Just a few questions
Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems
The Bad Wife Handbook (Wesleyan Poetry)
Wesleyan University Press
It’s that time of year again: A late flu is rampant and poetry is in the air. If you’re destined to spend early spring sniffling in bed, at least do it with some new poetry.
Of course, Mark Doty isn’t the sort of poet whose only attention comes from poetry readers. He’s also quite well-known for his work in memoirs, the most recent of which, Dog Years, is a crossover hit with, obviously, dog people. But to miss out on Doty’s well-wrought poems is to miss the best American poetry has to offer. His new poems in Fire to Fire, as well as those selected from the last 25 years, are more closely aligned with Walt Whitman (who appears as, rightly enough, an apparition) than with more obscure precedents.
Lush language and attention to the details of the world—smell, color, the proper names of things—combine with Doty’s obsession for questioning the meaning of everything. These traits come together to produce an analysis of the difference between American and British poetry (while taking a funny shot at Wordsworth) in “Pipistrelle.”
Doty and “Charles,” a British poet, have both seen a bat flying through the trees at dusk outside an inn. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Doty questions every aspect of his poem even as he writes it, wishing for “a lean / meditative evocation of what threaded / over our wondering heads,” and eventually questioning even his surrender to his obsession to “worry my little aerial friend / with a freight not precisely his.” Meanwhile, his British friend says, “Listen to my poem.”
Doty isn’t one to take the easier, softer way. Never has been.
The new poems, many of them “theories” of almost everything, are wonderful; packaged alongside a selection of the best from Doty’s previous collections, this becomes a volume worthy of slow reflection. Several favorites are included here, among them “Days of 1981,” from the last truly innocent time before HIV/AIDS, and “Fog,” about learning to live in world that includes sickness, death and grief.
And the very best Mark Doty poem yet, “Visitation,” in which a whale swims us with him past grief: “What did you think, that joy / was some slight thing?”
Doty may question everything he sees, but he always wrests some meaning from it. If he questions us until we’re certain—and I think he does—Rachel Zucker turns every statement into a question. The Bad Wife Handbook isn’t a how-to manual for Wisteria Lane-bound married women, but rather a series of poems in which language tag-teams with emotion to rassle reason to the ground.
Zucker’s poems take on the sense of panic we so often have when we realize just how much we care about those in our lives—as in the second poem titled, “Monogamist”: “I’ve fallen ___ with him, stupid / cliché, with his dark blue // officewear.” Like that, just too much feeling for words and it makes us uncomfortable. We’d rather not, thank you, even as emotion comes clawing up past the clenched jaw.
She’s funny, too, in a laugh-out-loud, unexpected way, riffing on everything from the Wicked Witch of the West to what critics say about her. And how can we possibly criticize a poet who’s already done the dirty work for us, as in “Autography 6”? Zucker lists all the things we might dislike—including the way that she doesn’t write about married sex when she says she will—and I must say: No, it’s not too much science; not too much Darwin; not too much metaphor; no problem with syntax, and just slippery enough.