Vol. 3 No. 2, Summer 1998 (#10)

Sweet Machine by Mark Doty

Sweet Machine

Mark Doty

HarperFlamingo ($12)

by Andrea Holland

But never met this Fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And zero at the Bone

--Emily Dickinson

Mark Doty's poems are written out of longing for what's beautiful in this world: beautiful metal oxides making glass, beautiful turtles in their green bowl sold on Broadway, the crack addict's beautifully chalky skin. But that's not enough for Doty; while some poets settle for clever observation, what Doty sees is only half the story. What the observed do (the turtles, the addict, the glass) is beg the viewer to take another look, a better look, a look inside. His watch may be beautiful to behold, but after Doty describes its golden hands he'll want to show you the mechanics of it. And then, he'll tell you how the ticking makes him feel.

Reducing Doty's work to such a formula is not meant to belittle these bright, insistent poems, but Sweet Machine is, perhaps, a little more obvious than his earlier books. Some critics have found his adjectives irritating--all that glistening, gleaming, shimmering--so it's not surprising to see two poems in this collection called "Concerning Some Recent Criticism of His Work." A little awkward in approach, they nevertheless cleverly win the reader away from the winging critic to Doty's gleaming universe, where "every sequin's an act of praise." Only the grouchiest reader could resist Sweet Machine and its love for the world, with all its tacky consumerism, its quiet fog.

The book's title comes from a poster of a young male model over which "someone's scrawled in black marker: I am a sweet suck and fuck machine. Take me home." But Doty's as much in love with the black marker as the model, and such paradoxes make Sweet Machine so compelling. Doty achieves a delicate transmogrification of objects through his metaphorical conceits; for instance, "these only appear to be lilies, / this conflation of smudges / but isn't the ruse lovely // matter got up in costume as itself?" leads to "Isn't the city flower and collision? . . . Now New York's a smear / and chaos of lilies, a seized whir // . . . scent and explosion, tenderness / and history."

Doty indulges this flux, even thrives on it, because "we understand, don't we / that stasis is always a lie." This is a familiar Doty treatise and the poems in Sweet Machine may have a similar effect to earlier ones, but to me, every time this happens it always feels new--another zero at the bone.

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Summer 1998 Table of Contents