The words 'HIV Positive' and 'Aids' do not appear in the poems in Mark Doty's My Alexandria (1995); instead, they hover in the spaces between the other words, and they govern the tone of almost every poem. Now, with the appearance of Heaven's Coast: A Memoir, we know that Doty's boyfriend Wally Roberts was dying slowly from Aids when these poems were being written. Doty also kept a diary during that time, some of which he quotes in the memoir. Heaven's Coast deals with each change in Wally's illness; the book is a charting of the mixture of the mundane and the miraculous, if I can use that word, in the manner of Wally's dying. Thus the poems don't need to tell the story, they don't depend on the medical details or the days when things happened. They seek instead, desperately, to find images and rhythms which will make sense of this illness, a scheme which can accommodate this illness, however fitfully and sadly. They seek to describe the world in all its wonder, as though it were the world which were being slowly eaten away by this disease, as though it were nature itself that would soon disappear and would not come back. In the first poem in My Alexandria, 'Demolition', Doty invokes the ghost of Robert Lowell: many of the poems take their bearings from Lowell's clotted diction, from what Doty calls his 'ruthless energy', from Lowell's interest in burning the poem onto the page, heaping on adjectives to fuel the fire, invoking the Old Testament; writing, if he possibly could, his own Old Testament.
LRB 6 February 1997 | PDF Download