Mark Doty on Desire and Longing

Photo by Nick Doll
Photo by Nick Doll

On Saturday morning, Mark Doty gave a talk on desire and longing, a topic, he admitted, that he was somewhat surprised to have been assigned. When he reviewed his selected poems, however, he said he was also surprised to find that much of his work did deal with desire and longing. Doty said that it was  “daunting to discover one’s own subject,” but nevertheless, in the talk that followed, he read several of his own poems that explored this theme, as well as a few poems by other poets.

To start, Doty picked up a thread discussed the day before: the power of writing to help us “lose the boundary between ourselves and others.” He first read his poem “Difference,” in which the speaker uses shape-shifting jellyfish as a metaphor for language—the way we shape words to objects, the way our mouths shape words, and our desire to name things. After the poem, Doty reflected on how religion and language both often begin in awe, and how our mouths are frequently the way we connect with the world—through our first nourishment and all of it thereafter, through speech, through breath, through signs of affection. There is, he said, “an eros to speaking and naming.”

He next explored giving oneself over to desire in his poem “Tiara.” In explaining the poem, Doty spoke of the “radical invisibility” of being gay, and “the need to give voice to that desire,” as well as the desire of last wishes, and what it means to ask something of others.

In “Messiah (Christmas Portions),” Doty again used the idea of voice as a way of describing the world, this time looking at how song can be a way of pointing to, and to some degree creating, the beauty of our world. The speaker of the poem attends a choral concert at a church, and this prompts a reflection on the power of the communal voice as something greater than the individual voice, and how we are, Doty says, “enlarged by the scale of what we desire.” The beauty we attempt to depict becomes ours to enjoy simply by our attempt to depict it, to give it voice, and in that sense, the beauty afforded to us is limited only to what we can imagine and describe.

From there, Doty read C.P. Cavafy’s “The Afternoon Sun,” a meditation on the desire for past love through the description of common objects. The speaker of Cavafy’s poem reflects on a room he’d once rented and shared with a lover, cataloging all of the things that used to be in the room—a couch, a Turkish carpet, the bed he and his lover shared, the sun that hit it in the afternoon—and supposing “[t]hey must still be around somewhere, those old things.” In discussing the poem, Doty speculates that these things are around somewhere by virtue of the fact that we are hearing this poem.

This desire to know past loves continued in Stanley Kunitz’s poem “Touch Me,” in which the speaker revisits the writings of his younger self in love, marveling at who he was then, and asking his love now to “…Touch me, / remind me who I am.”

Doty then explored desire as craving in “Deep Lane,” a new poem that reflects on the tick’s innate desire for blood, facetiously claiming that our own desire for sustenance, life, and warmth is nothing like the insect’s. This theme of craving continued in another new poem, “Hungry Ghost,” which suggests that we are incomplete without our sense of longing, and that it might persist even after death, “a form of immortality,” Doty said, “to be ravenous, and lack a mouth.”

This notion of grasping and holding on into death came up again in “New Dog,” (part of the longer poem “Atlantis”) in which Doty reflects on his late partner’s desire to adopt a dog in the last months of his life. “How many men want another attachment,” Doty wondered. “How do you continue to love if you know it’ll be gone,” he asked, not just to his partner but to himself, and to all of us. “I write more poems,” Doty said. “I live in the problem.”

For his final poem of the morning, Doty read “Spent,” in which he recounts the story of locking himself out of his house twice in one day, and twice having to climb less than gracefully back in through a window, still holding on to the hydrangeas that he had initially gone outside to pick. Climbing into his house was like being born, Doty told us, wondering also if leaving the world will also come with the same awkwardness and uncertainty. The poem closes with another reflection on desire—not only to be back in one’s home, in one’s world, but to bring back the “bruise-blessed” flowers as well.

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