No one can hold it against a gay man for having money. No one can hold it against a gay man for choosing to write poems about having money. Although I do find it odd that Mark Doty hasn't more explicitly interrogated his own economic status in his poems, and asked himself what that ultimately means in the construction of his poetic persona.
I'd like to take a look at the new poem "Theory of Marriage" featured in "Fire to Fire."
Middle-class gay men have a reactionary stance when class is brought up. Perhaps they are firmly invested in the discrimination they receive for being queer, but don't want to examine other more complicated issues regarding class, race, etc. etc..
What concerns me about the poem "Theory of Marriage" is that it seems to construct rapture as something that can be obtained through middle-class luxury. There seems to be no self-insight about the ostensibly unintentional comedy in this idea. Always invested in the idea of spiritual rapture/ecstasy, Doty no longer equates rapture with promiscuity, as he does in such poems as "Tiara"-- a justifiably radical defense of sexual behavior nowadays.
No. Now Doty sees his own middle-class status, the buying of a masseuse as a conduit to spiritual transformation.
This poem is ostensibly autobiographical. In his poem Mark and his partner Paul go see masseurs. In separate rooms, they receive their treatment, unable to see each other. They hear audible expressions of the other's pain/pleasure and unsure if each other is done with their massage, they continue with "the bliss" that becomes an exhaustion. They each spend more on their own massage simply out of respect to the other, not wanting to rush him:
..And he must think as I must think as well,
since I am still releasing the contained sounds of one
pushed into new life...
It should be emphasized here that the continuation of their sessions with their respective masseuse increases the cost of their venture.
As Doty himself writes: "In this way we spend a small but substantive fortune"," an explicit naming of middle-class conspicuous consumption. In fact, that quotation appears in an end-stopped line in and of itself. It's one of the few times in a Doty poem his class is named in such an explicit way. Obviously, he is calling attention to his socio-economic status.
Even more important: When Doty uses the phrase "In this way" he explicitly means a leisurely, even if protracted, massage, one that can be bought, one that will bring spiritual transcendence. Here's a description of the purchased rapture:
..vanishing again into the heaven
of rubbed temples, where no city exists except the one
in which the skull produces a repetitive, golden music...
One can "buy" spiritual transcendence. I wish I could claim that the poem shifts in tone to reveal the inflated nature of the this rhetoric. (The schematic closure of the poem indicates that Doty has been cured of his backpain.)
In a crucial way, in a necessary way, Doty uses this same sort of spiritual rhetoric in "Tiara" to defend his friend's HIV-impacted death, and by extension, promiscuity: "I think heaven is perfect stasis poised over the realm of desire...huge fragments/of music we die into/in the body's paradise.../given the ordinary marvels of form/and gravity what could he do/what can any of us do but ask for it?"
Where "Tiara" uses spiritual rhetoric to defend someone "Theory of Marriage" incorporates a similar lyric moment to self-importantly describe his own banal, middle-class experience. Some other new poems also offer this association. This theme makes the poem "about" the spiritual comfort of middle-class ecstasy rather than a "theory of marriage." How's that for false advertising, luring middle-class readers with one thing and then giving them another?
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