’ ultimate gift to the work, a gift in which he rejects the work, in which he sacrifices it by moving towards its origin in the boundless impulse of desire, and in which he unknowingly still moves towards the work, towards the origin of the work" (102-103).
Just as Orpheus’s gaze back at Eurydice is a kind of forgetting, Doty’s imagined drag performance of the Queen of the Night is at once an act of erasure or forgetting and an act which consecrates his desire for his beloved. Through this song the poet both names the loss of the beloved, his erosion into nothingness, and, through a complete vocal erasure, gives up his own work / poem. Freed of himself, the speaker can finally do what the poem from the outset has been about—take leave of his lover. With the poet freed of his own concern, the sacredness of desire is given back to itself (see Blanchot 104). Indeed, the speaker turns directly from the vocal vanishing of the Queen, "at once evanescent / and indelible," to a direct address to his beloved: "Love, // little pilot flame, flickering, / listen: I’ve been no one / so many times I’m not the least afraid" (97). While the earlier, "Listen," at line 21 seems to be addressed to the reader, and only retrospectively to the lover, here the address is unambiguous and the description of the boundless place of death is no longer frightening.
No one’s here,The claim is a call to death, a call to freedom, a call to origins, to a "here" that is "unfettered / freshness, atmosphere / and aria, an aspect of fog, // manifest, and then dissolving, / which you could regret / no more than fog" (98-99). This is the place of negative capabilities, a living manifestation and dissolution without the impulse to resolve the erasure of distinctions.
or hardly anyone, and how strangely
Free and fine it is
to be laved and extended, furthered
in darkness (91-95)
Having articulated the bay’s claim, the speaker closes with his own directive to his lover:
A brave candling theoryThe lover, now figured as the lamplight, a transformed version of the "ghosts of lamps" (6), the cigarette lighter (22), "the trawler’s winking candles" (54), and the "gilt thread" (77) from earlier passages in the poem, is set free like shimmer. The opening of the poem locates lamplight within the darkness of the "lustrous wall," which is the subject of Whistler’s painting as well as the canvas or page itself, both the scene of the poem and the place of writing/painting/singing.
I’m making for you,
little lamplight; believe,
and ripple out free
as shimmer is. Go.
Don’t go. Go. (106-111)
- These flickering lamps, the lamps of memory gained by living in the forgetfulness of the darkened glance, achieve by the poem’s end a sense of intimacy restored, similar to the effect Doty sees in his much beloved Dutch still life paintings. He calls the world of these paintings the realm of the "ordinary sublime":
Sometimes I think these paintings seem full of secrets, full of unvoiced presences. And surely one of their secrets—somewhere close to their essence—lies in a sense of space that is unique to them. These things exist up close, against a background of burnished darkness. No wide vistas open behind them, no far-flung landscapes, no airy vastnesses of heaven. This is the space of the body, the space of our arms’ reach. There is nothing before us here we could not touch, were these things not made of paint. The essential quality of them is their nearness. (SLOL 55)Like the Dutch paintings, Whistler, Keats and Mozart use the canvas, the poem and the song to create a space of burnished darkness. While one might say the scope of Mozart and Keats is larger than the subject matter of the Dutch still life paintings, Doty nonetheless mines their darkness for a similar intimacy through an Orphic erasure of identity that creates the possibility of memory. Doty argues that Dutch still lifes are much more like poetry than they are like portrait painting. In contrast to portrait painting where our seeing stops with the eyes of the painting’s subject, in still life "there is no end to our looking, which has become allied with the gaze of the painter" (SLOL 51). While physical death means the end of gazing at the beloved in an immediate sense, the speaker’s vocal erasure, resulting from his gaze into darkness, relights the lamps of memory. The wavering commands that conclude the poem, "Go. / Don’t go. Go" (110-111), much like the triple "Adieu" of "Ode to a Nightingale," suggest neither indecision nor regret but a living in uncertainty. Doty’s Atlantis volume is full of images of such burnished surfaces. As he makes clear in his poem on Van Gogh’s "Four Cut Sunflowers, One Upside Down," the nocturne of the given and the "argent and gold" of the made create the shine, the burnished darkness, the luminosity "of what’s living hardest" (35).
They are a nocturneThe darkness audible of "Nocturne in Black and Gold" and the burnished darkness of these paintings is the nexus of the given and the made, the constructed, formal language built always in the face of mutability and death. The necessary, Orphic sacrifice entailed by the poet’s negatively capable gaze into nothingness, far from enervating the poet, brings him most fully to beauty and to life.
in argent and gold, and they burn
with the ferocity
of dying (which is to say, the luminosity
of what’s living hardest). Is it a human soul
the painter’s poured
into them—thin, beleaguered old word,
but what else to call it?
Evening is overtaking them.
In this last light they are voracious. (26-35)
Blanchot, Maurice. "The Gaze of Orpheus." The Gaze of Orpheus. Trans. Lydia Davis. Ed. P. Adams Sitney. Barrytown: Station Hill P, 1981. 99-104.
Doty, Mark. Atlantis. New York: Harper, 1995.
---. "Here in Hell." <http://www.bostonreview.net/BR23.3/doty.html>
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---. My Alexandria. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
---. "Rooting for the Damned." In The Poet?s Dante. Ed. Peter Hawkins, Rachel Jacoff. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001. 370-379.
---. Still Life with Oysters and Lemon. Boston: Beacon, 2001.
Harden, Mark. "James McNeill Whistler." www.glyphs.com/art/whistler/.
Holden, Donald. Whistler Landscapes and Seascapes. Washington, D.C.: Watson-Guptill, 1969.
Kaufman, Robert. "Negatively Capable Dialectics: Keats, Vendler, Adorno, and the Theory of the Avant-Garde." Critical Inquiry 27 (Winter 2001): 354-384.
Keats, John. Complete Poems. Ed. Jack Stillinger. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U P, 1978.
---. The Letters of John Keats. Ed. Hyder Rollins. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1958.
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1 The manuscripts are by Anne Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Burns, Byron, Heine, Keats, Poe, Pope, Swinburne and Tennyson. The commentators, besides Doty, are McHugh, Hudgins, Kizer, Longenbach, Simic, C. K. Williams, Corn, Graham, Howard, Hollander, and Hecht.
2 In a 1998 essay replying to Harold Bloom, Doty argues against a notion of aesthetic autonomy: "The idea of aesthetic autonomy is a fantasy. It’s like going into a flower shop and believing that the flowers you buy have no qualities but color and shape, that they exist only to be arranged. The flowers have a local habitation and a name; they grew in specific places; they have characteristics, relations, histories. In their fields and their foliage, in their particular situations, the flowers are elements of a world. Who named them, hybridized them, grew them, sold them? Who owned the land? Who decided which were desirable? The flower arrangement is pretty, but the poetry resides in the whole complicated story, the web of relations.
The aesthetic is not now and never has been autonomous. If it were, no poetry would be possible but language poetry, which denies the validity of representation and questions the very notion of subjectivity. To represent is to enter into a pact with the devil, with the powers of this world: it is to let the world help write the poem." ("Here in Hell")
3 Severn’s deathbed portrait of Keats can be seen on at least two web sites:
4 The Whistler painting can be viewed on the internet at several sites but two particularly good representations are:
1) http://www.dia.org/collections/amerart/tonalism/46.309.html [the Detroit Institute of Art site, where the painting is housed]; and
5 In a 1994 interview, conducted close in time to the finishing of the Atlantis manuscript, Doty talked about Negative Capability in relation to AIDS and writing. "The real shift happened when it became not a subject for me, but a part of my subjectivity, a part of my daily life. To the point that I began to see AIDS almost not as a thing in itself. Is AIDS a thing? It means so much to me that it’s not even a word, that it’s an acronym and therefore has a larger negative capability, as Keats put it" (Klein 21).
6 For a far-reaching discussion of the ghostly leave takings in Keats’s odes, especially their connection to Hamlet, see Kaufman, pp. 372-377. I am also indebted to this article for Kaufman’s very persuasive demonstration of the ways that "constructivism exists in dialectical tension with negative capability" (371), a notion I have tried to pursue here using a somewhat different vocabulary, and for his demonstration of the ways this claim has broader critical resonances with respect to the relationship between formalist and Frankfurt school criticism.