Sweet Machine: Poems

Sweet Machine: Poems

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by Mark Doty

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Mark Doty's last two award-winning collections of poetry, as well as his acclaimed memoir Heaven's Coast, used the devastation of AIDS as a lens through which to consider questions of loss, love and identity. The poems in his new collection, Sweet Machine, see the world from a new, hard-won perspective: A coming back to life, after so much

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Mark Doty's last two award-winning collections of poetry, as well as his acclaimed memoir Heaven's Coast, used the devastation of AIDS as a lens through which to consider questions of loss, love and identity. The poems in his new collection, Sweet Machine, see the world from a new, hard-won perspective: A coming back to life, after so much death, a way of seeing the body's "sweet machine" not simply as a time bomb, but also as a vibrant, sensual, living thing. These poems are themselves "sweet machines"--lyrical, exuberant and joyous--and they mark yet another milestone in the extraordinary career of one of our most distinguished and accomplished poets.

Editorial Reviews

Austin Bunn

It is by no means a slight to call Mark Doty's poetry a sublime form of interior decorating. If anything, color, surface and the particularities of light are the antidote to his harrowing subject matter: the particularities of dying. Both poet and documentarian, Doty is perhaps best known for his deeply moving memoir, Heaven's Coast, about the surrender of his lover, Wally, to an AIDS-related illness in 1995. His four collections of poetry, like the most recent, My Alexandria, and Atlantis (both dedicated to Wally), are equally elegiac. Loosely enjambed paeans to the barnacled trawlers in Provincetown, Mass., and the fabulous resilience of drag shows are haunted by the slow ruin of his longtime companion.

But in his new book, Sweet Machine, Doty makes one telling redaction, and the work hurtles forward from that point on: There is no dedication to Wally. It is a tender omission, for this collection of 30 poems is not about the aftereffects of Wally's passing, but about the new. Wally appears -- or is it radiates? -- only once here, and it is in an early eulogy for one of their friends. Instead, Doty turns toward the immediacy of New York street life, his slavering golden retrievers and, more importantly, his next effulgent romance. "I'm breathing here,/a new man next to me who's beginning/to matter ..." he writes in the courageous "Mercy on Broadway." "Somebody's going to live through this./Suppose it's you?"

It's as if the world and everything in it were blooming. When a ragtag group of his neighbors, "a cloudbank of familiar angels," perform "Messiah" at the local church, Doty muses, "Everything,/the choir insists,/might flame;/inside these wrappings/burns another, brighter life." As a technician, Doty is insatiably hungry for new words, and he conducts them symphonically -- if you miss the meaning, you're still carrying the tune. He studs his lines with "the lavish wardrobe of things": vaporetto, sateen and the mineral truths of marcasite. He's also wise enough to admit it's a fixation. In "Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work," Doty asks (with a rare rhyme), "Glaze and shimmer, luster and gleam,/Can't he think of anything but all that sheen?" Then follows the rejoinder: "No such thing, the queen said, as too many sequins."

But since he has begun to move beyond bereavement, Doty's work has necessarily lost some of its urgency. Like many poets who came to prominence under AIDS and who have also survived (unlike say, Paul Monette), he finds the second act of both his life and art just now developing. In the final sequence of poems, Doty seems to wrestle against his instinct toward the talking cure. He regards the raked skin of a drug-addled teen scratching himself madly on a subway platform and writes, "Moth, plum -- hear how the imagery aestheticizes?" But that language is also his mode of revelation, and the collection is full of it. "What I love about language/is what I love about fog:/what comes between us and things/grants them their shine," he writes in "Fog Suite." To him, that pleasure in illumination is all we've got. And as he says elsewhere, see into what you can. -- Salon

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.29(d)

Read an Excerpt

at century's end,
compounded metallic lusters

in reference
to natural sheens (dragonfly
and beetle wings,

marbled light on kerosene)
and invented names
as coolly lustrous

as their products'
scarab-gleam: Quetzal,
Aurene, Favrile.

respectively, the glaze
of feathers,

that sun-shot fog
of which halos
are composed,

What to make of Favrile,
Tiffany's term

for his coppery-rose
flushed with gold
like the alchemized

atmosphere of sunbeams
in a Flemish room?
Faux Moorish,

fake Japanese,
his lamps illumine
chiefly themselves,

copying waterlilies'
bronzy stems,
wisteria or trout scales;

surfaces burnished
like a tidal stream
on which an excitation

of minnows boils
and blooms, artifice
made to show us

the lavish wardrobe
of things, the world's
glaze of appearances

worked into the thin
and gleaming stuff
of craft. A story:

at the puppet opera
--where one man animated
the entire cast

while another ghosted
the voices, basso
to coloratura--Jimmy wept

at the world of tiny gestures,
forgot, he said,
these were puppets,

forgot these wire
and plaster fabrications
were actors at all,

since their pretense
allowed the passions
released to be--

well, operatic.
It's too much,
to be expected to believe;

art's a mercuried sheen
in which we may discern,
because it is surface,

clear or vague
suggestions of our depths.
Don't we need a word

for the luster
of things whichinsist
on the fact they're made,

which announce
their maker's bravura?
Favrile, I'd propose,

for the perfect lamp,
too dim and strange
to help us read.

For the kimono woven,
dipped in dyes, unraveled
and loomed again

that the pattern might take on
a subtler shading.
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,

for her lush vowels
mouthed by the plain man
hunched behind the stage.

White Kimono
Sleeves of oyster, smoke and pearl,
linings patterned with chrysanthemum flurries,
rippled fields: the import store's

received a shipment of old robes,
cleaned but neither pressed nor sorted,
and the owner's cut the bindings

so the bales of crumpled silks
swell and breathe. It's raining out, off-season,
nearly everything closed,

so Lynda and I spend an hour
overcome by wrinkly luxuries we'd never wear,
even if we could: clouds of--

are they plum blossoms?--
billowing on mauve, thunderheads
of pine mounting a stony slope,

tousled fields of embroidery
in twenty shades of jade:
costumes for some Japanese

midsummer's eve. And there,
against the back wall, a garment
which seems itself an artifact

of dream: tiny gossamer sleeves
like moth wings worrying a midnight lamp,
translucent silk so delicate

it might shatter at the weight
of a breath or glance.
The mere idea of a robe,

a slip of a thing
(even a small shoulder
might rip it apart)

which seems to tremble a little,
in the humid air. The owner--
enjoying our pleasure, this slow afternoon,

in the lush tumble of his wares--
gives us a deal. A struggle, to narrow it
to three: deep blue for Lynda,

lined with a secretive orange splendor
of flowers; a long scholarly gray for me,
severe, slightly pearly, meditative;

a rough raw silk for Wally,
its slubbed green the color of day-old grass
wet against lawn-mower blades. Home,

we iron till the kitchen steams,
revealing drape and luster.
Wally comes out and sits with us, too,

though he's already tired all the time,
and the three of us fog up the rainy windows,
talking, ironing, imagining mulberry acres

spun to this unlikely filament
--nearly animate stuff--and the endless
labor of unwinding the cocoons.

What strength and subtlety in these hues.
Doesn't rain make a memory more intimate?
We're pleased with our own calm privacy,

our part in the work of restoration,
that kitchen's achieved, common warmth,
the time-out-of-time sheen

of happiness to it, unmistakable
as the surface of those silks. And
all the while that fluttering spirit

of a kimono hung in the shop
like a lunar token, something
the ghost of a moth might have worn,

stirring on its hanger whenever
the door was opened--petal, phantom,
little milky flame lifting

like a curtain in the wind
--which even Lynda, slight as she was,
did not dare to try on.

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What People are saying about this

Citation for the Writer Bynner Prize for Poetry awared by the American Academy of Arts and Letters
"Strange paradise, complete with worms', Mark Doty begins a poem. In four collections of poetry, this masterful poet writes elegies so full of life we find our hope restored. Moving, splendidly observant and unflinching, Mark Doty's poems extend the range of the American lyric poem."
Richard Howard
"Having published the first poem and the last, I thought--having read the old poems too--I had known what to expect, but the senses are always new, and Doty's loyalty to them, and to the sense they make, continues to astonish, to enlighten, to console."
Carol Muske
"Mark Doty says, 'What I love about language/is what I love about fog:/what comes between us and things/grants them shine.' What comes between Mark Doty and the things in Sweet Machine is the sheerest translucent membrane of regard, the astonishing gloss of his eye's sweep and pinpoint--his luminous language. Nothing escapes his gaze and nothing--death, devastation, the ghost of a gesture--escapes its sheer insistence on beauty, the world 'lustered by the veil.' Mark Doty is a master, re-painting our sad daily canvas, heightening the gold light, the diffusion, the shocked shattered glass and the artificial bath of attitude, letting us see it all arrayed, as he says, under the 'uncompromising vault of heaven.'"

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