The Wings

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The Wings




The American poet and memoirist Mark Doty's lyric poem “The Wings” was published in My Alexandria (1993), his third volume of poetry. As of 2007 it was still in print.

“The Wings” and the other poems in My Alexandria are informed by Doty's experiences as a homosexual man at a time when AIDS was devastating the homosexual community in general and his own personal life in particular. In 1989 Wally Roberts, Doty's partner of many years, was diagnosed with AIDS. Roberts died of a brain infection in 1994. “The Wings” is an elegiac poem (a poem expressing grief, usually over the death of a loved one) that reflects the themes of mortality, sorrow, loss, and memory that were to become especially pronounced in Doty's work during Roberts's illness and after his death. The poem is partly set at a Vermont auction, as Doty explains in an interview with Christopher Hennessy for the Lambda Book Report. “The Wings,” as its title suggests, features recurring images of angels, which in the last decade of the twentieth century became iconic figures in art, film, and literature relating to AIDS. The poem is typical of Doty's work in that its images and epiphanies are prompted by everyday experiences, its free verse form, and its conversational style widen its appeal beyond the homosexual community to a general readership. The collection in which the poem appears has won many awards and, with Doty's subsequent volume Atlantis (1995), is widely considered to

be one of the most accomplished and important works to emerge from the AIDS epidemic.


Mark Alan Doty was born on August 10, 1953 in Maryville, Tennessee, and grew up in a succession of suburbs in Tennessee, Florida, southern California, and Arizona. His father was a civilian employee of the Army Corps of Engineers. In his memoir Firebird, Doty describes his troubled relationship with his father, and his mother's alcoholism.

While in Tucson, Arizona, a teacher at Doty's high school introduced him to the poet Richard Shelton, a mentor who encouraged his interest in literature. By the age of eighteen, Doty was confused and frightened about his sexual orientation. Soon after graduating from high school he married the poet Ruth Dawson. He earned a B.A. from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and by 1980, he and his wife divorced. After accepting his homosexuality, Doty moved to New York City and worked as a secretary. He then earned a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from Goddard College in Vermont. During this period Doty met his long-term partner, Wally Roberts, who worked as a window-dresser in a department store.

For several years, Doty and Roberts lived in Montpelier, Vermont, where they renovated a nineteenth-century house. In his memoir Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (cited by Peter Marcus in a review for the Gay & Lesbian Review), Doty describes his and Roberts's adventures during their time in Vermont in “the realm of auctions, a time-honored system for the redistribution of the possessions of the dead.” This reflects the setting of the poem “The Wings,” in which a dead woman's belongings are being auctioned off.

Doty's first collection of poems, Turtle, Swan, was published in 1987. In 1989, Roberts tested positive for HIV, an event that was to transform and shape Doty's life and writing. Doty himself tested negative. In the same year, Doty and Roberts visited Provincetown, Massachusetts. The beautiful coastal setting and the large gay community convinced them to settle there. Doty's second volume of poems, Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, appeared shortly thereafter in 1991.

Doty's next volume of poetry, My Alexandria (1993), in which “The Wings” was included, marked his critical breakthrough. The book was chosen to receive sponsorship as a National Poetry Series publication that same year. It won the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Poetry (1993) and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry (1994). The book also won the T.S. Eliot Prize for best book of poetry published in the United Kingdom in 1995, the first time that the prize had been won by an American author. This volume and its successor, Atlantis (1995), took as their main theme the ordeal of Roberts's deteriorating health and death from an AIDS-related brain infection in 1994. Atlantis won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Men's Poetry (1995), the Ambassador Book Award (1996), and the Boston Review's Bingham Poetry Prize (1996).

Doty found writing poetry difficult after Roberts's death, so he turned to prose, writing a memoir about his life with Roberts called Heaven's Coast (1996). The book won the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction (1997). Doty then returned to poetry and published Sweet Machine in 1998, and a memoir about his childhood, Firebird, in 1999. Doty published an extended essay mixing memoir and art history, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, in 2001. Another volume of poetry, Source, appeared in 2001, and explores gay eroticism and post-AIDS mourning. Seeing Venice: Bellotto's Grand Canal (2002), is an essay illustrated with photographs of Venice.

Throughout his career, Doty has taught creative writing and poetry at institutions including Columbia University, the University of Utah, the University of Houston, and Goddard College. As of 2007, Doty was John and Rebecca Moores Professor in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Houston.


The bored child at the auction
lies in his black rainboots reading,
on the grass, while beneath the tent
his parents grow rich with witness:
things that were owned once, in place,            5
now must be cared for, carried
to the block. A coast of cloud
becomes enormous, above the wet field,
while the auctioneer holds up
now the glass lily severed                        10
from its epergne, now the mother of pearl
lorgnette. These things require
the boy's parents so much they don't know
where he is, which is gone: the book
he's brought, swords on its slick cover,          15
promises more than objects or storm.
He's lost in the story a while
but then the sun comes out,
he's been reading a long time,
and he lies on his side with his cheek            20
against the grass. This seems
the original moment of restless dreaming:
shiny rubber boots, a book forgotten
in one hand, a tired reader's face pressed
against damp green. He's the newest thing here.   25
I've bought a dark-varnished painting
of irises, a dead painter's bouquet
penciled, precisely, Laura M.
. The woman in front of us has bid
for a dead woman's plates, iridescent flocks      30
of blue birds under glaze. When it's all over
his parents awaken the sleeping reader:
his father's bought a pair of snowshoes
nearly as tall as the boy, who slings them both
over his back and thus is suddenly winged.        35
His face fills with purpose;
the legendary heroes put away in his satchel,
he's become useful again, he's moved
back into the world of things
to be accomplished: an angel                      40
to carry home the narrative of our storied,
scattering things.
Didn't you want apples on the branch,
not just the cold-scented globes
but winesap or some sharp red                     45
ballooning from the bearing wood?
And didn't we find, on Saturday morning,
at the edge of town,
beside a barn twisting
on its foundations, trying to collapse,           50
an abandoned orchard
offering branch after branch,
the ones a little higher
than the deer could reach?
Everywhere under the trees                        55
long flattened grasses
where they'd lain, gorged with the low
or windfall fruit. We cut an armload,
trying to jostle nothing loose,
swearing at the sweet ringing                     60
when any one fell—
strange how a solid thing
chimes. In a barn down the road
—among the oily lawnmowers,
the cracked motors, sapbuckets                    65
and gaskets—a rabbit cage,
two rough-cut painted pine hares
bracing a pen of chicken wire,
their red eyes eager and intent:
a beautiful thing, made for the loved companion   70
of a loved child, ours for two dollars
and irreplaceable. We brought it home,
with the few intact apple branches
and a sheaf of maple burning
the unmatchable color things come to              75
when the green goes out of them
and the rippling just under
blooms through. Some days things yield
such grace and complexity that what we see
seems offered. I can't stop thinking              80
about the German film in which the angels
—who exist outside of time and thus long
for things that take place—
love most of all human stories,
the way we tell ourselves                         85
what we dread or wish.
Of all our locations
their favorite is the library;
the director pictures them perched
on the balustrades, clustering                    90
on the stairs, bent over
the solitary readers as if,
to urge us on, to say Here,
have you looked here yet?

If endlessness offered itself to me today         95
I don't think I'd have done anything
differently. I was looking from the car window
at the unlikely needlepoint wild asters made
of an October slope, blue starry heads
heaped upon each other, too wet and heavy         100
with their own completion to stand.
I didn't even stop, but that brief
yellow-eyed punctuation in a field
gone violet and golden at once,
sudden and gone, is more than I can say.          105
There's simply no way to get it right,
and it was just one thing. Holsteins,
a little down the road, paraded
toward the evening's expected comforts;
two cats in the long grass                        110
observed. By a rowboat-sized pond,
one slanting ram floated on the thinnest legs.
There were geese. There were:
the day's narration is simple assertion;
it's enough to name the instances.                115
Don't let anybody tell you
death's the price exacted
for the ability to love;
couldn't we live forever
without running out of occasions?                 120
In the Exhibition Hall each unfurled
three-by-five field bears
in awkward or accomplished embroidery
a name, every banner stitched to another
and another. They're reading                      125
the unthinkable catalog of the names,
so many they blur, become
a single music pronounced with difficulty
over the microphone, become a pronoun,
become You. It's the clothing I can't get past,   130
the way a favorite pair of jeans,
a striped shirt's sewn onto the cloth;
the fading, the pulls in the fabric
demonstrate how these relics formed around
one essential, missing body.                      135
An empty pair of pants
is mortality's severest evidence.
Embroidered mottoes blend
into something elegaic but removed;
a shirt can't be remote.                          140
One can't look past
the sleeves where two arms
were, where a shoulder pushed
against a seam, and someone knew exactly
how the stitches pressed against skin             145
that can't be generalized but was,
irretrievably, you, or yours.
In September the garden
—this ordered enactment of desire—
is exhilarating again;                            150
the new season says
Look what can be done, says
any mistake can be rectified:
the too-shaded lavender
transplanted to a brighter bed,                   155
a lilac standard bought
and planted in a spot
requiring height, strong form.
Setting them in place,
attending to the settling of roots                160
between yellowed iris
and flourishing asters,
I'm making an angel,
like those Arcimboldos where the human
is all berry and leaf,                            165
the specific character of bloom
assembled into an overriding form.
And then the bulbs: the slim-necked tulips
such saints of patience, exploding
so long after you plant them                      170
they're nearly forgotten. Ignore
or attend, the same thing happens:
buried wishes become blooms,
supple and sheened as skin. I'm thinking
of the lily-flowered kind                         175
on slim spines, the ones
that might as well be flames,
just two slight wings that will
blaze into the future;
I have to think they have a will,                 180
a design so inherent in the cells
nothing could subtract from them
the least quotient of grace,
or wish to. I dreamed,
the night after the fall planting,                185
that a bird who loved me
had been long neglected, and when
I took it from the closet and gave it water
its tongue began to move again,
and it began to beat the lush green music         190
of its wings, and wrapped the brilliant risk
of leaves all around my face.
We've been out again on the backroads,
buying things. Here's a permanent harvest:
an apple and four cherries                        195
stenciled on a chair-back,
the arm-wood glowing, so human,
from within, where the red paint's
been worn away by how many arms
at rest. Polished and placed                      200
by the blue table and the windows
that frame the back garden,
it's a true consolation,
necessary, become this
through its own wearing away                      205
by use, festive with its once-bright
fruit. Anything lived into long enough
becomes an orchard.
And I've bought a book printed
in Edinburgh, in 1798—where's it been,            210
clearly never much referred to,
two hundred years? Bound in whorled leather,
it's the second volume of a concordance
of biblical nouns, A Literal,
Critical and Systematic Description of Objects
in fine and oddly comforting raised type:
SADNESS, by means of which the heart
is made better, weaned
from worldly things
of God's house, round about, being most holy
imports that even the most circumstantial things
are holy in themselves:
and heretical, for this eighteenth-century John
whom the foxed title page identifies only as
“Minister of the Gospels at Haddington.”          225
In my afternoon class the students
sit in a circle of chairs on the terrace,
and behind their faces, which seem then
so dizzyingly new, all the rich
commingling of leaves hurry downward              230
into latent shades too subtle
to ever name, colors
we perhaps can't register even once,
and they wonder why the poet we're reading's
so insistent on mortality. I want to tell them    235
how I make the angel, that form
between us and the unthinkable,
that face we give the empty ringing,
and how that form for me appears in a boy
with snowshoe wings slung across his shoulders,   240
or in the child sprawled on the marble floor
of the post office yesterday,
who filled the echoing lobby with random notes
blown on her recorder, music made out of    waiting.
I let the light-glazed angel                      245
in the children's bodies, the angel
with his face flushed in the heat
of recognizing any birth,
I let him bend over my desk and speak
in a voice so assured you wouldn't know           250
that anyone was dying. Any music's
made of waiting,
he says.
I make him again. Look,
it doesn't matter so much.
See into what you can.
I make the angel lean over our bed
in the next room, where you're sleeping
the sturdy, uncompromised sleep
of someone going to work early tomorrow.
I am willing around you, hard,                    260
the encompassing wings of the one called
unharmed. His name is nowhere
in the concordance, but I don't care;
he's the rationale for any naming.
A steady fine-pointed rain's                      265
etching the new plantings,
and I'm making the rain
part of the angel. Try to be certain,
he says, where you're looking.
If you're offered endlessness,
don't do anything differently. The rule
of earth is attachment:
here what can't be held
is. You die by dying
into what matters, which will kill you,
but first it'll be enough. Or more than that:
your story, which you have worn away
as you shaped it,
which has become itself
as it has disappeared.


The stanzas in “The Wings” are not end-stopped, which means a sentence begun in one stanza does not end until the next, and the occurrences in each section tend to overlap as a result. Because of this, the sections described in the Plot Summary may also overlap.

Stanzas 1-4

“The Wings” is not a linear poem—the events described have no clear beginning, middle, or end. It opens at an unspecified time in the speaker's life, at an auction that is being held in a tent. The speaker of the poem describes a bored child lying on the grass reading while his parents are inside the tent witnessing the sale of the belongings of an unidentified person. The items that were once owned by someone and that had a place in that person's home now need a new home, so they are carried one by one to the auctioneer's block (the platform from which the auctioneer sells the goods).

The speaker's attention momentarily shifts to a growing bank of clouds in the sky before returning to the auctioneer, who is holding various items in turn.

Stanzas 4-9

The boy's parents are so engrossed in the objects being auctioned that they do not know where he is. He is “gone,” engrossed in the story in his book. The sun comes out, and the boy forgets his book and lies on his side with his cheek against the grass. The speaker notes that the boy is “the newest thing here,” as the objects being sold are all old.

Stanzas 9-14

The speaker turns his attention to a painting of irises that he has bought, dated 1890, composed by a long-dead painter. It is revealed that the auctioned items belonged to a woman who has recently died. When the auction is over, the sleeping boy's parents awaken him. His father has bought a pair of snowshoes almost as tall as the boy. The boy slings them over his shoulder, giving him the appearance of having wings. For the speaker, the boy appears suddenly to be transformed into one of the recurring iconic images of the poem, a winged angel. The speaker sees him as an angel who has the task of carrying home the story of the scattered objects at the auction.

Stanzas 15-20

The action of the poem shifts away from the auction to a time when the speaker's lover is apparently already dead. This is not made explicit, but it is implied by the elegiac tone in which the speaker remembers the times he spent with his lover. He addresses the dead lover, recalling an occasion when his lover wanted to pick apples. The speaker and his lover find the apples growing abundantly in an abandoned orchard. Underneath the trees are flattened patches of grass, where deer have lain after gorging themselves on the fruit. The speaker and his lover cut an armload, trying not to let any fall to the ground (apples that have been in contact with the ground bruise and quickly lose their freshness).

Stanzas 20-24

The action shifts to a barn a short distance from the orchard. The barn is full of old machinery. The speaker and his lover find an old rabbit cage flanked by two carved and painted hares, made for “the loved companion / of a loved child.” They take it home with the apple branches and a bunch of maple branches, as the leaves are showing their fall colors. The speaker reflects that some things are so graceful and complex that they seem “offered.” The implication is that they are the gift of a benevolent creator.

Stanzas 24-27

The speaker remembers a German film (Wings of Desire, directed by Wim Wenders) about angels who exist outside of time and who long to experience events within time, just as humans experience events. These angels “love most of all human stories” about fear or desire. Their favorite location is the library, where they sit looking over the shoulders of readers but unseen by them, willing them to look at a certain line in a book that could prove significant.

Stanzas 28-40

The action shifts once again to an unspecified time. The elegiac tone and the speaker's musings on death continue to imply that his lover is dead. The speaker is reflecting on remembered times. He thinks that even if “endlessness” (lack of death, and thus immortality) offered itself to him, he would not have acted differently throughout his life. He recalls seeing from his car window a bank of wild blue flowers with yellow centers. Though he does not stop driving, he is speechless with joy at the sight of the flowers as they briefly flash past his gaze. He recounts some other things noticed on his journey, and reflects that to tell the story of his day, it is enough to name the things and events that he has seen. The speaker bitterly rejects the conventional truism that death is the price that a person pays for the ability to love. He feels that it would be possible to live forever and yet never run out of ways and means to feel and express love.

Stanzas 41-49

The action shifts to an art exhibition. Again, the time is unspecified, but the speaker's lover in this section is clearly deceased, and the lover is memorialized by the quilt described throughout these stanzas. The speaker describes one of the exhibits. This is almost certainly the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which was created as a memorial to people who have died of AIDS-related illnesses. The quilt was begun in San Francisco in 1987 by volunteers and, as of 2007, is maintained and displayed by the NAMES Project Foundation. Each patch on the quilt contains the name of a loved one who has died from AIDS, embroidered by their surviving friends or family. According to the speaker, there are so many names that they blur into “a single music” that, when spoken over the microphone, forms itself into the word “You.” The “You” refers to the speaker's lover, who, it is implied, is now among the dead. Sewn onto the patch are pieces of clothing owned by the dead during their lifetime. The speaker notes the signs of wear in each piece of clothing that once formed itself around a unique, living human body. That living human body is now, however, missing. Whereas the speaker feels that the embroidered names are “elegiac but removed,” a piece of worn clothing is so intensely individual and personal that it cannot be remote. It is, the speaker says, “irretrievably, you, or yours.” This statement again refers to his dead lover.

Stanzas 50-62

It is September, and the speaker's attention moves to his garden. It is not made clear whether the speaker's lover is still alive here, but he is not present in this section and does not appear again until stanza 65. The position of this section, immediately following the speaker's visit to the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and the absence of the lover, may suggest that the lover is already dead.

The speaker calls the garden “this ordered enactment of desire” because, he explains, every mistake can be rectified; plants in the wrong place can be moved. In the garden, he is making an angel out of various plants and flowers, like the figures in paintings by the sixteenth-century Italian painter, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who specialized in realistic but grotesque symbolic portraits of people constructed from plants, fruits, and animals. The speaker calls the tulips in his garden “saints of patience” because they bloom a long time after they are planted. Whether or not the gardener pays attention to them, the same thing happens: “buried wishes become blooms.” Taking up the angel imagery of the poem, the speaker says that the tulips are the lily-flowered kind with “wings that will / blaze into the future,” an image suggesting hope and purpose. Indeed, a will or design is so firmly built into the cells of the flowers that nothing could diminish their “grace.” The word grace, as well as connoting beauty, is a theological term meaning a favor or gift from God to man.

Stanzas 62-64

The night after he plants the garden, the speaker dreams of a bird who loved him, but whom he had neglected. He takes it out of the closet where it has apparently been living. He gives the bird water. Its tongue begins to move again, it beats its wings, and it wraps itself around his face in an image suggestive of sensual love. At the same time, in the image of the bird wrapping “the brilliant risk / of leaves all around my face,” the word “risk” suggests danger, perhaps of contracting HIV/AIDS.

Stanzas 65-73

The speaker recalls an unspecified time when his lover was alive. He describes an outing when he and his lover go looking for antiques. They find a chair with fruit stenciled on the back, which represents a “permanent harvest.” The wood of the chair glows from having been worn smooth by all who have sat in it. The speaker reflects that the chair has become fully itself by being worn away with use, just as land that is farmed for long enough can become an orchard.

The speaker has bought an old book written by the real-life minister John Brown (1722-1787). The speaker reads Brown's entry on “SADNESS,” which is defined as a process that makes the heart better and less attached to worldly things. Another entry on the “LIMIT” (boundary) of God's house explains that even things on the outer edge of God's realm are holy. The speaker remarks that this notion was seen as heretical in Brown's time.

Stanzas 73-77

The action shifts to a point in time when the speaker's lover is still alive, but when the speaker is acutely aware of the lover's impending death. The scene is an afternoon class that the speaker is teaching on a terrace during the fall. In spite of the fact that the leaves are falling off the trees at an extremely fast rate, the young students cannot understand why the poet they are reading is so insistent about mortality. The speaker wants to tell them how he creates an angel as a form “between us and the unthinkable” (“the unthinkable” refers to death and eternity, which cannot be thought about both because it is so vast and terrifying, and because it is a concept that cannot be truly grasped). He wants to explain that for him, the angel appears in the form of the boy with the snowshoe wings at the auction, or in the form of a child he saw sprawled on the floor of the post office, playing music on her recorder while she waits for her parents. Because the poem only states that the speaker wants to tell his students about the angel, it is reasonable to assume that he does not actually tell them, perhaps because he fears ridicule or disbelief, or because the story is too personal.

Stanzas 78-82

Again, this section indicates that while the lover is still alive, he is clearly dying, but in the next section this is more ambiguous. The speaker creates an angel in his mind. The angel bends over his desk and speaks in an assured voice that seems at odds with the speaker's knowledge that his lover is about to die. The angel explains that all music is made out of waiting. The speaker makes the angel lean over the bed where his lover is sleeping, and wills the angel to enfold him in his protective wings. The speaker gives the angel a name: “unharmed,” wishing that he will confer this quality on the sleeping man. He knows that there is, officially, no angel with this name, but he does not care.

Stanzas 83-86

A soft rain is falling on the garden that the speaker has just planted. He makes the rain into part of the angel. The angel tells the speaker that if he is offered “endlessness,” he should not do anything differently. This confirms the speaker's own thoughts at Stanza 28. The angel explains that the earth is ruled by attachment, whereas where the angel exists (outside of time and space), only the intangible (”what can't be held“) exists. He says that when you die, you die “into what matters“; in other words, intangible things are the only things that matter. This level of reality will kill you, the angel indicates, “but first it'll be enough.” This may mean that the experience of this reality fulfills and satisfies in a way that life on earth cannot. The angel adds that each life is a story in progress that wears away simultaneously as it is shaped, and becomes fully itself as it disappears into death. Thus death, the angel implies, is also a kind of birth; it is the birth of a story.


Death and Loss

The main theme of “The Wings,” in common with the other poems in the collection, is death and loss. Specifically, the poem expresses the speaker's attempts to come to terms with the death of his lover. The poem moves in carefully graduated stages from generalized images of death and loss to painfully personal and immediate images. An example of the generalized image is that of the dead woman's objects being sold at the auction. Though this is a poignant scene, the woman is unknown to the speaker. An example of the painfully personal image is that of the items of clothing sewn onto the patch of the quilt. The impermanence of objects is emphasized, such as the glass lily broken from the table centerpiece in the opening lines of the poem, the maple branches adorned with autumn colors that are collected on a road trip, and the falling leaves that are mentioned as the speaker teaches a class.

The poem provides no resolution to the ordeal of death and loss, which is shown as an inevitable part of life. Instead of presenting answers, the poem recounts the process of living through loss and shows how beauty and grace can be distilled from pain.


  • My Alexandria, adapted as an audio cassette narrated by Doty, was published by University of Illinois Press (1995).

The Made Object

In his review of Doty's poetry volume Source, David Bergman writes, “If there is a transcendent force in Doty's world, it is the transcendence of art.” Doty, adds Bergman, repeatedly returns to “that very queer turn-of-the-century belief that art and literature are different from other objects and can bring a kind of salvation, or at least a balm to the spirit.” For the speaker in the poem, an important part of the process of coming to terms with the death of his lover is memorializing him through the works of art or crafts that were associated with him. Take, for example, the antiques the two men find and take home with them on their trips along the back- roads; and the quilt at the exhibition. It is no accident that the antiques that the men find frequently feature portrayals of living objects such as fruit or animals; they exist as records and memorials of life itself.

Nature, too, is an artist, and her works exercise a similar power: there are the apple branches “ballooning” with vibrant apples; and the maple leaves whose color becomes more intense even as they are dying in autumn. Indeed, all of these made and found objects tell the story of a human life, just as the made object of the poem tells the story of the speaker and his lover. In creating a story, it is enough, says the speaker, “to name the instances.”

It is not suggested that made objects resolve the grief that the speaker feels, though perhaps they provide the closest thing to “consolation” that is available to him. They do, however, fulfill the apparently universal “will” or “design” to manifest beauty from death and emptiness. This creative process is perhaps shown as inevitable, just as the tulip in the speaker's garden explodes with beauty and life after a long period of latency within the bulb.


As is symbolically suggested by the image in the opening lines of a rain-cloud looming above the boy at the auction, this is a poem about waiting for death. The speaker knows that his lover is dying, and reflects on how he is going to be able to live with this knowledge. Various figures in the poem are shown dealing with the waiting process in their own way. The boy at the auction is reading a story of heroes while waiting for his parents; the speaker, in tending his garden, makes an angel out of plants while he waits for bulbs to sprout; the child in the post office makes music on her recorder as she waits for her parents. Indeed, it is interesting to note the recurring image of a child occupying itself with art (reading, playing music) while waiting for its parents. The angel in the final lines of the poem tells the speaker, “Any music's made of waiting.” In other words, art emerges from the time that occurs between “what we dread or wish” and the fulfillment of the thing we dread or desire.

Epiphanies Derived from Everyday Experience

An epiphany is a sudden, intuitive insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, often prompted by an everyday experience. There are many epiphanies in “The Wings.” For example, the poem describes a ram that “floated on the thinnest legs,” as if not grounded on earth. The image mirrors the angels of the poem in its ethereal nature. Similarly, the apple and maple branches that the two men find and take home seem “offered,” the gift of a benevolent creator. Each propitious discovery of a beautiful antique on the back-roads is an epiphany, telling the story of the person who made or owned it. The beauty of the wild flowers strikes the speaker with such force that the experience is “more than I can say,” and he is prompted to drop into a momentary awed silence. Such incidents are presented as not mere chance, but as a manifestation of the inherent will and purpose of all creation to express itself. They speak of the inherent “grace and complexity” in nature, as well as the transitory nature of things.

The Homosexual Experience

“The Wings” contains a background theme exploring how it feels to live as a homosexual man in a predominantly heterosexual world. This theme is symbolically expressed in the speaker's dream of a bird that loves him and that he has for too long neglected. The speaker takes the bird out of the closet where it has been kept, and to come out of the closet, of course, is a colloquial expression indicating the open expression of one's sexuality. To be in the closet, then, is to hide one's sexuality. Thus, the story of the bird symbolically describes the speaker's experience of embracing his homosexuality after a period of denial. Furthermore, after the speaker takes the bird out of the closet, he gives it water. The speaker gives the bird an essential thing needed to sustain life, which is to say that the speaker's acknowledgement of his homosexuality is essential for sustaining his own life.



“The Wings” is written in stream-of-consciousness style, a literary technique that relays the speaker's thought processes as they are happening. The style is an aspect of the literary movement known as Modernism, which peaked in the first half of the twentieth century alongside the discipline of psychology, on which it draws, or by which it was largely influenced. Stream-of-consciousness is characterized by associative images or thought patterns, in which one image, thought, or event can set off discussion of another with no consideration to chronological time or physical space. The speaker of the poem does not narrate a chronological progression of events, but looks back from a point in time when his lover is dead to a number of times when his lover was still alive, and also to times when he was dying. The sequence of events and scenarios in linear time is not made clear and is not essential to an understanding of this poem. It would not be correct to say, however, that there is no progression in the poem. Progression occurs on the emotional and psychological level of the speaker as he comes to terms with his lover's death: it is a maturation, or an evolution of understanding, not a cataloguing of any concrete event.


As the poem's title suggests, the major symbolic figures in “The Wings” are angels, but there are many symbolic images and figures throughout the poem. Angels are traditionally held to be messengers between God and people. Another way of describing this role is to say that they carry stories. The first section of the poem concludes with the image of a boy-angel, carrying home the story of the objects once owned by the newly deceased, now scattered at the auction. As the bearer of a story, the angel becomes linked with the artists or craftsmen who make the works of art and the antiques that are an important aspect of the poem. These beautiful objects are shaped by the people who make and own them, and therefore they symbolize and memorialize the human lives of which they were once a part. These objects represent the story of a human being.

The role of angels in the poem is made more explicit in the passage that recalls the angels from the German film Wings of Desire. The speaker says that these angels live outside of time and therefore long for the things that take place within time, as human lives occur within time. Most of all, he says, they love “human stories,” and so their favored location is the library. The library is full of human stories in the form of books, and full of humans reading those stories and forming new stories with the unseen encouragement of the angels. Here again, the angel is linked to the figure of the story-teller, and, by implication, to the poet, who is also telling a story. The angel thus takes on something of the quality of a muse, a spiritual being who, according to Greek mythology, assisted and guided artists in their creative work.


  • Research the HIV/AIDS epidemic using the early 1980s, when the disease was first identified, as a starting off point. What are the supposed origins of the disease, what causes it, and what are its major symptoms? How has the treatment and progression of the disease changed over the years? Describe how public perception of the disease has changed from the early 1980s to today, and say how and why. Create either a written report or a class presentation on your findings.
  • Write a poem about death, grief, or loss, and write a brief prose piece on the same topic. Afterwards, write an essay about what you discovered while writing the poem, and what you discovered from writing the prose piece. How was the poem different from, or similar to, the prose piece?
  • “The Wings” often refers to angels both literally and symbolically, and angels appear in many poems, novels, and paintings throughout history. Beginning with the thirteenth century, research the artistic representation of angels up to the present day. During what historical periods was this representation popular, and why? How have symbolic meanings pertaining to angels changed over time? How have they remained unchanged? Citing specific examples, present your findings to the class.
  • Write an essay in which you compare and contrast “The Wings” with Thom Gunn's poem “Lament” or his “In Time of Plague,” both from Gunn's collection The Man With Night Sweats (1992). How does each poem deal with the topic of HIV/AIDS?

The angel that the speaker makes in his mind in the final lines of the poem temporarily becomes an extension of the speaker's will or intention. Just as the speaker has created the story of his life with his lover simply by narrating events and naming objects seen during their time together, he hopes to create a different ending to their story by naming the angel “unharmed” and having him enfold his lover in his protective wings, in the hopes of preventing the lover's inevitable death. Here, the angel is assigned the traditional role of guardian angel.

Multiple Lines of Narrative

Unusually for a lyric poem (a poem that is an outpouring of the speaker's intimate thoughts and feelings), “The Wings” employs multiple lines of narrative that at first glance seem disconnected from one another. On a closer reading, it becomes clear that the different lines of the narrative interconnect and build on one another, by sharing or expanding on the same theme, image, or symbol. For example, the image of the angel recurs in slightly different forms in several sections of the poem, and the theme of the made object also recurs in different contexts. The effect of these interconnections is to weave together the different threads of the narrative into a unified whole.


An elegy is a poem or other work written as a lament for the dead. “The Wings” is an elegy to the speaker's dead lover, though it is also a cautious affirmation of the regenerative powers of life and art.

Religious Poetry

As Roger Gilbert points out in his essay “Awash with Angels: The Religious Turn in Nineties Poetry,” “The Wings” is one of a number of works (poems, books, and films) from the 1990s that features angels. The trend, says Gilbert, marked a return to traditional religious iconography after the ironic, postmodern 1980s. In particular, the famous play Angels in America (which was subsequently adapted as a film) explicitly linked the subject of AIDS with angels.

Angels are just one way in which Doty lends a religious undertone to his poem. He also uses religious metaphors to express a sense of reverence toward his subject. The clothes worn by now-dead loved ones in the quilt exhibition are “relics,” recalling the belief of some Catholic Christians that the remains of saints and other religiously significant items (relics) were sacred. The tulips in the speaker's garden are “saints of patience” because they bloom long after they are planted and forgotten. Patience, it is implied, is a quality needed to withstand the illness and death of a loved one. There is nothing one can do but wait, as the tulip does, for the inevitable blooming of life and beauty, for the sprouting of the petal-wings that “blaze into the future.”

Underlining the religious imagery in the poem is the concept of grace, which has two levels of meaning: the more superficial level of gracefulness, or physical beauty, and the deeper level of divine grace. The speaker sees both types of grace manifesting in the beautiful works of nature such as those in the garden, in the gathered maple branches, and in the wildflowers glimpsed while driving. The fact that physical beauty is experienced as spiritual beauty seems to indicate that the two aspects of grace, which initially seem so different from one another, are actually quite closely intertwined.



“The Wings” and the collection in which it appears was inspired by the AIDS-related death of Doty's lover. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS, or Aids) is a collection of symptoms and infections resulting from damage to the immune system widely believed to be caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Although treatments for AIDS and HIV exist to slow the virus's progression, there is no known cure. The late stages of the illness leave a person susceptible to opportunistic infections and other diseases, which are usually the actual cause of death. HIV is transmitted through contact of a mucous membrane or blood with a bodily fluid containing HIV, often blood, semen, or vaginal fluid. Though the disease may be transmitted through blood transfusions or contaminated needles, as well as from mother to child during childbirth or nursing, it is most often contracted through some form of sexual contact.

While HIV/AIDS can be contracted by anyone, in developed countries homosexual males are particularly at risk. In the United States, homosexual sex is the leading method of transmission. A variety of possible reasons for this have been suggested, including the high risk of rupture of mucous membranes and bleeding during anal sex (raising the possibility of transmission); supposed promiscuity in some homosexual communities; and the use of such recreational drugs as amyl nitrate, favored predominantly in the homosexual community, which may suppress the immune system and raise the likelihood of infection.

The picture of HIV/AIDS infection in the homosexual community in the United States is complicated by a double social stigma. First, homosexuality has long been stigmatized in its own right. Second, HIV/AIDS infection carries its own stigma, which tends to proliferate along-side certain notions and misunderstandings about the disease. These include theories held by some religious groups that HIV/AIDS is God's judgment on homosexuality or promiscuous behavior, which they hold to be sinful. Fear of people with HIV/AIDS is exacerbated by mistaken beliefs about how easily the disease is transmitted.

In the United States, during the 1980s and 1990s, the rate of HIV/AIDS infection in the homosexual community was extraordinary. The disease was not even identified or understood until the early 1980s. As a result, awareness and prevention did not catch up with the rate of infection until the late 1990s. Throughout this period, being diagnosed as HIV-positive was seen as a death sentence, and it often was.


The Egyptian city of Alexandria, after which Doty's collection of poems is named, was founded by the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great around 334 bce. It quickly became one of the great cities of the Hellenistic (ancient Greek) culture. It was the home of the Library of Alexandria (the largest library in the ancient world). The library was destroyed by fire several times, leading to the loss of irreplaceable manuscripts from all over the world. From the story of Alexandria, Doty borrows the theme of irreparable loss. In addition, the ancient Greek civilization is known to have been not only tolerant of homosexuality, but to have idealized it as a more refined, noble, and spiritual form of love than that of heterosexual relationships.

In an article for the Independent, Ruth Padel comments on the significance to Doty of Alexandria and Atlantis. As described by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, Atlantis was a lost civilization, whose name Doty adopted for his fourth volume of poetry. Padel writes that for Doty, Alexandria and Atlantis present a vision of a “threatened gay utopia, a dream of partnership glowing at the centre of civilised being, refracted through the great myths of unrecoverability: Cavafy's Alexandria, Plato's Atlantis.” “Doty has said of My Alexandria, Alexandria … is that city of art—that made place, which is both the given and the way that we transform the given” (cited by Deborah Landau in American Literature). “The Wings” is full of images of made objects: works of art, craft objects, and antiques, all of which are portrayed as embodying the stories of the people (now dead) who made and owned them. Thus through art, the dead are memorialized and transformed into things of beauty.

Furthermore, one of the major influences on Doty's poetry is the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933). Like Doty, Cavafy was homosexual. Doty's My Alexandria is named in homage to the poet. Cavafy was born in the city of Alexandria, and he lived there for much of his life. Cavafy's work also touched upon the history of Alexandria, particularly the Hellenistic era when it was under the influence of ancient Greek culture.

John Brown

In “The Wings,” the speaker buys an old book published in 1798, a concordance (guide) of biblical nouns written by the real-life John Brown (1722-1787), who was a self-educated author and church minister at Haddington, East Lothian, Scotland.

The speaker remarks that Brown's assertion that even things on the outer edge of God's realm are holy was seen as heretical in Brown's time. This statement is also based in fact. Brown's extraordinary learning led some members of the Secession Church, to which he belonged, to claim that he received his knowledge from the devil. Brown only cleared his name with difficulty.

There is an implied connection between the speaker and Brown, because Brown's thoughts on sadness and the holiness of the things that seem marginalized from God, echo the speaker's own feelings as expressed in the poem. The fact that Brown was condemned as a heretic and had to fight to restore his good name mirrors the experiences of the homosexual community at large, which for centuries was marginalized and condemned by much of mainstream society.


On its publication, My Alexandria met with immediate critical acclaim. The book contributed to Doty's reputation as “the finest American poet of the last 20 years,” according to Michael Glover in a review of the book's successor, Atlantis, for the New Statesman. Glover also called Doty the most forceful and inventive American poet since Robert Lowell.

In an article for Ploughshares titled “About Mark Doty,” Mark Wunderlich calls My Alexandria a “tour de force.” Wunderlich praises the book as “perhaps the finest in-depth literary investigation of the AIDS crisis,” noting that, “at its center is the anticipation of tremendous loss, an ache that pervades each of the poems.” Los Angeles Times critic Marjorie Lewellyn Marks also comments on the themes of impermanence and doom, stating that though AIDS is a “pervasive metaphor,” “the crystalline sensibility and breathtaking beauty of these poems is redemptive … rather than depressive.”


  • 1990s: Senator Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who has vigorously fought homosexual rights, wants to reduce the amount of federal money spent on AIDS sufferers, because, he says, their “deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct” (cited by Deborah Landau in “‘How to Live. What to Do.’ The Poetics and Politics of AIDS”) is responsible for their disease.

    Today: In 2007, President George W. Bush announces that the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is meeting its commitment of fifteen billion dollars over five years to support AIDS prevention, treatment, and care.

  • 1990s: In the United States, a majority of states have policies prohibiting discrimination against people with AIDS. However, according to the study “Public Reactions to AIDS in the United States, 1990-1991” by Gregory M. Herek, Ph.D., & John P. Capitanio, Ph.D., roughly forty percent of Americans treat AIDS as a stigma.

    Today: In 2003, the American Civil Liberties Union release the survey “A Report from the Frontline of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic,” which details widespread civil rights violations throughout the United States against people with HIV/AIDS.

  • 1990s: The rate of HIV/AIDS infection in the homosexual community is high. There is little knowledge of how to prevent and manage the disease. Treatments are minimal and HIV/AIDS largely results in fatal complications.

    Today: The introduction of anti-retroviral and other drugs in the mid-1990s is reported to have slowed the progression of the disease in infected people and to have dramatically increased their life expectancies. In addition, preventive measures such as the use of condoms during sexual intercourse have reduced the number of reported new HIV/AIDS cases.

  • 1990s: AIDS organizations welcome the 1996 visit by President Bill and Hillary Clinton to the AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington, D.C., the first public acknowledgement of the quilt by any president.

    Today: Over fourteen million people have visited the AIDS Memorial Quilt at displays worldwide. Through such displays, the NAMES Project Foundation, which maintains the quilt, has raised over three million dollars for AIDS service organizations throughout North America.

Comparing My Alexandria with Doty's previous two volumes of poetry, Bruce Smith, in his article for the Boston Review, writes that Doty's preoccupations remain the same: “the lush world, its architecture and artifice, and the forms of remembering and inventing—what Doty earlier calls ‘something storied.’” Smith calls the poems “enchanting” and likens the patterned texture of the collection to a woven fabric.

In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Ray Gonzalez praises the elegiac poetry of My Alexandria, pointing out that Doty manages to find positive truths and beauty amid pain and death. In a comment about other poems in the collection that could easily apply to “The Wings,” Gonzalez writes, “Doty encounters death in life and the terrifying surprise that, as the acute poet, he has the courage to extract beauty out of the living monuments created by death.” Gonzalez finds a difference between these poems and other anthologies of poems about AIDS because Doty's poetry “does not wish to insist on the concrete moment of mourning or the wish to change the realities of the late century.” Instead, Doty finds a new way of responding to the crisis. He writes about the suffering, yet goes on to create in an atmosphere where “the pain, the memories and the surviving beauty strengthen and nourish him.”

My Alexandria was also successful in Great Britain, where it won the T.S. Eliot prize. Ruth Padel reviews the collection with largely positive comments in the London-based newspaper, the Independent. In her review, Padel summarizes the arguments of Doty's critical supporters and detractors. The detractors say that Doty's poetry displays a fault common to much other American poetry, in that it has slid towards “sentiment that tells rather than shows. It goes for surface prettiness plus the ironed-on appearance of philosophy.” Meanwhile, Doty's supporters, Padel notes, applaud Doty's lyricism, with which, these commentators say, “you get on to another plane. The subject is only the take-off point; what matters lies beyond.” Weighing the arguments with regard to My Alexandria, Padel concludes that there are enough poems in the volume that prove the supporters' case.


  • Doty's critically acclaimed prose memoir Heaven's Coast (1996) tells the story of the years he spent with his lover, Wally Roberts, whose life, and death from an AIDS-related illness, inspired Doty to write My Alexandria.
  • Thom Gunn's award-winning collection of poetry, The Man With Night Sweats (1992), provides a haunting chronicle of the poet's grief over the loss of many of his friends to AIDS.
  • The Greek homosexual poet C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933) is one of Doty's major poetic influences and one of the most important poets of European literature. The Collected Poems of C. P. Cavafy: A New Translation (2007), translated into English by Aliki Barnstone, contains many of his greatest poems.
  • The Complete Sonnets and Poems of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) (2002), edited by Colin Burrow, contains some of the most extraordinary love poems ever written by one man to another. Critics are divided as to the exact nature of the relationship described, and some feel that the poems describe sexual love, while others feel the poem describes spiritual love. Read them and decide for yourself. Additionally, this edition has helpful notes and commentaries.
  • AIDS in the Twenty-First Century: Disease and Globalization (2006), by Tony Barnett and Alan Whiteside, examines the social and economic effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, paying particular attention to Africa, where much of the populace is infected (more so than in any other part of the world). Many scientists also believe that the disease originated there. The authors explain how the disease is changing family structures, economic development, and even the security of countries in the developing world.


Claire Robinson

Claire Robinson has an M.A. in English. She is a former teacher of English literature and creative writing, and is currently a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, Robinson examines how the poet explores death and loss in his poem “The Wings.”

Doty has called AIDS (as cited by Michael Glover in the New Statesman) “the great intensifier.” Certainly, it intensifies the acute sense of death and loss that pervades “The Wings.” This theme is subtly introduced in the first lines of the poem, which opens at an auction where a dead woman's belongings are being sold off. The speaker also sees an old painting he has bought in light of the long-dead person who painted it. Indeed, the word “dead” chimes throughout the lines like the toll of a funeral bell. This is an example of Doty's ability to imbue ordinary phrases with more than ordinary weight through an accumulation of interconnected images, and this can also be seen in the phrase “When it's all over.” Superficially, the phrase refers to the end of the auction, but in the light of its position, after the appearance of the dead woman's things and the dead painter's work, it also connotes death.

Emerging from this world of death and loss is a semblance of life. All of the items initially discussed are man-made portrayals of nature, memorials of things that were once alive. The painting bought by the speaker, though it is by a dead artist, portrays a bunch of once-living irises, coated with a preserving varnish. The plates bought by a woman at the auction are decorated with flocks of birds. All the objects sold at the auction tell a story about real, living people, and though their most recent caretaker is dead, they will travel home with the new owners who, the poem says, will care for them. The stories told by the objects will be continued in a new place.

The many angels that appear in the poem take part in this creation and continuation of stories. The first angel appears when the boy slings a pair of old snowshoes across his back; for the speaker, the boy is suddenly transformed into an image of a winged angel. This boy-angel is indeed a kind of messenger, since he will “carry home the narrative of our storied, / scattering things.” He will unify the things that are scattered in the aftermath of death into a coherent story. Implicitly, the boy becomes linked in purpose with the poet, as this poem is the story of the poet and his now-dead lover. Story-telling is presented as a way of making some sense of death and loss.

As if cued by the boy-angel to tell the story of the dead, in the second section of the poem, the poet begins to recall his road trips with his now deceased lover. This time, the images of life are not portraits or semblances, but actual living things. The two men find an abandoned orchard containing “apples on the branch.” This discovery fulfills a desire expressed by the speaker's lover, rendering it a cherished event. Further reflecting this shift from a world where death dominates (*the auction of the dead woman's belongings) to a world where life is the prevailing theme (*the abandoned orchard), the poet addresses his lover directly, as if he were still alive: “Didn't you want” “And didn't we find,” he asks. In the orchard, deer are gorging themselves on windfall apples, an image of unalloyed gratification. Death remains in the background, but not as a forceful presence. It appears in the old barn “trying to collapse” (and not succeeding); in the fact that the orchard is abandoned, the past owners having died or left; and in the two men's attempts to prevent any apples from falling to the ground in case they should be spoiled.

On this trip, as at the auction, the poet and his lover succeed in distilling beauty from death. They find an old rabbit cage flanked by a pair of beautifully fashioned hares, which was once owned by “the loved companion/of a loved child,” both of whom are now likely dead. The same theme appears through the image of the maple branches they bring home. The leaves' living green color has been replaced by the “burning” color that appears in autumn. The leaves show that life is giving way to death, but there is beauty to be extracted from the process. The poet makes the poem, a work of art (or a thing of beauty), out of the death of his lover. The speaker wonders at the “grace and complexity” expressed in the apple and maple branches, which make them seem as if they are gifts offered by a divine creator. Thus, the speaker portrays the things of this world, even in the process of losing their life, as hinting at a celestial benevolence.

In the face of such meditations, Doty portrays the enjoyment of sensual and sexual pleasure without guilt or self-recrimination. If the apple-gorged deer in the second section of the poem showed the naturalness of sensual gratification, the wildflowers in the third section represent an intensification of that mood. The flowers, their heads “heaped upon one another,” “too wet and heavy / with their own completion to stand,” form a startlingly direct symbol of sexual satiety and post-coital exhaustion. Certainly, much poetry pits the claims of sensual and sexual pleasure against those of mortality and the knowledge of death. It is implied that the latter invalidates the former. Doty's poetry takes the opposite stance, consistently affirming the validity of sensuality in the face of death.

The speaker's bitter piece of advice, “Don't let anybody tell you / death's the price exacted / for the ability to love,” enforces this theme. These lines have an additional meaning in the context of homosexual love, as some who disapprove of homosexual sex claim that homosexuals who contract HIV/AIDS have brought the disease upon themselves. The speaker of the poem rejects the notion that death is the price paid for love: “couldn't we live forever / without running out of occasions?” He believes that even in a world of “endlessness” where death does not exist, love would persist.

As the moments of joy in the poem grow more vivid, so does the sense of loss. The fourth section of the poem uses the image of an art object, a quilt embroidered with the names of those who have died from AIDS, created by those who have been left behind. This art object is a progression from the precious objects and antiques featured earlier in the poem. Sewn into the quilt are pieces of clothing that belonged to the dead, and which once formed and shaped themselves around “one essential, missing body.” These pieces of clothing are unique, intensely personal, and they speak of the dead person more directly than do the embroidered names. In this scene of immense emotion, the poem's theme of death and loss rises to a climax. This is underlined by the speaker's stated failure to find the words to encompass his feelings. He is too overwhelmed by emotion: “It's the clothing I can't get past” and “One can't look past / the sleeves where two arms / were.” Where the antiques were poignant but ultimately merely reminiscent of an unknown owner, a piece of clothing that the dead beloved once wore “can't be generalized but was, / irretrievably, you, or yours.”

Falling away from this climax, the speaker shifts the narrative to the topic of planting his garden. The garden, unlike death, is responsive to the speaker's will; it is an “ordered enactment of desire,” something that “can be done.” The speaker's planting of the garden is full of angelic imagery. In the first instance (“I'm making an angel”), the angel itself is another made object, art created by the speaker out of living plants. The second and third instances of angelic imagery in the garden scene are not conscious creations, but rather they are “offered” gifts, like the maple branches from earlier in the poem. In the second instance, a lily-flowered tulip blooms only because of its inherent will to do so, and the petals of the tulip are described as being like “wings that will / blaze into the future.” Here, the angelic imagery connotes hope.

The third instance of angel-related imagery (or at least wing-related imagery) is the most memorable and climactic. The speaker recounts his dream of a bird, and his decision to take care of the bird seems to symbolize allowing homosexual relationships into his life after a period in which he denied his sexuality. The bird's tongue beginning to move is suggestive of kissing or foreplay. The whole experience is one of intense, shimmering vitality, expressed in the phrase, “lush green music.” The bird's wrapping of “the brilliant risk / of leaves all around my face” is an ecstatically sensual image which, in the unusual and striking use of the word “risk,” acknowledges the ever-present specter of HIV/AIDS. The threat of death and loss is imminent, but it does not diminish the speaker's joy in the experience he describes.

The bird has characteristics both of an animal and a plant. This links it in terms of imagery with the description of the garden that the speaker plants, and with the angel that he forms out of plants in the manner of a painting by Arcimboldo. The bird is further tied to the iconography of angels by the fact that both creatures have wings, and the speaker focuses predominantly on the wings of the angels when they are described. The title of the poem also reinforces this link. The effect of the story of the bird within the poem is to affirm homosexual sexuality and love as a life-enhancing, creative, and joyful experience. The bird, when viewed in context with the angels, further symbolizes that sexual love is a derivative of the compassion and divinity of angels.

The final section of the poem works like an epilogue, or a summing up of what has gone on before. No easy resolutions are offered, but the speaker derives some degree of “consolation” from an antique chair, the wood glowing from having been worn smooth by so “many arms / at rest.” The phrase “at rest” has connotations of death as well as of the simple relaxation to be had by sitting in the chair. Once again, the made object memorializes the person that has owned it. Paradoxically, the more the object is worn away, the more it becomes shaped and formed by its owner. The angel that the speaker invokes in the final lines of the poem applies this very principle to human life. It says: “your story, which you have worn away / as you shaped it, / … has become itself / as it has disappeared.” Thus, while life itself is the process of dying, as an individual life wears out, more of the inner beauty and essence of that life (*or person) is expressed, like the burning colors of dying maple leaves, or the glow of wood polished smooth by numerous arms. This is the way of nature: “Anything lived into long enough/becomes an orchard.” (It is also the way of the craftsman who makes beautiful objects (the painting, the chair) that memorialize the dead, and the way of the artist who tells the story of a loved one. Death and loss, as the things that evoke beauty from all things, are therefore refined and translated into a transcendent beauty in their own right.

Source: Claire Robinson, Critical Essay on “The Wings,” in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.


In the following essay, the critic gives a critical analysis of Doty's work.

Since the publication of his first volume of verse, Turtle, Swan, in 1987, Mark Doty has become recognized as one of the most accomplished poets in America. Like the work of James Merrill, Doty's utterings transcend the category of “gay poetry” to appeal to a diverse cross-section of readers; fittingly, Doty has won a number of prestigious literary awards, including the Whiting Writer's Award, the T. S. Eliot Prize (of which he was the first U.S. winner), the National Poetry Series, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the National Book Critics' Circle Award, and the PEN/Martha Albrand Award for first nonfiction. Doty, the son of an army engineer, grew up in a succession of suburbs in Tennessee, Florida, southern California, and Arizona. An ancestor, Edward Dotey, was, as Doty recounted in a 1996 Publishers Weekly interview, “the ‘archetypal American scoundrel,’” who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620, fought the first duel on American soil, and filed the first lawsuit in this country.

Doty described himself, in Publishers Weekly, as having been “a sissy” in childhood; frightened by his emerging sexual identity, he married hastily at age eighteen. After completing his undergraduate studies at Drake University in Iowa, he got a divorce and moved to Manhattan, where he paid his dues as a temporary office worker. He earned a master's degree in creative writing from Goddard College during part-time semesters; during the same period, he met his lasting love, Wally Roberts, a window-dresser at a department store. The couple lived together for twelve years in Manhattan and in Provincetown, Massachusetts; Wally's illness and death from AIDS, with which he was diagnosed in 1989 and to which he finally succumbed in January, 1994, was to be the central event of Doty's maturation as person and poet. (Doty himself tested negative for HIV.) In the interim, however, Doty was publishing his early work.

A first volume of poems, Turtle, Swan, was rejected by the publisher David Godine, only to be accepted by Godine after urgings from author Roger Weingarten whose works had also been published by Godine. On its publication in 1987, Booklist praised the “quiet, intimate” Turtle, Swan for turning the gay experience into “an example of how we live, how we suffer and transcend suffering,” while Marianne Boruch, in American Poetry Review, called the volume “a stunning arrival.” Doty's second collection, the 1991 Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, also won praise from critics. Miriam Levine, in American Book Review, appreciated Doty's gift for “simple speech,” and specified that “Doty's poems work best when he finds his way back and forth between the vernacular and the elegant music of desire and loss.” Booklist critic Pat Monaghan made a similar comment, delighting in the “combination of extreme formality and extreme accessibility” which made Bethlehem in Broad Daylight “one of the most satisfying of recent collections.”

Poetry reviewer David Baker commended Doty for “well-ordered poetry whose primary method is anecdotal, whose speaker is singular and personal, and whose vision is skeptical.” If there was a problem in Doty's work, Baker hypothesized, it was the poet's “detachment from his own story”—Doty, he claimed, approached his subjects as a “privileged observer and commentator.”

If this was indeed a problem, Doty went a long way toward dealing with it in his 1993 My Alexandria, which won the National Poetry Series contest and was therefore published by the University of Illinois Press. Here, Doty wrote about the pain of life as seen through the prism of AIDS. Yet, as Ray Gonzalez noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, “Doty goes beyond the triumph of the plague to write about life beyond this dark century. … He has the courage to extract beauty out of the living moments created by death. … The pain, the memories and the surviving beauty strengthen and nourish him.” Assessing the volume for the Yale Review, Vernon Shetley wrote, “Doty's writing displays tremendous craft in ways that have become fairly unusual in our poetry. … And one senses in the poetry as well an admirable assurance in the choices he makes.”

On the negative side, Shetley felt that Doty relied too much on a rich “gift for phrasemaking”; all in all, however, he hailed My Alexandria as evidence of “a big talent at work.” Jonathan Bing, the Publishers Weekly interviewer, looked back on My Alexandria in retrospect as “a watershed” in Doty's career,” full of “luminous studies of urban and natural flux.” Doty himself told Bing that he thought of My Alexandria as “a real change. … I was casting about for what would come next. And what came next for me was looking around at the present and adult life,” in contrast to the poems of remembered youth in his earlier books.

In February, 1996, James Fenton wrote about My Alexandria in the New York Review of Books on the occasion of the awarding of the T. S. Eliot Prize to that volume. Fenton pointed out the explicit homage to Robert Lowell in Doty's work, especially in the poem “Demolition,” whose subject was strikingly similar to that of Lowell's great “For the Union Dead.” “It's a gutsy act,” stated Fenton, who also praised the poem “Fog,” a response to Doty's and Wally's HIV tests as “the best poem in the book.” The volume as a whole, Fenton felt, was “a conscious evocation of a personal bohemia … tenderly evoked,” and it “hangs together so beautifully that it seems like a single orchestrated work.”

My Alexandria also led to the National Book Critics' Circle Prize for 1994, and to the publication of Doty's next volume, Atlantis, by a commercial house, HarperCollins, in 1995. Atlantis was a response to, and in many respects a description of, Wally's illness and death, and a Commonweal reviewer, the poet and memoirist Patricia Hampl, called it simply “miraculous.” Hampl loved Doty's casual voice and his ability to make something universal—“an emblem that springs open for us all”—out of an individual tragedy. She compared Doty to Keats in being “poised on exact perception. When he sees the ocean—the salt spray hits you.” Library Journal contributor Frank Allen praised the poems' painterly descriptions, while Yale Review critic Willard Spiegelman applauded both the works' visual quality and their “smooth, graceful” music. Savoring, as other critics had done before, Doty's ability to create beauty out of grief, Allen discerned the influences of Elizabeth Bishop, Amy Clampitt, and above all, Walt Whitman, and concluded, “No recent book so strongly warrants both tears and laughter.”

After Wally's death, Doty found himself unable to write or even read. However, the solicitation of a poem by a friend who was editing an anthology led him to the writing, not of a poem, but of a book-length memoir, Heaven's Coast, in which he came to grips, in prose, with Wally's life and death. “It was a real gift to be able to write it” at that troubled moment, Doty told Bing, and readers evidently felt the same way, for the book achieved high acclaim and was widely read. Doty deliberately refrained from organizing the book carefully; it was a patchwork quilt of memories, including quotations from friends' letters. Bernard Cooper in the Los Angeles Times Book Review expressed keen appreciation for this literary strategy: “How else, except with tentative, borrowed strength, can one grapple with the indifference of death?” Cooper called Heaven's Coast a “powerful memoir.”

Jim Marks in the Washington Post Book World found the book “unique among AIDS memoirs” for its author's “refusal to become dominated by his anger” and for his questioning of the appropriateness of beauty as a response to death. Marks found a great deal of appropriate beauty, however, in Doty's prose: “Even his considerable reputation could not have prepared readers for the astonishing beauty of these opening pages.” Responding to the scene of Wally's death, Marks wrote, “[Doty] takes us into the moment of death … in language that, purged of anger and grief, comes close to being transcendent.”

Following Heaven's Coast was the 1998 poetry collection Sweet Machine, a work in which “the poems … contemplate nature and art as the closest thing we have to an extravagant, if not transcendent, presence,” according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Though the collection “is the book of a freer, altogether less burdened spirit,” maintained a reviewer for Economist, Sweet Machine nevertheless appears to contain less intense subject treatment and “slacker” writing, according to the reviewer. However, in a review for Progressive, Joel Brouwer stated: “In Sweet Machine, we see an already masterful poet refusing to lapse into nostalgia or to unthinkingly reuse the poetic strategies that have served him so well in the past. Instead, we find Mark Doty exploring new territories and questioning himself at every turn.”

In 1999, Doty published a second memoir, Firebird,which a reviewer for Newsweek described as “The poet's beautifully written, hallucinatorily evocative memoir of growing up gay in baby-boom America.” A reviewer for Publishers Weekly said that the memoir is “beautifully and sensitively written,” but has less of an emotional impact and more of a mental one. In Firebird, Doty recalls his experiences as a young boy growing up, including those of an often difficult family life and an increasing awareness of his homosexuality. The Publishers Weekly reviewer commented as well that in the book the author “is at his best when describing his relationship to the idea of beauty and how it influenced his growth as an artist.”

In Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Doty presents an extended meditation on a Dutch still-life painting by Jan Davidsz de Heem, painted in Antwerp 350 years ago. The slim volume “takes [the] reader deep into the painting,” according to Peter Marcus in the Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide. Marcus noted, “Doty's prose sentences read much like lines of his poetry: they beg the reader to pause, to reread, to consider all their complexities. … Still Life is a meditation on how a painting can capture the ephemeral.” In Lambda Book Report, Jim Gladstone wrote that the book was “slim yet infinitely rereadable,” and in Library Journal, Carol J. Binkowski commented that the volume “should be lingered over and reread to uncover the full depth of its beauty and insight.”

Source: Gale, “Mark A. Doty,” in Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2007.

Roger Gilbert

In the following excerpt, Gilbert analyzes the angel imagery in Doty's poem “The Wings.” The critic discusses how Doty “is careful not to let his angels take on a fully supernatural presence,” instead endowing them with a real-world, active role in the poem. Gilbert also compares the language of the angel's lines with that from other artistic endeavors from the 1990s that feature angels.

Literary historians looking back on the poetry of the 1990s will surely be struck by what can only be called a plague of angels. Heavenly beings swarmed the decade's books and magazines like locusts. Consider just the titles of poetry volumes published in the last twelve years: by my count at least twenty-seven of them contain the word “angel” or some variant thereof. Many more individual poems published during the period featured angels prominently in their titles or texts. These angels were surprisingly ecumenical, favoring no particular school or mode of poetry but showing up in a wide variety of poetic settings and styles, from buttoned-down formalism to coffee-house surrealism and everything in between. I'd like to consider this obsession with angels as one symptom of a larger shift in tone and style visible even in nonangelic poetry of the nineties. My claim is that the evocation of angels and related figures by poets of many different stripes reflects a more general impulse to revive modes of representation that had come to seem increasingly illicit or unavailable in the ironic, postmodern eighties. Angels in particular seemed to offer nineties poets a way to mediate between sharply opposed realms: religion and history, heaven and earth, spirit and matter, the sublime and the profane. As instruments of divine revelation, angels gave poets access to visionary possibilities that had lain largely dormant in the seventies and eighties. Yet as peculiarly passive beings, possessed of little real agency or power, angels allowed poets to measure and describe the corrosive effects of history and materiality on the workings of pure spirit.

It would of course be easy to view the poetic fascination with angels in the nineties as a side effect of that widespread resurgence of eclectic spirituality known as the New Age, and certainly it can't be entirely dissociated from such broader cultural currents. Not surprisingly, apocalyptic imaginings ran wild in the decade leading up to the millennium. At the same time, a countervailing hunger for reassuring images of divine authority seems to have been widely felt. Angels turned up everywhere in the nineties: in movies (Wings of Desire, City of Angels, Angels in the Outfield, Michael), on television (Touched by an Angel), on CDs (Voice of an Angel), and on the bestseller list (A Book of Angels, Angelspeake). Tony Kushner's brilliant play cycle Angels in America was perhaps the decade's most serious and ambitious effort to bring angelic figures into contact with contemporary reality. By comparison, most popular representations of angels were thoroughly banal. As Harold Bloom noted in 1996: “Angels, these days, have been divested of their sublimity by popular culture … In our New Age, the upper spheres, where the angels live, are overpopulated, so that even the least deserving of us can be assigned a guardian messenger” (43). At their most insipid, nineties angels became glorified operators on a heavenly Psychic Hotline, dispensing advice and inspiration on demand. Needless to say, the angels that haunted the decade's poetry bore scant resemblance to these sentimental cartoons. Often blank, wounded, or ominous, the poets' angels offered little in the way of reassurance or guidance, instead embodying the terrors evoked by the encroaching millennium. Still, we should not dismiss the conjunction of popular and poetic tropes as mere historical coincidence. Despite their marginal position in contemporary culture, poets are never wholly immune to the obsessions of their zeitgeist, though they often produce more compelling and complex renderings of them …

Like Wallace Stevens, for whom angels were necessary fictions to be both celebrated and exposed, many nineties poets treated their angels as explicit constructs inviting a delicate mixture of reverence and detachment. In a 1978 essay entitled “What Was Modern Poetry?” Howard Nemerov offers some remarks that illuminate the characteristic stance of these poets toward their supernatural personae:

Devils and angels together, goblins and nymphs alike, appear to be progressively forbidden the poets just as they have progressively been exiled from the world, in the interest, it is supposed, of evidence, reason, clear thinking, common sense; but I rather doubt the poets are in a better position for that; and the last state of them is like enough to be worse than the first. For poetry was once the place where these entities did their proper work, where the exact degree of their fictitiousness could be measured against the exact degree of their quite real powers, and both could be experienced ideally, not fatally in the world of action. As Rudolf Steiner said so shrewdly, Think these thoughts without believing them.


Nemerov is writing at a moment when angels and other supernatural beings had largely disappeared from contemporary poetry; hence the rueful, nostalgic tone of his comments. Since then, of course, angels have made a spectacular comeback, very much in the spirit of Steiner's “Think these thoughts without believing them.” Nineties poets often present their angels sous rature, as it were, as in these lines by Michael Palmer:

Thus released, the dark angels converse with
   the angels of light.
They are not angels.
Something else.
(The Lion Bridge 250)

This gesture, invoking the category of angels while simultaneously questioning or denying it, recurred in many nineties poems, though not always so explictly. The “something else” that the word “angels” can only approximate remains undefined in this poem; Palmer's emphasis is on both the inescapability and the inadequacy of the traditional icon.

As Nemerov insists, fictitiousness and power need not be mutually exclusive. Many poets who call attention to the imagined or constructed character of their angels ascribe a performative agency to them that produces real effects. Mark Doty's beautiful long poem “The Wings,” from his 1993 volume My Alexandria, weaves together various images of angels—a boy carrying snowshoes on his back, characters in the German film Wings of Desire, a garden planting—with the poet's anxiety over his HIV-positive lover. Doty is careful not to let his angels take on a fully supernatural presence, yet even as fictions they prove surprisingly active. The poem's closing movement begins with the speaker in the role of teacher, expounding the power of artifice:

In my afternoon class the students
sit in a circle of chairs on the terrace,
and behind their faces, which seem then
so dizzyingly new, all the rich
commingling of leaves hurry downward
into latent shades too subtle
to ever name, colors
we perhaps can't register even once,
and they wonder why the poet we're reading's
so insistent on mortality. I want to tell them
how I make the angel, that form
between us and the unthinkable,
that face we give the empty ringing,
and how that form for me appears in a boy
with snowshoe wings slung across his
or in the child sprawled on the marble floor
of the post office yesterday,
who filled the echoing lobby with random
blown on her recorder, music made out of

The slight hesitation in the phrase “I want to tell them” suggests that for Doty the making of angels remains problematic, a fragile venture all too susceptible to mockery. Yet if the angel is “that form / between us and the unthinkable, / that face we give the empty ringing,” then without its mediation we would have no way to apprehend or confront those facts that exceed rational understanding: death, birth, infinity, eternity. Doty's emphasis on the private, idiosyncratic quality of his angelic imaginings (“for me”) allows him to bridge empirical and visionary registers while recognizing that such acts of bridging are fundamentally poetic or constructive.

Doty's interest in his angel is not merely poetic, however, but deeply personal, as the next stanzas reveal:

I let the light-glazed angel
in the children's bodies, the angel
with his face flushed in the heat
of recognizing any birth,
I let him bend over my desk and speak
in a voice so assured you wouldn't know
that anyone was dying. Any music's
made of waiting
, he says.
I make him again. Look,
it doesn't matter so much.
See into what you can.

I make the angel lean over our bed
in the next room, where you're sleeping
the sturdy, uncompromised sleep
of someone going to work early tomorrow.
I am willing around you, hard,
the encompassing wings of the one called
unharmed. His name is nowhere
in the concordance, but I don't care;
he's the rationale for any naming.

What lends the poem its special pathos is the figure of the sleeping lover, vulnerable but not yet ill, for whom the angel's protection is most urgently being invoked. (Not surprisingly, AIDS was a significant presence in much nineties poetry and undoubtedly played a role in the widespread turn to religious themes and tropes.) In an explicit revisionary gesture, Doty calls his angel “unharmed,” a name he admits is “nowhere / in the concordance” yet insists is “the rationale for any naming.” Making and naming the angel become an apotropaic ritual, a way of imaginatively warding off disaster while acknowledging its inevitability. What the speaker desperately wants from his angel—invulnerability for his sick lover—is not what the angel has to give, however. All this angel can offer is eloquence, an expression of mortal tenderness without the traditional comforts of religion:

A steady fine-pointed rain's
etching the new plantings,
and I'm making the rain
part of the angel. Try to be certain,
he says, where you're looking.
If you're offered endlessness,
don't do anything differently. The rule
of earth is attachment:
here what can't be held
is. You die by dying
into what matters, which will kill you,
but first it'll be enough. Or more than that:
your story, which you have zoom away
as you shaped it,
which has become itself
as it has disappeared.

Although Doty's angel is transparently fictive, as the repeated phrase “I make” concedes, he takes on a kind of oracular authority in these concluding stanzas, offering homiletic reassurances to his mortal creator. The thought expressed is a familiar one, a variant on Stevens's “Death is the mother of beauty,” itself a modulation of the ancient carpe diem motif. It's hard to imagine a poet in the ironic eighties writing in this unabashedly lofty vein; for Doty as for other nineties poets, the angelic persona sanctions a kind of utterance that might seem stilted or didactic in the voice of a human speaker. The words spoken here are of course Doty's own, yet by ventriloquistically projecting them into the angel's mouth, he estranges them, giving a face, a name, and a voice to what he had earlier called “the empty ringing.”

Where Doty places his angel under the sign of making or artifice, a number of nineties poets place theirs under the sign of unmaking or erasure. For them the angel is not a form between us and the unthinkable but a means of destroying all mediating forms, a way to imagine negation in its purest state.

Source: Roger Gilbert, “Awash with Angels: The Religious Turn in Nineties Poetry,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 42, No. 2, Summer 2001, pp. 238-69.

Deborah Landau

In the following essay, Landau here focuses on the political nature of My Alexandria, particularly as it addresses issues related to AIDS and homosexuality. The critic notes that although Doty does not adopt a “polemical” tone in these poems, he nevertheless does not merely create a personal, private poetry. Rather, his poems resonate on both a public and a political level, in so doing illuminating “Doty's visionary rewriting of oppressive myths about AIDS.”

… Doty has said of My Alexandria, “Alexandria … is that city of art—that made place, which is both the given and the way that we transform the given.” I will argue that Doty performs a crucial function in this desolate era not only by providing a record of massive destruction but also by reimagining the terms used to describe such destruction and envisioning possibilities for political, sensual, and spiritual redemption …

The poems of My Alexandria transform homophobic narratives about the disease, offer comfort to those living with HIV, and encourage empathy from those whose lives have not yet been affected by the virus. In “Dante on Fire Island: Reinventing Heaven in the AIDS Elegy,” James Miller praises poems that offer a “blessed moment of recovery when the dead rise from the mass graves dug for them by the fatalistic discourse of public health and join forces with the living against the World, the Flesh, and the Virus.” Mark Doty is a poet who envisions sustaining moments despite great suffering and offers his readers a “way to continue.” Although Doty's poems are not polemical, they counter reductive representations of people with AIDS, are accessible to a wider audience, and have the potential to improve public response to the epidemic.

Doty's My Alexandria, a collection of poems about mortality in the age of AIDS, fulfills Wallace Stevens's dictum that the poet's role is to “help people to live their lives.” If Auden was wrong and poetry can on occasion “make something happen,” Doty's visionary rewriting of oppressive myths about AIDS may help people live their lives in a more literal way than Stevens intended. Through discursive and ideological revisions, Doty's poems produce humane and comforting narratives that stand in sharp contrast to the hostile sociopolitical climate of the contemporary United States. His poems expose the codes that map meaning onto the HIV-positive body, destabilize the complex cultural networks that construct gay male identity in the context of the AIDS epidemic, and forge a transformed and transforming language in which to articulate love and loss.

My Alexandria enacts a semiological reframing of the AIDS epidemic. The book begins with “Demolition”—a fitting introduction to a volume of poems about mortality in a time of plague. A group of people gather on a city street “joined by a thirst for watching something fall,” as a bakery and florist shop topple leaving only “the ghost of their signs faint above the windows / lined, last week, with loaves and blooms.” In an image that uncovers the signs that stand in place of substance, “Demolition” exposes the gap between discourse and the material world and (although the poem contains no specific references to AIDS) initiates the thematic concerns of My Alexandria—a book largely about the rift between the ideology that surrounds the AIDS epidemic and the specific experiences of people living with HIV.

As the “brutish metal” eradicates the building and its signs, the speaker muses on how “in a week, the kids will skateboard / in their lovely loops and spray / their indecipherable ideograms” (2-3). Nothing can remain blank, but the progression from an ordered, stable structure to this improvisational scribbling suggests hope for a new, fluid language that will shape this space less rigidly. Indeed, by the end of the poem all that remains of the once-solid structure are “gaps / where the windows opened once.” Reveling in the freedom of unbounded space, Doty writes: “It's strange how much more beautiful / the sky is to us when it's framed by these columned openings someone meant us / to take for stone” (3).

By challenging the stability of structures that are meant to be taken for stone, “Demolition” sets the stage for later poems in the collection that discursively demolish constraining structures. The “articulate shovel” of “Demolition” functions as a metaphor for the poetry of My Alexandria, which “nudges the highest row of moldings” of an oppressive social order so that—at least in the world of the poems—“the whole thing wavers as though we'd dreamed it, / … and … topples all at once.”

In “Fog,” a poem about the three-week period during which Doty and his companion of twelve years, Wally Roberts, waited for HIV-test results, the speaker stands in his garden filled with “blood color” flowers and laments: “three weeks after the test, / the vial filled from the crook / of my elbow, I'm seeing blood everywhere” (33). While “Demolition” evokes the redemptive power of poetic language, “Fog” enacts such redemption by transforming the cultural coding of AIDS and situating the lovers' dreadful discovery in a world animated by compassionate spirits:

The thin green porcelain
teacup, our homemade Ouija's planchette,
rocks and wobbles every night, spins
and spells. It seems a cloud of spirits
numerous as lilac panicles vie for occupancy—
children grabbing for the telephone,
happy to talk to someone who isn't dead
Everyone wants to speak at once, or at least
these random words appear, incongruous
and exactly spelled: energy, immunity, kiss.
Then: M. has immunity. W. has.
And that was all. (33-34)

The poem exemplifies Doty's ability to perceive animation in the midst of a dying world and to contextualize grief within a spirit-filled garden. The speaker tells how “one character, Frank, … who lived in our house in the thirties, … asks us to stand before the screen / and kiss. God in garden, he says” (34).Doty's spirituality is unconventional and iconoclastic; his spirits request homoerotic union, and in place of a patriarchal “God” it is an invisible presence that moves in the garden:

Sitting out on the back porch at twilight,
I'm almost convinced. In this geometry
of paths and raised beds, the green shadows
of delphinium, there's an unseen rustling:
some secret amplitude
seems to open in this orderly space.
Maybe because it contains so much dying,
all these tulip petals thinning
at the base until any wind takes them.
I doubt anyone else would see that, looking in,
and then I realize my garden has no outside,
   only is
subjectively. As blood is utterly without
an outside, can't be seen except out of
the wrong color in alien air, no longer itself.

Although Doty does not write explicitly about the political world, his transformations are ideological as well as spiritual. Much as the speaker's garden is an “orderly space” in which design is imposed on wilderness, so his blood is coded by the medical establishment when tested for HIV. In the context of the discourses that define the AIDS epidemic, the speaker's blood—or his body—cannot be simply “itself.” As Douglas Crimp writes, “AIDS does not exist apart from the practices that conceptualize it, represent it, and respond to it.”

In the midst of this “alien air,” Doty's speaker describes the process of HIV testing in which their blood

submits to test, two
to be exact, each done three times,
though not for me, since at their first entry
into my disembodied blood
there was nothing at home there.
For you they entered the blood garden over
and over, like knocking at a door
because you know someone's home. Three
the Elisa Test, three the Western Blot,
and then the incoherent message. We're
the public health care worker's
nine o'clock appointment,
she is a phantom hand who forms
the letters of your name, and the word
that begins with P. (35)

Because the terminology of an anonymous bureaucrat is painful and alienating, Doty seeks another language to assimilate this information that will elude—or at least loosen—the grip of the “phantom hand” of systemic discourse. Knowing that the cultural significance of his lover's HIV status is fixed by the word “that begins with P,” the speaker resists that language, and will not say the word positive:

peony, I would think of anything
not to say the word …

Every new bloom is falling apart.
I would say anything else
in the world, any other word. (36)

The speaker's wish to “say any other word” reflects a fierce need to deny his lover's HIV status, as well as a desire for a language that would enable him to narrate this experience in his own terms: a “secret amplitude” to enable breathing room amidst—and despite—the discourses that script the cultural meaning of AIDS. Like James Merrill, who often used the ouija board as a tool for composing poems, Doty takes the ouija board in “Fog” (like Merrill's, “homemade”) as a figure for the process of generating alternative narratives and exploring uncharted territory. And, indeed, he does succeed in saying “other words”: the word “positive” does not appear anywhere in the poem.

Although Joseph Cady might read the speaker's refusal to say HIV positive as a problematically “counterimmersive” moment that echoes public denial of AIDS, from another perspective Doty can be said to resist oppressive cultural responses in “Fog” by forging alternative narratives to those of public health discourse. The test results are devastating, yet Doty contextualizes Wally's HIV status within a spirit-infused garden and narrates the situation in tender, compassionate language to affirm love and spirituality.

“The Wings”—a poem of anticipatory grief for an HIV-positive lover—is another text in which Doty forges alternative ways to speak about love and loss in the context of the AIDS epidemic. Reflecting on a fall landscape, he writes:

There were geese. There were:
the day's narration is simple assertion;
it's enough to name the instances.
Don't let anybody tell you
death's the price exacted
for the ability to love;
couldn't we live forever
without running out of occasions?

In contrast to Liu's portrayal of same-sex couplings as lethal, Doty rejects the link between love and death and challenges narratives that portray homoerotic love as self-destructive. While Paul Monette's poems forcefully refute homophobic myths, Doty goes beyond refusal to transform oppressive ideology (“death's the price exacted / for the ability to love”) into a celebration of love between men (“couldn't we live forever / without running out of occasions?”).

James Miller describes a similar moment in an earlier poem, “Tiara,” in which Doty's speaker tells of overhearing a damning stereotype at a friend's funeral: “And someone said he asked for it. / Asked for it.” In an interview, Doty summarized the events that occasioned the poem: “‘Tiara’ is an elegy for a friend of mine who was a drag queen, always out in clubs … After he died someone said at his wake, ‘Well, he asked for it.’ I was filled with rage at that ridiculous notion that we invite our own oppression as a consequence of pleasure.” In “Tiara,” as in “The Wings,” Doty does not merely refute this myth but transmutes it into what Miller describes as “a collective defense of our stampeding life in the body”:

the world's perfectly turned shoulders,
the deep hollows blued by longing,
given the irreplaceable silk
of horses rippling
in orchards, fruits thundering
and chiming down, given salt
and a tongue to long for it
and gravity, what could he do,
what could any of us ever do
but ask for it.

These lines exemplify Doty's ability to take a derogatory phrase as an occasion to affirm homoerotic love and desire—what he describes as a “redemptive re-evaluation or revisioning. To say, well, there is a way in which we ask for it! We love the world! We want to have sex! We desire beauty! We love whatever it is that we love.”

“The Wings” moves from the myth that HIV is a by-product of gay love to another cultural text, the AIDS Memorial Quilt:

In the Exhibition Hall each unfurled
three-by-five field bears
in awkward or accomplished embroidery
a name, every banner stitched to another
and another. They're reading
the unthinkable catalog of the names,
so many they blur, become
a single music pronounced with difficulty
over the microphone, become a pronoun,
become You. It's the clothing I can't get past,
the way a favorite pair of jeans,
a striped shirt's sewn onto the cloth;
the fading, the pulls in the fabric
demonstrate how these relics formed around
one essential, missing body.
An empty pair of pants
is mortality's severest evidence.
Embroidered mottoes blend
into something elegiac but removed;
a shirt can't be remote.
One can't look past
the sleeves where two arms
were, where a shoulder pushed
against a seam, and someone knew exactly
how the stitches pressed against skin
that can't be generalized but was,
irretrievably, you, or yours.

In contrast to the homophobic ideology that represents AIDS as deserved retribution for sex between men, the quilt offers a compassionate, elegiac narrative for those lost to the epidemic. While the passage foregrounds the specificity of those memorialized, the two moments at which the poem pauses on the pronoun “you” blur the distinction between the dead and the reader to emphasize that those lost to AIDS could be anybody—not only the speaker's beloved but the reader, or someone he or she has loved. Through this blurring, Doty brings his readers into the poem in a way that dissolves the boundaries between one body and another and counters the prevalent tendency to see people with AIDS as Other.

Meditations on the loss brought on by this plague—and an awareness that his lover's name might soon also be embroidered into the fabric of the quilt—inspire the speaker to “make an angel” by planting a garden that enables “buried wishes” to

become blooms,
supple and sheened as skin. I'm thinking
of the lily-flowered kind
on slim spines, the ones
that might as well be flames,
just two slight wings that will
blaze into the future;
I have to think they have a will,
a design so inherent in the cells
nothing could subtract from them
the least quotient of grace …

This garden is the birthplace of Doty's angel and suggests the reincarnation of the speaker's lover into a “human profile / … all berry and leaf.” The image of winged, flame-like flowers evokes a fluid and elusive sphere of physical experience, as if the beloved has been resurrected in a medium that defies all physical and cultural constraints. By claiming irreducible grace for these metaphoric blooms, the poet envisions a redeemed world untouched by the rhetoric that makes “death the price exacted / for the ability to love.”

The image of winged blooms leads into a passage celebrating homoerotic desire:

I dreamed
the night after the fall planting,
that a bird who loved me
had been long neglected, and when
I took it from the closet and gave it water
its tongue began to move again,
and it began to beat the lush green music
of its wings, and wrapped the brilliant risk
of leaves all around my face.

Doty's attachment to the regenerating power of the erotic contrasts sharply with the mutilated genitals of Liu's “Eros Apteros” and Gunn's relegation of sexuality to the irretrievable past. By affirming sensuality despite—and in the midst of—risk, “The Wings” defies what Douglas Crimp identifies as “the comfortable fantasy that AIDS would spell the end of gay promiscuity, or perhaps gay sex altogether.”

Although Doty's speaker finds himself holding a book entitled A Literal, Critical and Systematic Description of Objects, he turns away from that text to articulate experiences that elude rigid coding:

all the rich
commingling of leaves hurry downward
into latent shades too subtle
to ever name, colors
we perhaps can't register even once,
and they wonder why the poet we're reading's
so insistent on mortality. I want to tell them
how I make the angel, that form
between us and the unthinkable.

If no one can articulate the “unthinkable,” Doty gestures towards unbounded experience by locating himself in an epistemological space between the boundaries of the social order and the unimaginable. The angel enables the poet to speak of experiences that cannot be neatly categorized and certainly would not appear in A Literal, Critical and Systematic Description of Objects.

As in Tony Kushner's Angels in America, unconventional spirituality emerges in My Alexandria as a salve for the suffering associated with the AIDS epidemic; Doty's angels, like Kushner's, are healing, redemptive, libidinous, and visionary. While for Timothy Liu AIDS brings the extinction of angels (“We often made angels on your lawn, watching the bodies fade a little more / each day, until the wings were gone” [“Last Christmas,” Vox Angelica, 55]), for Doty, the AIDS epidemic necessitates the creation of angels:

I make the angel lean over our bed
in the next room, where you're sleeping

I am willing around you, hard,
the encompassing wings of the one called
unharmed. His name is nowhere
in the concordance, but I don't care;
he's the rationale for any naming.

Angel-making is Doty's metaphor for the poetry-making process that enables him to speak, at least for a moment, “in a voice so assured you wouldn't know / that anyone was dying.” If mainstream discourses script people with AIDS as alone and despondent, Doty's angel-laden poetry forges a language that deems his beloved friend “unharmed.” Certainly Stevens's necessary angel is behind Doty's angel, but in contrast to Stevens's central man who singularly “sums us up,” Doty's angel stands on the margins of American culture, searching for words that elude systematic terminology and cannot be found in any concordance.

The angel's narrative about mortality gives closure to the poem:

You die by dying
into what matters, which will kill you,
but first it'll be enough. Or more than that:
your story, which you have worn away
as you shaped it,
which has become itself
as it has disappeared.

Doty's angel endows the dying man with the power to narrate his own life and death and enables him to retain his autonomy and integrity despite the “alien air” of public rhetoric.

“Brilliance” also revises stereotypes about people with AIDS. “Maggie's taking care of a man / who's dying,” Doty writes in the opening lines of the poem, which tells of a man with AIDS who has given up, “paid off his credit card,” and “found a home for” his pets since “he can't be around dogs or cats / too much risk”:

He says,
I can't have anything.
She says, A bowl of goldfish?
He says he doesn't want to start
with anything and then describes
the kind he'd maybe like,
how their tails would fan
to a gold flaring. They talk
about hot jewel tones,
gold lacquer, say maybe
they'll go pick some out
though he can't go much of anywhere and
abruptly he says I can't love
anything I can't finish
He says it like he's had enough
of the whole scintillant world. (65-66)

The passage above fits Douglas Crimp's description of the cultural stereotypes of people with AIDS—“that they are … debilitated by the syndrome … generally alone, desperate, but resigned to their ‘inevitable’ deaths”—stereotypes that Crimp argues fail to empower people with AIDS to fight to improve the quality of their lives. But “Brilliance” goes on to counter such reductive representations:

Later he leaves a message:
Yes to the bowl of goldfish.
Meaning: let me go, if I have to,
in brilliance.

So, Maggie's friend—
is he going out
into the last loved object
of his attention?
Fanning the veined translucence
of an opulent tail,
undulant in some uncapturable curve,
is he bronze chrysanthemums,
copper leaf, hurried darting,
doubloons, icon-colored fins
troubling the water? (66-67)

The last lines of the poem present the fusion between the sick man and the scintillant fish as a subversive and defiant response to an oppressive world. Doty's story of a man who retains pleasurable attachment to the sensual world despite his rapidly approaching death contrasts dramatically with Gunn's depiction of dying as a “difficult, tedious, painful enterprise” because the two poems serve contrasting purposes. Gunn's is a cathartic lament in which both speaker and reader are immersed in the details of AIDS-related illness, while Doty's poem is a soothing reverie that counters mainstream representations of people with AIDS and gestures towards a world beyond brutality and suffering.

“Bill's Story” is another exploration of alternatives to conventional narratives about death and dying. The poem is about the speaker's sister Anne, who returns from Africa with dementia—“the first sign of something / we didn't even have a name for, / in 1978.” When Anne is hospitalized years later, Doty's speaker recalls:

my mother needed something
to hold onto, some way to be helpful.
so she read a book called Deathing
(a cheap, ugly verb if ever I heard one)
and took its advice to heart;
she'd sit by the bed and say, Annie
look for the light, look for the light.

It was plain that Anne did not wish
to be distracted by these instructions;
she came to, though she was nearly gone
and looked at our mother with what was
   almost certainly
annoyance. It's a white light,
Mom said, and this struck me
as incredibly presumptuous, as if the light
we'd all go into would be just the same.
Maybe she wanted to give herself up
to indigo, or red. If we can barely even speak
to each other, living so separately,
how can we all die the same? (68-69)

Much as the man in “Brilliance” chooses “jewel tones” and “gold lacquer” over muted tones of desperation, here the speaker rejects the mythical white light and muses instead on the transportative power of other colors. “Maybe her light was all that gabardine / and flannel, khaki and navy / and silks and stripes,” he says, referring to Anne's preference for eccentric costumes in her work as a performance artist. By writing poems about individual people with AIDS and their own particular acts of expression and triumph, Dory responds to Crimp's call for “counter-images, images of PWA [people with AIDS] self-empowerment”

Doty's narratives are consoling as well as revisionary. In “Becoming a Meadow” the speaker takes refuge in a bookstore during a snow storm and muses on the words “becoming a meadow,” a phrase that he finds particularly beautiful because

a meadow accepts itself as various, allows
some parts of itself to always be going away,
because whatever happens in that blown,
ragged field of grass and sway
is the meadow, and threading the frost
of its unlikely brilliance yesterday
we also were the meadow. In the bookstore
while you are reading and I am allowing
simply to be comforted by the presence of
the bound, steady presences on the shelves,
fixed as nothing else is, I am thinking of my
of decay, the little hell opening in every violated
the virus tearing
away—is it?—and we are still a part of the
because I am thinking of it, hearing
the bell-phrase of it: Head of the Meadow
in my head. The titles of books,
the letters of the writers' names blow
like grasses, become individual stalks,
seedheads, burrs, rimed swell
of dune on which the beach grass is writing
   its book
in characters unreadable or read:
the meadow-book
you are writing, and which you read. (75-76)

The speaker's anxiety about his own HIV status is at the center of this passage, but Doty recontextualizes that pressing question in a calm and fluid world. The meadow is a place in which conventional narratives about mortality dissolve so that—at least in the realm of the poem—the world itself is utterly transformed:

And if one wave breaking says
You're dying, then the rhythm and shift of
   the whole
says nothing about endings, and half the
   shawling head
of each wave's spume pours into the trough
of the one before,
and half blows away in spray, backward,
   toward the open sea. (76)

This is another of Doty's revisionary moments. The shift from a single, fixed narrative (“you're dying”) towards unbounded space is comforting and decentralizes the question (“the virus tearing / away—is it?”) that threatens to define a person's entire identity on the basis of his HIV status.

For Doty, poetry is a medium for imagining temporary exemption from history, from the physical and cultural constraints that circumscribe sensation and experience. By revealing the myths and politics that construct the AIDS epidemic and by depicting individual acts that defy the pressure of those constructions, My Alexandria transforms the terms that limit the lives and deaths of people with AIDS. Doty tells of letters from readers that confirm the consoling and redemptive power of these poems: “Some who found their own experience of a lover's illness mirrored or defined; … straight readers who … wrote to tell … about arriving at a new understanding of homosexual relationships.” Doty cites these letters as tangible evidence of the transformative potential of poetry: “Wouldn't it be wonderful if poetry could have … broader impact … I no longer agree with Auden's famous formulation, since I have seen such potent connections between people formed because of poems. I know that these do not in themselves constitute social change, but I have been lucky enough to be on the receiving end of some remarkable communications from readers.”

Many readers have written to Doty to acknowledge the extent to which his poems have helped them cope with the illness or loss of a lover:

I want to thank you for your collection of poems, My Alexandria. A beautiful, beautiful book.

Lately I have been mourning the death of my lover. I have been trying to understand what I have lost, what exactly I have gained, (ache), how to forgive and how to ask for forgiveness. Your poems opened me and stilled me. Thank you.

Another reader, describing his growing apprehension about the future in light of his partner's worsening health, writes:

Reading your book of poems heightened and focused my feelings to a degree little else has done in a long time; what had seemed like a whirlpool of emotions and ideas, as I look both back and ahead, has calmed—I might say has been refined by the clarity of your vision and your ability to convey that vision in beautiful form and language.

Others write to express gratitude for Doty's ability to articulate what has not been adequately voiced elsewhere in American culture: “As a young gay writer, I find myself casually marginalized everywhere I turn … so what a relief it is for me to turn to your words.” Another reader writes, “I find a new world in your work … I walk down a street and hear your words. You have made something that exists outside itself. Something that lives and is there because you have made it possible.” Still another shares his reaction to encountering Doty's words: “I had to stop every few minutes to scribble madly in my journal and I kept saying to myself ‘Yes! Yes!’”

Although the impact of poetry on the social order may be indirect and obscure, these letters suggest that if Doty's reimaginings of this epidemic were to permeate social conceptions of AIDS, they might make the world a less brutal place. As William Carlos Williams writes:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

Commenting on this passage, Doty affirms the relevance of Williams's words: “I believe that ‘what is found there’ might alleviate misery, if not postpone death … If ‘what is found there’ might help us all to re-imagine the disease, and rewrite the repetitive texts of homophobia and fear of otherness, then in fact poetry might keep people from dying. Let's hope that whatever contribution we can make is one more shoulder put to the wheel.”

Source: Deborah Landau, “‘How to Live. What to Do.’: The Poetics and Politics of AIDS,” in American Literature, Vol. 68, No. 1, March 1996, pp. 193-225.

Calvin Bedient

In the following essay, Bedient assesses the language and imagery of My Alexandria. He comments on the “sunny side” of the poems in the collection, noting that Doty highlights the positive aspects of life while also dealing with themes of illness and death. Bedient criticizes Doty's “ever-present pulled-taffy tone and syntax” but also commends the poet for the vision and imagination he displays in the volume.

Between Pater and Pantheism. Mark Doty walks on the sunny side of Pater's still impressive, pathos-and-beauty-ridden sense of reality. Where Pater emphasized the elemental forces ceaselessly “parting on their ways,” undoing us, Doty accentuates the ensemble [in My Alexandria]. Life is not a thing of darkness; there are riches for the tasting, the taking, the telling. Consider “the unlikely needlepoint” that wild asters make of an October slope. Life is an obvious good. “It's enough to name the instances.” “Couldn't we live forever / without running out of occasions?” Nothing is a poverty: “Anything lived into long enough / becomes an orchard.” “Even the most circumstantial things / are holy in themselves.” We can make earthly angels of ourselves—make “the rain / part of the angel.” Yes, we will die, but first “what matters” will have proved to “be enough. Or more than that.” (All quotations are from “The Wings.”)

At the end of the century that confirmed psychological abysses and bombed up a global atmosphere of disaster, even such modest affirmations have become wagers. Doty's seem a sort of class embroidery, remote from the Third World. Yet the best hope remains the testimony of some of the survivors of atrocity: the reaffirmation of the simple blessing of sunshine, work, and community that Terrence des Pres summarized in his book The Survivor, and Doty is not far from this testimony. Not far at all.

Certainly “The Wings” has authority compared to the romantic apologies of “Tiara” an earlier poem of Doty's reprinted in Poets for Life. “Tiara,” recounts that tension breaks at a funeral when someone says of the dead man, referring to the closed casket, he's “in there in a big wig / and heels,” but returns when someone else says “he asked for it”:

Asked for it—when all he did
was go down into the salt tide
of wanting as much as he wanted,
giving himself over so drunk
or stoned it almost didn't matter who,
though they were beautiful,
stampeding into him in the simple,
ravishing music of their hurry.

“What could he do, / what could any of us ever do / but ask for it,” the poet punningly asks at the end, braving the fact that the past tense of the second “could” betrays caution and that the question isn't really rhetorical even if it seals itself off by omitting the question mark. The poem is egregious in its go-for-broke erotic romanticism. Such lines as “the simple [!] / ravishing music [!] of their hurry” and “dreaming and waking men lie / on the grass while wet blue horses [!] / roam among them, huge fragments [!] / of the music we die into [!] / in the body's paradise” are more wide-eyed than sensual, more purple than blue.

In a later poem on a transvestite, “Esta Noche,” placed in the first part of My Alexandria, Doty applauds the stage-lit black-silk-draped “la fabulosa Lola” (“a man / you wouldn't look twice at in street clothes, / two hundred pounds of hard living, the gap in her smile / sadly narrative”):

Tonight, she says,
put it on. The costume is license
and calling. She says you could wear the whole
black sky and all its spangles. It's the only
we have to stand on. Put it on,
it's the only thing we have to wear.

Apart from confusing what you stand on with what you can put on, the lines reduce nature to so much black stuff best used to adorn the “sad” human form. They support a sentimental vanity, at best. (Merrill celebrates a “fabulous” getup in these AIDS days with more Paterian finesse in The Inner Room.) But as a seer, Doty has proven commendably ad hoc, experimental, if within a narrow, noncontradictory range. “The Wings” is evidence of this; and two strong poems near the end of My Alexandria, “Night Ferry” and “Becoming a Meadow,” also provide wiser perspectives than do “Esta Noche” and “Tiara.”

In “Night Ferry,” the self-admitted fiction of the world as a story (another pedal point in the book) first appears in a gorgeous image for reflected dock lights: “their colors / on the roughened surface combed / like the patterns of Italian bookpaper, / lustrous and promising. The narrative / of the ferry begins and ends brilliantly.” The end of the poem both takes up the figure again and pokes an air hole through its paper walls:

There's no beautiful binding
for this story, only the temporary,
liquid endpapers of the hurried water,
shot with random color. But in the gliding
a scent so quick and startling
it might as well be blowing
off the stars. Now, just before we arrive,
the wind carries a signal and a comfort,
lovely, though not really meant for us:
woodsmoke risen from the chilly shore.

We find here Doty's ever-present pulled-taffy tone and syntax (his voice's prison and its gift). But in this rhythmically beguiling poem we find, too, a caution before the temptations of narcissistic illusion, a lucid bargaining at the table of the little that life offers as comfort, which distinguishes it from “Esta Noche.”

If the virus is only implicit in “Night Ferry” (in an interview in the 1994 annual issue of Provincetown Art, Doty notes that being under so low-hanging a sword as AIDS intensifies the need to “love what is passing” and “to think about what it means to be temporary”), “Becoming a Meadow” pulls it out of the shadows: “I am thinking of my terror / of decay, the little hell opening in every violated cell, / the virus tearing / away—is it?” Really less a tearing away, as I understand it from Warner C. Greene's article “AIDS and the Immune System” in the September 1993 issue of Scientific American, than the virus' con-mannish entry into the cell, its subsequent confusion of the cell's identity by insinuating itself into the cell's chromosomal structure through a semiemulative, quick-change artistry in regard to its own constitution and consequent reduction of the cell to serving as the ground of its replication—a dizzying cycle of extraordinary complexity. (The virus itself has over 9,000 “bases” and more genes at its beck and call than other viruses have ever dreamed of.) The insidious complexity of the virus, not to mention what Greene calls its “rapid Darwinian evolution” (the result of the “error” it makes approximately once in every 2,000 incorporated nucleotides, leading to a constant generation of new variants of viral proteins), flies at a ripping angle from the large view of things that Doty creates in “Becoming a Meadow.” Here, and despite Doty's own description of a viral “tearing,” the world is a rhythmic whole of apparently harmonious comings and goings—the sweetest paganism. But Doty gives the idea considerable dignity, even so. Standing in a bookstore, “comforted” as usual “by the presence of stories,” he remembers a recent walk with his companion in Head of the Meadow by the “waves / endless rows of bold cursive,” and even as he thinks of his “terror of decays” he feels that “we are still a part of the meadow.” Indeed, the books around him are “like grasses,” the “whole place … / is one undulant, salt-swollen meadow of water” where waves swell again and again “like the baskets of bread / and fish in the story, the miracle baskets.” Not uncharacteristically, the elaboration of this conceit is, however elegantly, forced; and the miracle of a Creation renewed in each instant should probably be introduced as more than a simile (as it is, also via “baskets,” in a famous passage in Whitman's “Song of Myself”), or not at all—as it is, it feels slipped in and put over. In any case, the following vision, which brings Dante's terza rima down to all there is of an earthly paradise, or of any paradise, is perhaps as imaginative, surprising, unfeverish, freeing, and, withal, plausible an affirmation of things as they are as anyone has yet devised in these AIDS days:

a meadow accepts itself as various, allows
some parts of itself to always be going away,
because whatever happens in that blown,
ragged field of grass and sway
is the meadow, and threading the frost
of its unlikely brilliance yesterday
we also were the meadow

Source: Calvin Bedient, “These AIDS Days,” in Parnassus, Vol. 20, Nos. 1-2, 1995, pp. 197-231.


“2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic,” Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, 2006, p. 53.

Bergman, David, “The Ineffable Being of Light,” in the Gay & Lesbian Review, Vol. 9, No. 3, May 2002, p. 38.

Doty, Mark, “The Wings,” in My Alexandria, National Poetry Series, 1993, pp. 39-51.

Gilbert, Roger, “Awash with Angels: The Religious Turn in Nineties Poetry,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 42, No. 2, Summer 2001, pp. 238-69.

Glover, Michael, Review of Atlantis, in the New Statesman, Vol. 125, No. 4294, July 26, 1996, p. 47.

Gonzalez, Ray, “Something from Nothing,” in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 31, 1993, p. 12.

Hennessy, Christopher, “Going to the Source: An Interview with Mark Doty,” in the Lambda Book Report, Vol. 10, No. 11, June-July 2002, p. 13.

———, “Ten Ways of Looking at Gay Poetry,” in the Gay & Lesbian Review, Vol. 12, No. 5, September-October 2005, p. 11.

Herek, Gregory M., and John P. Capitanio, “A Second Decade of Stigma: Public Reactions to AIDS in the United States, 1990-91,” in the American Journal of Public Health, 1993, Vol. 83, No. 4, pp. 574-77.

Landau, Deborah, “‘How to Live. What to Do.’: The Poetics and Politics of AIDS,” in American Literature, Vol. 68, No. 1, March 1996, pp. 193-94.

Marcus, Peter, “Reflections on Intimacy,” in the Gay & Lesbian Review, Vol. 8, No. 5, September 2001, p. 42.

Marks, Marjorie Lewellyn, Review of My Alexandria, in the Los Angeles Times, September 5, 1993, p. 6.

Padel, Ruth, “Books: Every Sequin is an Act of Praise; America's Star Poet Dazzles his Fans. But is their New Emperor Naked?”, in the Independent, July 11, 1998, p. 12.

“A Report from the Frontline of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic,” American Civil Liberties Union AIDS Project, 2003, (accessed April 13, 2007).

Smith, Bruce, Review of My Alexandria, in the Boston Review, Vol. 18, No. 5, October-November 1993, p. 33.

Wunderlich, Mark, “About Mark Doty,” in Ploughshares, Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring 1999, p. 183.


Andriote, John-Manuel, Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America, University of Chicago Press, 1999.

This book provides a survey of the ways in which AIDS has changed gay social and political life in the United States. With a mix of journalism, cultural analysis, and personal reminiscences, Andriote's study focuses on the period from the early 1980s, when AIDS first appeared in gay urban neighborhoods, to the 1996 visit of President Clinton to the AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington, D.C.

Campbell, Catherine, Letting Them Die: Why HIV/AIDS Prevention Programmes Fail, Indiana University Press, 2003.

This thoroughly researched book analyzes the complex social reasons why people in the AIDS-ravaged countries of Africa continue to die of the disease and why the rate of infection is so high. Campbell argues that people at risk must be involved in protecting the health of their own communities in ways that are culturally acceptable to each individual community.

Creswell, Julia, The Watkins Dictionary of Angels, Sterling, 2006.

This dictionary contains over 2,000 entries describing and defining the various types of angels that appear in the religious texts of the world. The dictionary also includes entries about angels that appear in literature, art, film, myth, and folklore. This book is a useful tool for discovering the many purposes that angels have served in different religions, cultures, art forms, and historical periods.

Pastore, Judith Laurence, ed., Confronting AIDS through Literature: The Responsibilities of Representation, University of Illinois Press, 1993.

This anthology of essays by several authors considers how literature is being used to discuss AIDS as a medical, social, and literary phenomenon. The book includes essays by authors of fiction for young readers and for adults; a sample of creative writing about AIDS, and a section on how AIDS literature can be used by teachers.