- 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might be seen as out-of-date, in much the same way that Keats’s emphasis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.
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
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’s
In 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.
lustrous wall, the air a warm gray
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
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 revises
The 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.
hardly anyone, and how strangely
and fine it is
to be laved and extended, furthered
Having articulated the bay’s claim, the speaker closes with his own
directive to his lover:
A brave candling theory
The 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,
and ripple out free
shimmer is. Go.
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 nocturne
The 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)