Deep Lane – Mark Doty, W. W. Norton & Company. Review by Dale Boyer
Note: a version of this review appeared formerly in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Deep Lane is Mark Doty's eighth collection of poetry. In collections as wide-ranging as Turtle, Swan, My Alexandria, and memoirs such as Heaven's Coast, Doty (who, long ago was a professor of mine) has explored life and love, and love and loss particularly during the AIDS era. Doty's poems have always been thoughtful and reflective, but this collection has an autumnal, melancholy tone new to his work.
Deep Lane (which appears to be the name of a road, as well as the title of a number of the sections of the poem) is his rumination on mortality. The opening of Deep Lane finds Doty digging in the dirt of his garden. Looking at the various tubers and grasses he encounters, he begins to speculate on the inevitable fate of us all. This theme of inquiry continues as Doty walks with his dog, Ned, past a graveyard, and finds himself literally with one foot in a newly dug grave. While all this may sound contrived or trite in summary, Doty's best poems have a simplicity and immediacy that make such situations – and the meaning that arises from them – seem totally organic. Indeed, it is the searching, intimate quality of his poetry that gives most of his poems their power, and makes each one seem like a journey in which the reader is personally involved alongside the poet.
It is a journey that has long been one of searching and questioning. "Don't you wish the road of excess led to the palace of wisdom, wouldn't that be nice?" he asks in one of the sections of his new poem. This is the first time, it seems to me, such a melancholy note of weariness has entered the poet's worldview. Encountering a pond whose fish are emerging from hibernation, he spots one lone fish and notes, "A heron ate his mate." Anyone who knows the poet's history will immediately make the connection to Doty's partner, Wally, who died of AIDS. Doty seems to be asking, What does a lifetime of perception lead to? Where does consciousness go? If everything and everyone is ultimately consumed by the darkness, what is the point?
In one of the best poems of the collection, Doty makes a wounded deer a symbol for an entire generation ravaged by AIDS. He sets this up swiftly and economically by calling the deer "The King of Fire Island." The deer is a direct echo of Elizabeth Bishop's great poem, The Moose. But whereas Bishop's poem was all about a sudden, bewildering encounter with wilderness and the other, Doty instead, as a gay man, immediately identifies with the deer. "Where else could he have lived?" he asks, thus completing the identification of the deer with gay men who famously made Fire Island their home. Because of his wounded nature, the deer is literally dependent upon the kindness of strangers in order to survive. Like Doty, the deer is a survivor. Yet ultimately, the deer is doomed like everything else: his consciousness, too, lost to time.
There is both forgiveness and restlessness in these poems, as Doty seems ready to embrace himself now, not simply as a gay poet, but as a person who is growing older. For those who've shared Doty's journey over the years, Deep Lane is an essential installment. It is the latest missive from an extraordinarily gifted and giving poet – one who long ago moved past the label of gay poet to become one of our most important and essential.