Poetry review: "Fire to Fire" by Mark Doty

[Congratulations to Mark Doty for winning the 2008 National Book Award for his poetry collection "Fire to Fire." This review of "Fire to Fire" by Elizabeth Lund originally ran in the Monitor on April 15, 2008.]

Mark Doty holds a magnifying glass to his subjects. He uses language as a way to highlight a moment, elevate it, and unearth hidden depth and meaning.

Fire to Fire, his new and selected poems, illustrates how he has done this over the past 20 years.

Striking imagery and a powerful imagination are two of his best tools, as evident in his earliest poems. When Doty writes about an Easter contest in "Ararat," for example (from "Turtle, Swan," 1987), he doesn't recall an egg, but an oval full of glorious possibilities.

What might have coiled inside it?

Crocuses tight on their clock-springs,
a bird who'd sing himself into an angel
in the highest reaches of the garden,
the morning's flaming arrow?

Any small thing can save you.
The descriptions are surprising yet spot-on, and the precise imagery provides the perfect balance for plainer, more conversational phrasing.

Doty seamlessly blends the two, allowing him to pull a reader into the poem, loosen his hold ever so slightly, and then pull him or her in deeper.

As his work matures, Doty becomes adept at balancing sharp, insightful observations with language that ranges from plain to "poetic." He isn't afraid to use words that are multisyllabic or heavy in the mouth.

Nor does he avoid adjectives that might sound precious or inflated in the hands of a less-skilled writer. In "A Display of Mackerel," from "Atlantis," he opens with:

They lie in parallel rows,
on ice, head to tail,
each a foot of luminosity
barred with black bands,
which divide the scales'
radiant sections
like seams of lead
in a Tiffany window.

The lines work because Doty moves from a strong visual – fish – to a more abstract description, and then repeats the process in reverse.

He doesn't let the language get away from him and he continually surprises the reader, as he does a few stanzas later with "Suppose we could iridesce,/ like these, and lose ourselves/ entirely in the universe/ of shimmer."

By transforming an adjective into a verb, Doty helps readers see the scene with fresh eyes, just as he does when he broadens the image in the next three lines.

As "Fire and Ice" progresses, Doty becomes increasingly comfortable with long, layered narratives and complex subjects. The poems feel more intellectual, yet remain grounded in earthy subjects and universal emotions.

Doty never shies away from difficult topics, such as losing his lover and several friends to illness, or from the mundane. He doesn't just describe his dog in "Golden Retrievals," he views the world from the canine's perspective, including a comment on his owner's "haze-headed" behavior.

Doty satisfies the ear and the mind in much of "Fire to Fire." At times his poems become too abstract or overblown, especially the new work. That's when readers will most appreciate – and miss – his ability to reveal moments that they might otherwise have overlooked.

Yet weaknesses aside, both Doty and Oliver use their distinct lenses to illumine the human experience. That, along with their inimitable voices and visions, makes their work not just memorable but necessary.

– Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.

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