Atlantis

Original Text: 
© Mark Doty, Atlantis: Poems (HarperPerennial, 1995): 49-63. PS 3554 O798A81995 Robarts Library
1.2awful dreams, each a little different,
1.3though the core's the same --
1.4we're walking in a field,
1.5Wally and Arden and I, a stretch of grass
1.6with a highway running beside it,
1.7or a path in the woods that opens
1.8onto a road. Everything's fine,
1.9then the dog sprints ahead of us,
1.10excited; we're calling but
1.11he's racing down a scent and doesn't hear us,
1.12and that's when he goes
1.13onto the highway. I don't want to describe it.
1.14Sometimes it's brutal and over,
1.15and others he's struck and takes off
1.16so we don't know where he is
1.17or how bad. This wakes me
1.18every night now, and I stay awake;
1.19I'm afraid if I sleep I'll go back
1.20into the dream. It's been six months,
1.21almost exactly, since the doctor wrote
1.22not even a real word
1.23but an acronym, a vacant
1.25that draws meanings into itself,
1.26reconstitutes the world.
1.27We tried to say it was just
1.28a word; we tried to admit
1.29it had power and thus to nullify it
1.30by means of our acknowledgement.
1.31I know the current wisdom:
1.32bright hope, the power of wishing you're well.
1.33He's just so tired, though nothing
1.34shows in any tests, Nothing,
1.35the doctor says, detectable;
1.36the doctor doesn't hear what I do,
1.37that trickling, steadily rising nothing
1.38that makes him sleep all day,
1.39vanish into fever's tranced afternoons,
1.40and I swear sometimes
1.41when I put my head to his chest
1.42I can hear the virus humming
1.43like a refrigerator.
1.44Which is what makes me think
1.45you can take your positive attitude
1.46and go straight to hell.
1.47We don't have a future,
1.48we have a dog.
1.49      Who is he?
1.50Soul without speech,
1.51sheer, tireless faith,
1.52he is that-which-goes-forward,
1.53black muzzle, black paws
1.54scouting what's ahead;
1.55he is where we'll be hit first,
1.56he's the part of us
1.57that's going to get it.
1.58I'm hardly awake on our morning walk
1.59-- always just me and Arden now --
1.60and sometimes I am still
1.61in the thrall of the dream,
1.63before I'd looked both ways,
1.64I screamed his name and grabbed his collar.
1.65And there I was on my knees,
1.66both arms around his neck
1.67and nothing coming,
1.68and when I looked into that bewildered face
1.69I realized I didn't know what it was
1.70I was shouting at,
1.71I didn't know who I was trying to protect."
##. REPRIEVE
2.1I woke in the night
2.2and thought, It was a dream,
2.3nothing has torn the future apart,
2.4we have not lived years
2.5in dread, it never happened,
2.6I dreamed it all. And then
2.7there was this sensation of terrific pressure
2.8lifting, as if I were rising
2.9in one of those old diving bells,
2.10lightening, unburdening. I didn't know
2.11how heavy my life had become -- so much fear,
2.12so little knowledge. It was like
2.13being young again, but I understood
2.14how light I was, how without encumbrance, --
2.15and so I felt both young and awake,
2.16which I never felt
2.17when I was young. The curtains moved
2.18-- it was still summer, all the windows open --
2.19and I thought, I can move that easily.
2.20I thought my dream had lasted for years,
2.21a decade, a dream can seem like that,
2.22I thought, There's so much more time ...
2.23And then of course the truth
2.24came floating back to me.
2.25You know how children
2.26love to end stories they tell
2.27by saying, It was all a dream? Years ago,
2.28when I taught kids to write,
2.29I used to tell them this ending spoiled things,
2.30explaining and dismissing
2.31what had come before. Now I know
2.32how wise they were, to prefer
2.33that gesture of closure,
2.34their stories rounded not with a sleep
2.35but a waking. What other gift
2.36comes close to a reprieve?
2.37This was the dream that Wally told me:
2.38I was in the tunnel, he said,
2.39and there really was a light at the end,
2.40and a great being standing in the light.
2.41His arms were full of people, men and women,
2.42but his proportions were all just right -- I mean
2.43he was the size of you or me.
2.44And the people said, Come with us,
2.45we're going dancing. And they seemed so glad
2.466to be going, and so glad to have me
2.47join them, but I said,
2.48I'm not ready yet. I didn't know what to do,
2.49when he finished,
2.50except hold the relentless
2.51weight of him, I didn't know
2.52what to say except, It was a dream,
2.53nothing's wrong now,
2.54it was only a dream.
3.2I was helping Randy out of bed,
3.3supporting him on one side
3.4with another friend on the other,
3.5and as we stood him up, he stepped out
3.6of the body I was holding and became
3.7a shining body, brilliant light
3.8held in the form I first knew him in.
3.9This is what I imagine will happen,
3.10the spirit's release. Michael,
3.11when we support our friends,
3.12one of us on either side, our arms
3.13under the man or woman's arms,
3.14what is it we're holding? Vessel,
3.15shadow, hurrying light? All those years
3.16I made love to a man without thinking
3.17how little his body had to do with me;
3.18now, diminished, he's never been so plainly
3.19himself -- remote and unguarded,
3.20an otherness I can't know
3.21the first thing about. I said,
3.22You need to drink more water
3.23or you're going to turn into
3.24an old dry leaf. And he said,
3.25Maybe I want to be an old leaf.
3.26In the dream Randy's leaping into
3.27the future, and still here; Michael's holding him
3.28and releasing at once. Just as Steve's
3.29holding Jerry, though he's already gone,
3.30Marie holding John, gone, Maggie holding
3.31her John, gone, Carlos and Darren
3.32holding another Michael, gone,
3.33and I'm holding Wally, who's going.
3.34Where isn't the question,
3.35though we think it is;
3.36we don't even know where the living are,
3.37in this raddled and unraveling "here."
3.38What is the body? Rain on a window,
3.39a clear movement over whose gaze?
3.40Husk, leaf, little boat of paper
3.41and wood to mark the speed of the stream?
3.42Randy and Jerry, Michael and Wally
3.43and John: lucky we don't have to know
3.44what something is in order to hold it.
##. ATLANTIS
4.1I thought your illness a kind of solvent
4.2dissolving the future a little at a time;
4.3I didn't understand what's to come
4.4was always just a glimmer
4.5up ahead, veiled like the marsh
4.6gone under its tidal sheet
4.7of mildly rippling aluminum.
4.8What these salt distances were
4.9is also where they're going:
4.10from blankly silvered span
4.11toward specificity: the curve
4.12of certain brave islands of grass,
4.13temporary shoulder-wide rivers
4.14where herons ply their twin trades
4.15of study and desire. I've seen
4.16two white emissaries unfold
4.17like heaven's linen, untouched,
4.18enormous, a fluid exhalation. Early spring,
4.19too cold yet for green, too early
4.20for the tumble and wrack of last season
4.21to be anything but promise,
4.22but there in the air was white tulip,
4.23marvel, triumph of all flowering, the soul
4.24lifted up, if we could still believe
4.25in the soul, after so much diminishment ...
4.26Breath, from the unpromising waters,
4.27up, across the pond and the two-lane highway,
4.28pure purpose, over the dune,
4.29gone. Tomorrow's unreadable
4.30as this shining acreage;
4.31the future's nothing
4.32but this moment's gleaming rim.
4.33Now the tide's begun
4.34its clockwork turn, pouring,
4.35in the day's hourglass,
4.36toward the other side of the world,
4.37and our dependable marsh reappears
4.38-- emptied of that starched and angular grace
4.39that spirited the ether, lessened,
4.40but here. And our ongoingness,
4.41what there'll be of us? Look,
4.43rising from the waters again:
4.44our continent, where it always was,
4.45emerging from the half-light, unforgettable,
4.46drenched, unchanged.
5.2   -- our plumber's daughter --
5.3      comes up the wet street
5.4from the harbor carrying,
5.5   in a nest she's made
5.7a loon. It's so sick,
5.8   she says when I ask.
5.9      Foolish kid,
5.10does she think she can keep
5.11   this emissary of air?
5.12      Is it trust or illness
5.13that allows the head
5.14   -- sleek tulip -- to bow
5.15      on its bent stem
5.16across her arm?
5.17   Look at the steady,
5.18      quiet eye. She is carrying
5.19the bird back from indifference,
5.20   from the coast
5.21      of whatever rearrangement
5.22the elements intend,
5.23   and the loon allows her.
5.24      She is going to call
5.26   and will swaddle the bird
5.27      in her petal-bright coat
5.28until they come.
5.29   She cradles the wild form.
5.30      Stubborn girl.
##. NEW DOG
6.1Jimi and Tony
6.2can't keep Dino,
6.3their cocker spaniel;
6.4Tony's too sick,
6.5the daily walks
6.6more pressure
6.7than pleasure,
6.8one more obligation
6.9that can't be met.
6.10And though we already
6.11have a dog, Wally
6.12wants to adopt,
6.13wants something small
6.14and golden to sleep
6.15next to him and
6.16lick his face.
6.17He's paralyzed now
6.18from the waist down,
6.19whatever's ruining him
6.20moving upward, and
6.21we don't know
6.22how much longer
6.23he'll be able to pet
6.24a dog. How many men
6.25want another attachment,
6.26just as they're
6.27leaving the world?
6.28Wally sits up nights
6.29and says, I'd like
6.30some lizards, a talking bird,
6.31some fish. A little rat.
6.32So after I drive
6.33to Jimi and Tony's
6.34in the Village and they
6.35meet me at the door and say,
6.36We can't go through with it,
6.37we can't give up our dog,
6.38I drive to the shelter
6.39-- just to look -- and there
6.40is Beau: bounding and
6.41practically boundless,
6.42one brass concatenation
6.43of tongue and tail,
6.44unmediated energy,
6.45too big, wild,
6.46perfect. He not only
6.47licks Wally's face
6.48but bathes every
6.49irreplaceable inch
6.50of his head, and though
6.51Wally can no longer
6.52feed himself he can lift
6.53his hand, and bring it
6.54to rest on the rough gilt
6.55flanks when they are,
6.56for a moment, still.
6.57I have never seen a touch
6.58so deliberate.
6.59It isn't about grasping;
6.60the hand itself seems
6.61almost blurred now,
6.62softened, though
6.63tentative only
6.64because so much will
6.65must be summoned,
6.66such attention brought
6.67to the work -- which is all
6.68he is now, this gesture
6.69toward the restless splendor,
6.70the unruly, the golden,
6.71the animal, the new.
Copyright 1995 Mark Doty, Atlantis: Poems HarperPerennial

Notes

1.1] Mark Doty describes in Heaven's Coast (New York: HarperCollins, 1996) his nightmares in the months before the anticipated death of his AIDS-afflicted partner Wally Roberts. The worst of them focused on their black dog Arden: "We were walking in a field, the three of us, near a highway, happy, at ease, and then Arden would catch a scent and bound ahead, wild with it, no calling him back, onto the road. He'd be hit, but in each dream there would be a variation -- struck and killed, or run away, his situation unknown .... He [Arden] was, in my dream, where we were about to be struck" (this nightmare followed an incident where Arden had been struck by a car and, being disoriented, was lost for a day; 187-89). Back to Line
1.24] A.I.D.S. (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Back to Line
1.62] Commercial: the main street in Provincetown, Massachusetts, along the waterfront. Back to Line
3.1] " ... for Michael Trombley, Stephen Housewright, Maggie Valentine, Carlos, Melendez, and Marie Howe." [Author's note] Back to Line
4.42] the lost world: Atlantis, an island described by Plato in his Timaeus that, west of the Pillars of Hercules, sank into the sea and drowned all its people, thought to be ungodly. Back to Line
5.1] "... for Darren Otto." [Author's note] Back to Line
5.6] parka: hooded, well-insulated, long winter jacket originally worn by natives in the north of Canada. Back to Line
5.25] Center for Coastal Studies: a non-profit institution located in Provincetown. Back to Line
6.1] Mark Doty describes the coming of Beau, "a youngish golden retriever," in Heaven's Coast (New York: HarperCollins, 1996): 248-49. "And when he's tired, Beau heads right for the open space in the middle of the bed, and before falling sleep (he seems afraid he'll miss something, holding his tobacco-colored eyes open absolutely as long as he can stand to) he licks Wally's face with a long purple-spotted tongue, source of laughter and delight." Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
1995
Publication Notes: 
The American Voice ("Michael's Dream"); The Nation 261 (July 3, 1995): 25 ("Atlantis"); The New Yorker 70 (Jan. 23, 1995): 74 ("Coastal").
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 2000.
Special Copyright: 

This poem cannot be published anywhere without the written consent of Mark Doty.