I've been reading Mark Doty's new book of poems, School of the Arts. Though it is not as strong as Atlantis, or Source, two of my faves, there is much to admire here. For instance, the series of five "Heaven" poems, which give a subtle structure to the book. Each is written as an empathic look at what "heaven" might be to a special someone in his life: three of them are written for human friends ("Heaven to Helen," "Heaven to Stanley" (as in Stanley Kunitz), and "Heaven to Paul"); and two of them are written, I believe, for his dogs ("Heaven to Beau," and "Heaven to Arden").
There are, in fact, many poems about Doty's dogs in this book, and though I am not a fan of dogs, or any pets for that matter, I felt that these were perhaps some of the strongest poems in the book. Particularly "Ultrasound" which dramatizes a visit to the vet for his ailing pooch, and which has all the caring and affection one would expect to see for an ill child, partner, or parent. Also "The Stairs," about Doty's aging dog Arden — who is unable to climb the stairs and sleep at the foot of the bed any longer, and is now sleeping outside in the garden, under the stars — is wonderfully understated and arresting.
There is an intriguing long poem, "The Vault," which explores S/M and B/D attraction, and opens with the lines: "What can be said of this happiness?/The bootblack boy on his knees/in the dim of the bar gives himself/completely to the work of polishing." Of course, the boy is polishing, with his tongue, the boots (and body?) of his master.
One of my favorite poems is "Heaven for Paul," about Doty and his partner being aboard a plane that must make an emergency landing. Doty is in terror, afraid of loss of control, of life in the face of death; while Paul becomes "increasingly radiant" and calm.
The title of the book is ironic, I believe, meaning that we are, in the end, "schooled" by the arts rather than master of them. The poem "The Art Auction" is about being at a community art sale/fundraiser, and gazing at the ghastly dated offerings, and wondering "Who'll by this stuff?" And coming to the conclusion: "Art's all bad, isn't it; what doesn't fail?/And thus there's something noble about the crap, too,//and hopeful and misguided, as much a part/of this town's soul as any achievement is. We live/by our intentions, after all."
And Doty's intentions, here, are admirable.