Sweet Machine

Original Text: 
© Mark Doty, Sweet Machine: Poems (HarperFlamingo, 1998): 98-101. PS 3554 O798S9 1998 Robarts Library
1Glisten fretting the indigo of a plum,
2silvered chalk of moth-wing dust:
3the young man on the subway platform
4-- twenty maybe -- seems almost powdered,
5he is so dirty, the dust lighter
6than his skin, which is still,
7by a slight stretch of the imagination,
8lovely. Though it's odd to think
9of him that way, this shirtless kid
10in hugely oversized jeans that fall,
11when he stands, around his thighs,
12exposing his skinny ass. He yanks
13the waistband up, sits down again,
14and begins to writhe, palms roaming,
15uncontrollable, over his own face,
16his close-cropped hair and ears,
17down to his flanks, hands disappearing
18inside the big jeans, scratching
19and rubbing, until he collapses, exhausted,
20head hanging between his knees,
21and after a few seconds starts
22it all up again. Does he want
23to rub his own skin away? Then
24I understand: what's powdering his flesh is
25his flesh, the outest layer of himself
26rubbed to palest chalk. He repeats
27his stream of violent tableaux
28these might be positions of transport,
29of ecstasy, except he's miserable, I guess,
31and all of us waiting for the local
33somebody says, but it's a whisper, a question,
34and nothing answers our troubled fascination:
35nothing to do but watch the pity and terror
36of these poses. The express comes and goes,
37and the brutal series grows more synaptic:
38these might be flashes of the pornographic,
39or classical attitudes, rough trade posing
41neither intimate nor academic, and nothing's
42supposed to be so real in the common nowhere
43of the on-the-way-to, while we wait
45pressed knee to hem, back to shoulder
46on the platforms and cars. This month,
47on the broad haunches of the buses,
48another sleek boy's posed in multiple shots,
49black underwear and lean belly laved by rivulets
50from a shower or stream. The photographees
51left him headless, his gestures multiplied
52on builders' makeshift walls, page after page
53of blank torsos already beginning to be inscribed:
54on a yard of silvery muscle six feet from Seventh Avenue
55someone's scrawled, in black marker: I am a sweet
56suck and fuck machine. Take me home. Big buses
57nose through the streets, one after the other,
58bearing the model of what we're supposed to want,
59and do, what we're meant to see and need
60but not, unless we have the money, touch.
61He doesn't have the money, my boy
62on the platform, and I wish .... What?
63I don't know. Just today, in traffic,
64one of those buses eased by my taxi window:
65a taut wet waist bound in black elastic,
66huge, luminous emulsion inches
67from my face. The endlessly reprinted boy
68-- is he? -- could almost be this man,
69whitened by his own degrading skin,
70dark stone wearing the dust of the quarry.
71He's rubbing himself to flour, he's giving
72his name back to airy nothing, I'm figuring him
73on the varnished bench. Moth, plum -- hear
74how the imagery aestheticizes? He's nothing
75as fixed as marble, and he touches himself
76not for pleasure but because he can't stop.
77What unthinkable train is he waiting for?
78That boy on the billboard, the headless boy,
79could he stop touching himself?
80We're all on display in this town,
81sweet machines, powerless, consumed,
82just as he consumes himself
83with those relentless hands,
84scratching his barely hidden center,
85hanging his head between his knees,
86spent, before he jerks himself up
87and starts all over again.
Copyright 1998 Mark Doty, Sweet Machine: Poems HarperFlamingo


30] 96th and Broadway: a fashionable shopping corner in Manhattan, New York City, with clothing stores and fast-food outlets. Back to Line
32] Crackhead: an addict of `crack' cocaine. Back to Line
40] Michelangelo: the Italian poet and sculptor (1475-1564), author of "David" and the fresco of the "Last Judgment" on the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Back to Line
44] the 1 or the 9: the M1 bus runs on Fifth and Madison Avenues between Harlem and East Village or South Ferry; the M9 on Avenue B and East Broadway between Union Square and Battery Park City. Back to Line
Publication Notes: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 2000.
Special Copyright: 

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