[December 1 is World AIDS Day, an occasion to remember not just the global epidemic overall, but also and especially the individual and communal stories within it. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the commemoration and a few of those stories, leading up to a weekend post on whether and how we can learn from those stories in our own ongoing pandemic moment.]
On three genres through which a preeminent contemporary writer considers art, sexuality, and identity.
1) Poetry: I wrote about two of Mark Doty’s poems, “Faith” (1995) and “Turtle, Swan” (1989), in this long-ago post on Plath, Doty, and the confessional. As I argued there, Doty’s poems, like Plath’s, consistently blend seemingly overt autobiographical moments and themes with dense and ambiguous imagery, offering us glimpses into identity but doing so through a clearly poetic and symbolic lens. As a result, Doty’s poems both have a great deal to tell us about topics like gay identity and the AIDS epidemic and yet resist being read in any overt or straightforward way as social activism or political polemic about those issues. While I’m more familiar with such earlier works of Doty’s than with his subsequent decades of continued and acclaimed poetic production (he won the 2008 National Book Award for Poetry, among many other awards), I have little doubt that his more recent works likewise engage identity questions with the slant perspective that all of the best poetry can provide.
2) Memoir: Each of Doty’s three memoirs—Heaven’s Coast (1996), Firebird (1999), and Dog Years (2007)—represents a distinct version of how this complex genre can engage with identity questions. Firebird is the most conventional autobiographical work, tracing Doty’s early years (mainly between ages 6 and 16) and dealing in particular with his gradual realization of his sexuality. Heaven’s deals in depth with one particular, crucial period and subject, Doty’s multi-layered thoughts after he learns in 1989 that his partner Wally Roberts has HIV. And Dog Years focuses on two longtime canine companions and how they helped Doty cope with his partner’s experiences with that terrible illness, along with many other life challenges and stages. Taken together, these three acclaimed texts form a compelling overall and evolving autobiography, one powerfully linked to issues of sexuality and AIDS but far from solely defined by them.
3) Essay: Doty’s two book-length essays—Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (2001) and The Art of Description (2010)—are seemingly quite distinct from any of these other works. Both concern objects and perception: Still Life through a focus on 17th century Dutch painters; and Description through Doty’s own decades of experiences attempting to “render experience through language.” While these books are different from Doty’s others, both in genre and in focus, they thus also offer a lens on understanding his lifelong writing project, and for that matter the work of all writers. “It sounds like a simple thing, to say what you see,” Doty begins The Art of Description; any of us who write for a living know that doing so is anything but simple, but it’s also a vital part of literature and culture, and across his many decades, genres, and works Mark Doty has consistently managed to bridge the gap and say things that illuminate his and our worlds very powerfully.
Next AIDS story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Stories or histories you’d share?