'Fire to Fire'

One of my favorite poets, Mark Doty, is coming to Ashland as part of the Chautauqua Poets & Writers series. While known primarily as a poet, he is also author of several memoirs and essays. Doty's most recent collection of new and selected poems, "Fire to Fire," was a National Book Award winner this year.

I love big, meaty novels that take all summer to read, but with poetry I prefer slim volumes and homemade chapbooks, little treats I can read in one sitting. So, Doty's latest collection was initially daunting. His career spans 20 years and seven books of poetry. I worried that "Fire to Fire" would be too much of a good thing, too overwhelming. One scoop of pecan praline in a sugar cone is delicious, but three is a tummy ache.

Happily, I can say "Fire to Fire" is a rich, but perfectly balanced treat. It starts with Doty's newest poems then moves through selections from each of his previous books, beginning with "Turtle, Swan," first published in 1987. The new poems are delightful, many of them titled as "theories" of various aspects of life. The older poems include some well-loved gems, such as "Golden Retrievals," my 7-year-old son's favorite poem, a sonnet written in the voice of a dog. Also included are "Days of 1981," from the seemingly brief and innocent time before the devastation of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and "The Embrace," a poignant memory of the partner Doty lost to AIDS.

Doty can find inspiration just about anywhere. In the poem "A Green Crab's Shell," he admires its inner shell, "a shocking Giotto blue," and makes a human connection:

"Not so bad, to die,

if we could be opened into this —

if the smallest chambers of ourselves,

similarly,

revealed some sky."

By starting with his most recent work and then moving from his past back to the present, readers can see the gradual evolution of his poetry. While the striking images and keen imagination are always evident, his scope has widened over time, moving from personal reflection to much deeper considerations of beauty and existence. Still, the straightforward love and openness that touches me in Doty's work is present throughout the book. He is a rare writer who can adore the world around him without ever seeming trite and he can elegize his loss without despairing.

One of the best things about reading a new and selected book of poems is all the poems that get missed along the way. In "Fire to Fire" I came across several older poems I'd not read before. I'm adding "Visitation" to my growing list of favorites. In the poem, a whale swims the reader and Doty past grief, toward all the possibilities life offers: "What did you think, that joy/was some slight thing?"

I always feel a little nervous recommending specific poems or poets to people. This doesn't stop me from doing just that, but I do it with trepidation now and then. Poetry can be hit or miss, a leap of faith for both poet and reader that we can crystallize an experience with language, and make sense of daily life with it. I happily recommend Mark Doty's work to everyone, not just poetry fans. His prose and poems are fully accessible and speak to the universal human need to connect with each other and the world around us.

Mark Doty will read and talk about his work Oct. 29 at 7:30 p.m. at the Mountain Avenue Theater. For ticket information visit www.ChautauquaWriters.org or call 482-3632.

Tidings staff writer Vickie Aldous and Tidings correspondent Angela Howe-Decker alternate as author of the weekly column Quills & Queues.

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