When reading the poems in “Deep Lane” I like to imagine that I’m lying on a patch of grass listening to the poet speaking about his life, relationships and thoughts about existence. Because that’s what the experience of reading this collection feels like. It’s intimate, immediate and suffused with a sense of being immersed in the natural world. But this isn’t a cosy idyllic space; there are worms and thorns and inclement weather warnings. It’s also not so serious. He comically stumbles into a grave. He locks himself out of his house – twice! These experiences are drawn in to suggest meaning, but are acknowledged at the same time to be meaningless. The title poem spreads itself throughout the book taking several different forms as Doty describes the process of gardening and the environment surrounding his home. It has the effect of creating a personal landscape which the reader can recline in to hear Doty’s beautifully articulated meditations and penetrating observations about the way our lives are guided by unruly desires.
The poet conjures a number of disarmingly haunting images throughout the book. For instance, in one poem it’s described how a boy runs in a figure eight pattern between gravestones. More than a comment upon the connection between new life and death, it felt to me that this was a strong symbolic representation of the way in which our consciousness can remain in a childish or naïve state throughout our lives. Although we can’t help being highly aware of our own mortality as we continue to age and experience loss, a sense of active innocence persists weaving us around death as a way of carrying on despite the inevitable. In another poem he describes a church as a “breathing cloud of stone” which creates an image that perfectly fits with the emotion of a specific significant moment when he commits to his relationship with another man. It’s similar to prayers which feel so substantial that it’s like they are physically real but are only, after all, just words.
For Doty nourishment in life is inextricably mixed with the toxic. In one poem he envisions himself as an extinct beast with “Mother’s milk in my belly and a little of her shit, too.” There is a sense of being stunted by what is meant to make us grow, but this fouled sustenance is a part of the ecstasy of living. As he remarks in the poem ‘Apparition’ “with intoxication, I am unregenerate.” And these notions are given a more emotionally weighty form in the poem ‘Crystal’ about intravenous drug use which describes altered consciousness and groping for an articulation of meaning beyond language. Here the injection of impurities is a necessarily dangerous path to a more profound sense of knowing and developing.
Doty is playfully conversant with both language and his influences. He remarks in an aside when describing a suicidal boy’s legs “(I want to spell long with two n’s, as Milton spelled dim with a double m to intensify the gloom of hell).” Elsewhere he likens an emotional connection with another to “The way that nothing in Vermeer has an edge.” Another poem is a more direct dialogue with Jackson Pollock’s artistic method and pondering its meaning in relation to the active change of the city around him. These references effortlessly draw in the ideas of predecessors while arguing, building upon and expanding them.
Rather than letting ideas float out too far into detached realms Doty draws them back into solid experience and the world around him. He shows an endearing pleasure in nature and animals noticing “goat yoga” or faded hydrangeas that are like “the very silks of Versailles.” Moving through this landscape he articulates how we are beings driven by desire, but that we are “taught by craving.” Although we are hampered by nostalgia for what is past, experience can never be fully recreated and so we “want all the harder.” But, in one of the most profound poems in this collection ‘Hungry Ghost,’ Doty poses a fascinating counter argument to the Buddhist notion of extinguishing desire to extinguish suffering. If desire persists beyond the mortal then there is a kind immortality but also a form of existential horror “to be ravenous, and lack a mouth.”
“Deep Lane” is an extremely thoughtful collection by a poet who can burrow into the personal and particular to discover revelations that feel universal.