Kundalini Splendor

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Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Poet and the Mystic: Mark Doty 

I have long been an avid admirer of Mark Doty, who has written eloquently on a variety of subjects, in both poetry and prose. Recently, I have been reading his latest book, "Dog Years," which is a tribute to the gallant animal companions he has loved and lost over the years, and also a shrewd commentary on the key issues of our times. I strongly recommend this book, for its intelligence and wit and loving (but not sentimental) examination of the human-animal bond.

Reading this book led me to think once more about Mark as one who chose the path of the artist over that of the pure mystic/saint.

The Artist vs. the Mystic

Mark Doty once had an experience of ecstatic illumination. At the end of an acupuncture session, he was flooded with ecstasy and saw the world for what it is, an infinite field of light pulsating over and through all the objects that together comprise the material universe. He discovered what so many have written about and striven for: everything is light, everything is bathed in love.

I once experienced a somewhat similar experience, which I have tried to describe many times in various ways. When this pivotal illumination occurs, everything shifts into a new dimension, a different way of perceiving reality and oneself. It is as if all the moments of childhood and all that has gone before in one's life were collapsed into one, a single instant, like a breath or an exhalation, or a cutting glimpse into a lover's eye that tells the entire story. Colors now literally change hue, sound carries a different resonance.

For me, that moment was fate itself, consigning me forever into the ranks of those who abdicate insistent judgment (at least in these episodes of surrender), who are swept into the furious arms of an invisible lover, and thus are forever thereafter sworn to fealty and devotion to this utterly featureless but totally convincing reality. Not that I mind. Indeed not. Who would turn away from ecstasy, or the abrupt transition from the world of the mundane and usual into the hidden, secret places where final love prevails?

But Mark rejected the cosmic bargain, would not give up his innate right to observe and reveal the totality of what he saw, to become the gifted interpreter, the all seeing witness--even in the face of the ultimate, even as he was flooded with signs of election--indeed,what some in fact might term enlightenment itself. Who, moreover, could then translate those acute perceptions of what his attention selected as focus, into language chiseled and breathtaking, so that we too, mute auditors, could also partake of his vision, albeit vicariously.

How can we fault a male who reveals himself as a creature who (like us) weeps over possibly maudlin experience, when he, the ultimate Merlin of language, presents us a kind of etude or tone poem crafted from that experience, like some elegant masterwork composed in a lost century? How can we reject such delicacy of sensibility, such range of response? How can we not both admire and love Mark Doty? And, secretly, feel a kind of gratitude for his "sacrifice," his willingness to fore go the "nirvana" of absolute knowing for immersion in the provisional world of human affairs, the artist rather than the saint?

He wanted to see the world in all its complexity--its shadows as well as its highlights, its failures and deceptions along with its gifts of joy. At times he seems to immerse himself in the immediate experience, with the delight or despair of a child, someone not yet compromised by too much exposure to our flawed human realm . At others, he is the distanced observer, taking the measure of this world and its weaknesses, exposing its faults for all to see.

Yet even here, he approaches with a kind of loving tenderness, revealing our failures in the language of gentle lament rather than bitter diatribe or caustic attack.

And so he became a kind of artist/saint of language, his rich intelligence shaping a world multihued and brilliant, revealing new facets of reality for our pleasure and edification.

Here is a poem which I wrote about Mark Doty some time back, but which I am repeating here since it seems to flow naturally from the above reflections.

Mark Doty

(Once during an acupuncture treatment, Mark Doty, a brilliant writer of our time, experienced a full blown mystical vision of the universe as an infinite field of light. He chose not to pursue this esoteric path, but to continue his role as artist and poet of the more tangible realities.)

This man has learned
to hedge his bets,
not to go too far,
stumble into those
fog ridden realms
where the mystics
and crackpots dwell.

His laser eyes
scan a provable landscape,
exposing unexpected vistas,
unguessed shadows.. . .

His language is eloquent,
but he risks
only what is verifiable—
the scents and smells
of a summer day,
the revealed connections
of events and their origins,
pleasurable insights
into the hidden world
of a threaded reality
which startles but never stuns,
all well within the comfort zone
of our accepted possible.

His exquisite script
claims the world
as form,
thing seen anew
from a different angle,
something we covet,
yearn to hold close again.

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