Shelf Talking: Mark Doty’s DEEP LANE

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The Talkers: Keaton Patterson (Book Buyer and Beard Model) and Ben Rybeck (Marketing Director and Hair Model)
The Book: DEEP LANE by Mark Doty
The Shelf: An award-winning poet’s latest collection deals with memory and gardening—“basically,” Keaton says, “a collection of poems only an older poet could write”

1. “Beauty’s the least of it”

Ben: Doty writes this in the very first poem. Is that true of this

Keaton: One of my mentors in college said something: poetry, in one way or another, is always about poetry. So is a poem meant to be strictly for beauty, or is it meant to have a meditative, spiritual, philosophical quality to it?

Ben: One of the interesting tensions in this book is between the beauty of language and also the pain of living, for lack of a better term. It’s right there in the first stanza: “I’m talking to the anvil of darkness: / break-table, slab no blow could dent / rung with the making, and out of that chop and rot...” All these tough sounds, right? And then the last line, “The fresh surf of the lupines”—everything gets lovely, smooth there. There’s a turn. All this darkness and hard work, but there’s still this beauty at the core of it.

Keaton: The gardening metaphor that runs through this book epitomizes how decay and growth are inseparable. All these reminiscences Doty has about fellow poets and lovers and people in his past, they’re all bittersweet.

2. Dinner with Alan Dugan

Ben: Do you know Alan Dugan’s work?

Keaton: Not much.

Ben: “Apparition” is a great poem…they’re at the dinner, and he watches Dugan cut his nails.

Keaton: It’s the simple, miniscule details that stick with you, whether with poetry or friendship or love.

Ben: Also, it’s that idea of the tension in this book. You have a celebratory dinner, everything’s nice, and the tension happens because the guy at the center clips his nails, which is this transgressive, ugly act. Or in the second “Deep Lane,” the dog, Ned—I guess it’s a dog—he picks up the stake from the funeral plot, and the speaker is torn between wanting to chastise him for disturbing this somber place yet also wanting to encourage him to “tear up that hill.”

Keaton: In both those poems, you have a ceremonious occasion uprooted or undercut by life in all its uncouthness.

3. “For years I went to Peruvian barbers on 18th Street”

Keaton: Doty goes to the same Peruvian barbershop for years [in “This Your Home Now”], and it becomes ingrained in his life. Then, that barbershop closes one day out of the blue, and Doty feels lost and disrupted in his schedule and identity, until he finds another Peruvian barber. Instantly, he falls back into his routine. While we have these parts of our lives that are important, they’re also built with interchangeable parts. And I love the end of the poem: “I’m going down to Jane Street, to a coffee shop I like, / and then I’m going to write this poem. Then...”

Ben: I never think about getting my hair cut.

Keaton: My wife cuts my hair.

Ben: It’s not an activity that holds any importance for me. For Doty, it’s interesting that going to the barbershop seems like another small thing, another strange detail in the whole of his life, an odd ritual he doesn’t think of until one day it isn’t there. And of course, there’s a connection between cutting the hair and trimming the garden.

Keaton: The word I keep thinking about is cultivation. It helps us grow, keeps us from decaying, I guess that losing battle, we’re all going to end up falling away, but we still go through the motions, we still grow our gardens, we still put our words down.

4. “if soul could be / understood as specificity”

Keaton: DEEP LANE contains a lot of hidden meanings, personal, private meanings, that I don’t think any reader not intimately familiar with Mark Doty would understand 100 percent. But it doesn’t take away from the beauty of the language or emotional power of it.

Ben: Well, we can relate to Holden Caulfield, even if we haven’t been a kid in a prep school in the 1940s, you know? I think it’s the specificity of the place of these poems and the details of Doty’s life that do become universal, because that’s one of the great paradoxes of writing: if you want to make something universal, you need to make it as specific as possible.

Keaton: So if the soul is specificity…?

Ben: The soul is the dinner with Alan Dugan, the clipping of the nails…and the next poem starts with “Into Eden came the ticks,” so more small, dirty details, yeah? Like clipping toenails, like pulling up the stake at the gravesite: the little things that disrupt.

4. With a Capital C

Ben: It seems like there’s a movement in DEEP LANE from the isolation of memory—early poems show a man alone, gardening, tending to his life—and then somewhere around the middle of the book, you get poems about being in the world, around other people.

Keaton: Yeah, this change from the internal to the external…and yes, this is a Collection with a capital C. It really feels like Doty conceived of this as a whole. And some of the poems stick out until you start to unpack them. Like “Little Mammoth,” which, on the surface, is just a elegiac representation of a baby mammoth trapped in a tar pit, but when you delve in deeper, you see how it thematically hooks up with everything else. In many of the poems, there’s a sense of connection with family or loved ones that gets complicated and taken away from us in some way. There’s always that degree of remove that life throws in the middle of our relationships—like tar separating a baby mammoth from its mother.

Ben: So is this a book about learning to live with those things?

Keaton: Yeah, I found a lot of acceptance and reconciliation with the changes that life throws at us as we wander down our deep lanes.

Ben: Well, you still have to get out of the house at the end of the day, right?

6. Doty’s Oeuvre

Keaton: I’m not sure how this will wind up viewed in Doty’s oeuvre, but if he never wrote another book, I could see this as being a nice coda in his career.

Ben: So who’s gonna like this one? Mopey old men? [Laughs]

Keaton: There’s not a lot of formal inventiveness here, you know? It’s a somber, reflective collection, which straddles that line between the poet’s internal and external worlds and how he or she navigates those two, which is something we all do. Poets put into words what can’t be put into words. I think Doty tackles a lot in this book, but he does so with grace.

Ben: I gravitate toward things that seem lonely. There are so many experiences in the world, and the thing you are responsible for as a writer is to, whatever the experience is, communicate it as clearly as possible. That way, it’ll enter into the brain of somebody else who has had that same experience and make them feel less alone. It’s the David Foster Wallace sentiment: literature is a way of assuaging loneliness. You read something and you say, “I’ve felt that way before, but I couldn’t say it.” It’s not like the writer’s smarter, just that the writer can articulate it.

Keaton: Yeah, I can’t remember the line exactly, but somebody said once that great literature lets you know there are lonely people out there just like you. But a great book ought to ring with—and here’s the troubling word—some kind of authenticity.

Ben: And DEEP LANE rings with that for you?

Keaton: Yes. I feel a naked honesty here.

7. The Depths of the Lane

Ben: Does Doty ever reveal how deep the lane is? It might’ve been helpful if he’d provided a diagram so you could see the exact dimensions.

Keaton: I imagine it as ravine-like…

Deep Lane: Poems By Mark Doty Cover Image
ISBN: 9780393070231
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: W. W. Norton & Company - April 6th, 2015

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