In the darkest hour, throw a party

HEAVEN'S COAST by Mark Doty, Cape pounds 16.99 ATLANTIS by Mark Doty, Cape pounds 7
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The world runs on prose but in extremis it turns to poetry. Mark Doty's fine memoir of the life and death of his partner Wally Roberts from Aids meditates long and hard on Whitman's "Song of Myself" and the Book of Job, which seem to get closest to the nature of his grief (much as Dante seemed literally to describe Primo Levi's 20th-century hell).

Sometimes prose itself turns into a kind of poetry, as in Beckett, Scott Fitzgerald, and indeed parts of Heaven's Coast. Doty writes both like Jacob and the angel, wrestling at the foot of the ladder. Though the book began as bits and pieces for specific memorial occasions, "soon I was impelled ... Writing ... to save my life, to catch what could be saved of Wally's life ...The story's my truest possession and I burnish it and wrestle with it to make it whole. In return it offers me back to myself, its embrace and memory larger than mine, more permanent."

This offering of the self back to itself (one of art's central impulses) could have been narcissistic, and indeed Doty's own heroism is often centre stage, alongside Wally's ruinous decay. I realised at the end that I still knew little about its subject's appearance and character, what made him tick; whereas we are saturated in Doty's own (acute) perceptions and emotions. His intense brooding on inner and outer realities, the web of meanings in which the individual life is both trapped and sustained, adds up to the word that hardly dare speak its pre-postmodernist name - wisdom.

The prose and the poems in Atlantis complement each other at many points, the former offering an ample context in which to place the intensities of the verse. Cape Cod, with its marshes, sand dunes, breakwaters, piercing light, and reciprocal diplomacy between land and sea, is the literal setting; Bishop, Lowell and Amy Clampitt the Bloomian or literary one. "What I did most of that year was tramp and tramp, in freezing salt places, cold expanses of beach over which the clouds moved in great luminous shrouds." This great good place, betwixt and between, particular and universal, becomes musical geography:

What is description, after all,

but encoded desire?

And if we say

the marsh, if we forge

terms for it, then isn't it

contained in us,

a little, the brightness?

The same lyric impulse that made his last book of poems, My Alexandria, such a widely-praised success, is at the heart of this new one too, but the joyousness - not surprisingly, perhaps, in the context of his tragedy - is a little more laboured. Blessings are showered on "A Green Crab's Skull", "A Display of Mackerel", sunflowers, breakwaters, early morning New York, lights on water, the Whitmanesque divine body in "Homo Will Not Inherit". Among the best of them are "To the Storm God" (which throws up a waterlogged boat "containing / the uncontainable sea", with minnows darting about like "a pack of embroidery needles / on amphetamines"), and "Crepe de Chine", a poem about the joys of drag.

The earnest declamations about art, however, and lush array of "jewelled adjectives" - everything is gleaming, flashing, iridescent, lavish, voluptuous, exquisite, dazzling, sumptuous - are a little strenuous, over-eager to find sermons in the invigorating pluralism of nature. The juxtaposition of Beethoven and Aids in "Grosse Fuge" is less convincing than the sober account of the difficult Bobby and his illness in Heaven's Coast. The title poem too is more alive in its prose counterpart, especially in the startling love of the two men for their dogs - something which prefigures the transcendent (and weirdly Hughesian) encounter with a coyote which closes the memoir.

Is it sentimental to chirp on about all-things-bright-and-beautiful in the face of Sarajevo, Dunblane, Aids? Evidently not, since each is implicated in the other, as the title of Doty's book suggests. "The weirdness of it is the wisdom of it: in the darkest hour, give a party" - which is what the memorial service for Wally Roberts turned into. Along the way an autobiography of sorts emerges: Doty's early, brief marriage and flight to gay New York, the love affair of his life, the renovation of an old house in Vermont, the refuge in bohemian Provincetown, where the tourists come and go but art and desire go on forever.

The mechanics of illness and care have seldom been better described, nor the baffled indifference of doctors muttering their mantras ("viral activity") or the home helps at the bottom of the medical heap, whose worth is beyond rubies. "In truth it is not Aids I'm writing about, some phenomenon apart from us, but our love, the crack in our lives, and the going on in spite of the rift." He never speculates about the origin of Wally's illness: "As if I cared, as if it mattered, as if it mattered how anybody got it." The anger is understandable, but surely it's not obtuse or homophobic to wonder. If it's going to kill you, it matters. Yet finally it's mortality itself that's at stake here, death-in-life, that algebraic something which "intensifies the degree of what already is".

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