The personal & the universal

Mark Doty, the highly esteemed American writer, follows the success of his 2007 New York Times bestselling memoir, Dog Years, with a superb new collection of poetry, Theories and Apparitions.

Mark Doty is an award-winning poet and memoirist. His accolades include: the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, two Lambda Literary Awards and he has the honour of being the only American recipient of the T.S. Eliot Prize — a noteworthy achievement.

Doty is the author of seven previous poetry collections: Turtle Swan (1987), Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (1991), My Alexandria (1995), Atlantis (1996), Sweet Machine (1998), Source (2002) and School of the Arts (2005). Doty’s diverse style extends to memoir writing and in 2007, his memoir Dog Years, was a New York Times bestseller. Doty lives in New York City and Houston, Texas where he is a professor at the University of Houston.

Doty’s impressive body of work has been augmented with the release of his latest collection, Theories and Apparitions. His eloquent and engaging writing is showcased through many subjects and themes, such as the fleeting nature of life, the transient moments of beauty in the quotidian, experiences of the world and modes of communication.

The first poem, Pipistrelle, introduces the reader to Doty’s investigation into the mysterious elements of the world and how knowledge only goes so far, leaving uncertainty and questions. Doty attempts to decode some of these complexities, he comments: “The poems in Theories and Apparitions are trying to spin out the theories and ways of understanding perennial concerns of the Romantic poets. In the collection, there are a number of theories of beauty; there is a Theory of the Soul and a Theory of Marriage, which are about love and exchange. The collection is a homemade enquiry into the nature of reality.”

The poems in Theories and Apparitions are divided into two sections, the investigative poems, which look at major universal themes and poems in which Doty is haunted by visions of poets from the past such as Whitman and Shelley, who appear in unexpected places. The apparitions form a backdrop for the journeys, which Doty embarks on in the theory-based poems. In total there are five Apparitions. In the third Apparition, Doty writes: “That’s the Walt Whitman who has come to look at me, / curiously, on a mild November afternoon on the west side of / Midtown.” A long list from the canon appears, from Homer to Shelley and John Berryman to Alan Dugan. Doty says: “I thought that the apparitions in the book were a way to interrupt the theories. The theories, by nature make a claim on understanding something. I believe what is always in the way of our understanding are the strange new phenomenon that the world presents to us. I think that we live in a very haunted world and the poets make appearances, as if to correct the speaker in the poems, or to challenge him, or to greet him in some way.”

The poets that appear as ghosts have influenced Doty to one degree or another. As an American writer, Doty descends from a lineage of poets who paved the way for him. “Whitman is like my grandfather and I feel as an American poet, my work follows almost directly out of his projects and the doors that he opened. John Berryman, another apparition is a poet that I admire greatly, but has been less important to me, so I was surprised to find him appearing in my work and I think that’s a message to myself; I need to pay attention to him.”

Doty’s ability to mediate on the profound moments in life that co-exist in seemingly mundane situations is inspirational. In Theory of Narrative, Juan, a taxi driver begins: “Oh, you’re a writer, I’m a writer, too, Juan says, / I write novels, I’ve written eight of them, I’ll tell you one.” Throughout the journey to the airport in Leon, Juan bombards his passengers with stories ranging from a family tale to a moral fable, holding his passengers hostage on their long journey.

Theories and Apparitions allows the reader space to ponder daily experiences. Ideas that emerge from reading the book continue to reappear long after closing its pages. One overarching theme throughout the collection is the nature of communication. Doty listens to cicadas, Handel and to the calling of birds. He adds: “It’s a book that is concerned with the act of speaking, from the bat uttering in the ear of the narrator in Pipistrelle, Juan, the taxi driver is talking away and the frogs are speaking in the marshes. There is a lot of talking, but there might not be very much listening going on. I became fascinated with the complicated fabric of communication that was weaving itself around me.”

Doty has a remarkable ability to connect the reader to a moment, with his evocative and sensory writing. He catapults the reader from the specificity of that moment to engage with deeper thoughts about the broad spectrum of human behaviour and the contradictory states of being. This is exemplified in Citizens, when a truck with “unnecessary red gleam — roars onto the avenue from 20th / the driver turns his wheels inches from my knees.” This incident leaves Doty with thoughts of retaliation and questioning what it means to be a citizen, “and what kind of citizen / does this thought make me exactly, quivering and flummoxed / by contradictory impulses: to give a speech on empathy / or fling my double latte / across his back windshield.” Doty explains: “These are all experiences, where as a citizen of the world, one has only a certain degree of agency, stuff happens to you and the question of how you respond to those things when you find yourself powerless and uncertain of what is going on is telling.” This parallel state of anger and responsibility is something that everyone experiences; it’s just the scale, or type of the situation that differs from the microcosm of daily life to global concerns.

In Theory of the Soul, Doty goes to the doctor for an allergy test and blacks out for ten minutes after being injected with allergens. During this lost time, he experiences an internal dialogue with his friend, Claudia. It’s this act of “speaking” to Claudia when she’s not present, but finding comfort in her essence or memory, which is universal. In moments of hope, fear or joy we always have friends or family with us. Doty says: “As a paradox, you don’t become universal by trying to be universal, but by becoming more personal. My internalisation of my friend Claudia is an admission of a personal quirk, but because the poem admits this, you as the reader, find that you do that too. This shared characteristic reaches for a connection by going further into the self instead of attempting to turn outwards.”

Theories and Apparitions is a remarkable collection. It forces readers to look at the personal and the universal, and asks the question, are we truly individuals or part of some collective whole?

As ever, Mark Doty will be creating. His current project is a new work of prose about Walt Whitman, which investigates his work, life and concerns. However, this will not be just a biography or a book of literary criticism, but instead a memoir of Doty’s relationship with Walt Whitman — another exciting addition to Doty’s oeuvre.

Theories and Apparitions is available in all good bookshops. Published by Jonathan Cape.

Shona Fairweather