Mark Doty

(10 August 1953 / Maryville, Tennessee)

Metro North

Over the terminal,
        the arms and chest
                of the god

brightened by snow.
        Formerly mercury,
                formerly silver,

surface yellowed
        by atmospheric sulphurs
                acid exhalations,

and now the shining
        thing's descendant.
                Obscure passages,

dim apertures:
        these clouded windows
                show a few faces

or some empty car's
        filmstrip of lit flames
                --remember them

from school,
        how they were supposed
                to teach us something?--

waxy light hurrying
        inches away from the phantom
                smudge of us, vague

in spattered glass. Then
        daylight's soft charcoal
                lusters stone walls

and we ascend to what
        passes for brightness,
                this February,

scumbled sky
        above graduated zones
                of decline:

dead rowhouses,
        charred windows'
                wet frames

around empty space,
        a few chipboard polemics
                nailed over the gaps,

speeches too long
        and obsessive for anyone
                on this train to read,

sealing the hollowed interiors
        --some of them grand once,
                you can tell by

the fillips of decoration,
        stone leaves, the frieze
                of sunflowers.

Desolate fields--open spaces,
        in a city where you
                can hardly turn around!--

seem to center
        on little flames,
                something always burning

in a barrel or can
        As if to represent

dogged persistence?
        Though whether what burns
                is will or rage or

harsh amalgam
        I couldn't say.
                But I can tell you this,

what I've seen that
        won my allegiance most,
                though it was also

the hallmark of our ruin,
        and quick as anything
                seen in transit:

where Manhattan ends
        in the narrowing
                geographical equivalent

of a sigh (asphalt,
        arc of trestle, dull-witted
                industrial tanks

and scaffoldings, ancient now,
        visited by no one)
                on the concrete

embankment just
        above the river,
                a sudden density

and concentration
        of trash, so much
                I couldn't pick out

any one thing
        from our rising track
                as it arced onto the bridge

over the fantastic
        accumulation of jetsam
                and contraband

strewn under
        the uncompromising
                vault of heaven.

An unbelievable mess,
        so heaped and scattered
                it seemed the core

of chaos itself--
        but no, the junk was arranged
                in rough aisles,

someone's intimate
        clutter and collection,
                no walls but still

a kind of apartment
        and a fire ribboned out
                of a ruined stove,

and white plates
        were laid out
                on the table beside it.

White china! Something
        was moving, and
                --you understand

it takes longer to tell this
        than to see it, only
                a train window's worth

of actuality--
        I knew what moved
                was an arm,

the arm of the (man
        or woman?) in the center
                of that hapless welter

in layer upon layer
        of coats blankets scarves
                until the form

constituted one more
        gray unreadable;

was lifting a hammer,
        and bringing it down
                again, tapping at

what work
        I couldn't say;
                whoever, under

the great exhausted dome
        of winter light,
                which the steep

and steel surfaces of the city
        made both more soft
                and more severe,

was making something,
        or repairing,
                was in the act

(sheer stubborn nerve of it)
        of putting together.
                Who knows what.

(And there was more,
        more I'd take all spring
                to see. I'd pick my seat

and set my paper down
        to study him again
                --he, yes, some days not

at home though usually
        in, huddled
                by the smoldering,

and when my eye wandered
        --five-second increments
                of apprehension--I saw

he had a dog!
        Who lay half in
                half out his doghouse

in the rain, golden head
        resting on splayed paws.
                He had a ruined car,

and heaps of clothes,
        and things to read--
                was no emblem,

in other words,
        but a citizen,
                who'd built a citizen's

household, even
        on the literal edge,
                while I watched

from my quick,
        high place, hurtling
                over his encampment

by the waters of Babylon.)
        Then we were gone,
                in the heat and draft

of our silver, rattling
        over the river
                into the South Bronx,

against whose greasy
        skyline rose that neoned
                billboard for cigarettes

which hostages
        my attention, always,
                as it is meant to do,

its motto ruby
        in the dark morning:
                ALIVE WITH PLEASURE.

Submitted: Friday, January 03, 2003

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  • Pat Murphy (12/21/2004 10:32:00 AM)

    Leave it to Mark Doty to find light and sparkle where there is darkness and dirt. His poetic eye is acutely turned on the city in this poem, and he creates a tangible framework for talking about public and private lives. (Report) Reply

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