Atlantis - Poem by Mark Doty
“I’ve been having these
awful dreams, each a little different,
though the core’s the same—
we’re walking in a field,
Wally and Arden and I, a stretch of grass
with a highway running beside it,
or a path in the woods that opens
onto a road. Everything’s fine,
then the dog sprints ahead of us,
excited; we’re calling but
he’s racing down a scent and doesn’t hear us,
and that’s when he goes
onto the highway. I don’t want to describe it.
Sometimes it’s brutal and over,
and others he’s struck and takes off
so we don’t know where he is
or how bad. This wakes me
every night now, and I stay awake;
I’m afraid if I sleep I’ll go back
into the dream. It’s been six months,
almost exactly, since the doctor wrote
not even a real word
but an acronym, a vacant
that draws meanings into itself,
reconstitutes the world.
We tried to say it was just
a word; we tried to admit
it had power and thus to nullify it
by means of our acknowledgement.
I know the current wisdom:
bright hope, the power of wishing you’re well.
He’s just so tired, though nothing
shows in any tests, Nothing,
the doctor says, detectable;
the doctor doesn’t hear what I do,
that trickling, steadily rising nothing
that makes him sleep all day,
vanish into fever’s tranced afternoons,
and I swear sometimes
when I put my head to his chest
I can hear the virus humming
like a refrigerator.
Which is what makes me think
you can take your positive attitude
and go straight to hell.
We don’t have a future,
we have a dog.
Who is he?
Soul without speech,
sheer, tireless faith,
he is that-which-goes-forward,
black muzzle, black paws
scouting what’s ahead;
he is where we’ll be hit first,
he’s the part of us
that’s going to get it.
I’m hardly awake on our morning walk
—always just me and Arden now—
and sometimes I am still
in the thrall of the dream,
which is why, when he took a step onto Commercial
before I’d looked both ways,
I screamed his name and grabbed his collar.
And there I was on my knees,
both arms around his neck
and nothing coming,
and when I looked into that bewildered face
I realized I didn’t know what it was
I was shouting at,
I didn’t know who I was trying to protect.”
I woke in the night
and thought, It was a dream,
nothing has torn the future apart,
we have not lived years
in dread, it never happened,
I dreamed it all. And then
there was this sensation of terrific pressure
lifting, as if I were rising
in one of those old diving bells,
lightening, unburdening. I didn’t know
how heavy my life had become—so much fear,
so little knowledge. It was like
being young again, but I understood
how light I was, how without encumbrance,—
and so I felt both young and awake,
which I never felt
when I was young. The curtains moved
—it was still summer, all the windows open—
and I thought, I can move that easily.
I thought my dream had lasted for years,
a decade, a dream can seem like that,
I thought, There’s so much more time ...
And then of course the truth
came floating back to me.
You know how children
love to end stories they tell
by saying, It was all a dream? Years ago,
when I taught kids to write,
I used to tell them this ending spoiled things,
explaining and dismissing
what had come before. Now I know
how wise they were, to prefer
that gesture of closure,
their stories rounded not with a sleep
but a waking. What other gift
comes close to a reprieve?
This was the dream that Wally told me:
I was in the tunnel, he said,
and there really was a light at the end,
and a great being standing in the light.
His arms were full of people, men and women,
but his proportions were all just right—I mean
he was the size of you or me.
And the people said, Come with us,
we’re going dancing. And they seemed so glad
to be going, and so glad to have me
join them, but I said,
I’m not ready yet. I didn’t know what to do,
when he finished,
except hold the relentless
weight of him, I didn’t know
what to say except, It was a dream,
nothing’s wrong now,
it was only a dream.
3. MICHAEL’S DREAM
Michael writes to tell me his dream:
I was helping Randy out of bed,
supporting him on one side
with another friend on the other,
and as we stood him up, he stepped out
of the body I was holding and became
a shining body, brilliant light
held in the form I first knew him in.
This is what I imagine will happen,
the spirit’s release. Michael,
when we support our friends,
one of us on either side, our arms
under the man or woman’s arms,
what is it we’re holding? Vessel,
shadow, hurrying light? All those years
I made love to a man without thinking
how little his body had to do with me;
now, diminished, he’s never been so plainly
himself—remote and unguarded,
an otherness I can’t know
the first thing about. I said,
You need to drink more water
or you’re going to turn into
an old dry leaf. And he said,
Maybe I want to be an old leaf.
In the dream Randy’s leaping into
the future, and still here; Michael’s holding him
and releasing at once. Just as Steve’s
holding Jerry, though he’s already gone,
Marie holding John, gone, Maggie holding
her John, gone, Carlos and Darren
holding another Michael, gone,
and I’m holding Wally, who’s going.
Where isn’t the question,
though we think it is;
we don’t even know where the living are,
in this raddled and unraveling “here.”
What is the body? Rain on a window,
a clear movement over whose gaze?
Husk, leaf, little boat of paper
and wood to mark the speed of the stream?
Randy and Jerry, Michael and Wally
and John: lucky we don’t have to know
what something is in order to hold it.
I thought your illness a kind of solvent
dissolving the future a little at a time;
I didn’t understand what’s to come
was always just a glimmer
up ahead, veiled like the marsh
gone under its tidal sheet
of mildly rippling aluminum.
What these salt distances were
is also where they’re going:
from blankly silvered span
toward specificity: the curve
of certain brave islands of grass,
temporary shoulder-wide rivers
where herons ply their twin trades
of study and desire. I’ve seen
two white emissaries unfold
like heaven’s linen, untouched,
enormous, a fluid exhalation. Early spring,
too cold yet for green, too early
for the tumble and wrack of last season
to be anything but promise,
but there in the air was white tulip,
marvel, triumph of all flowering, the soul
lifted up, if we could still believe
in the soul, after so much diminishment ...
Breath, from the unpromising waters,
up, across the pond and the two-lane highway,
pure purpose, over the dune,
gone. Tomorrow’s unreadable
as this shining acreage;
the future’s nothing
but this moment’s gleaming rim.
Now the tide’s begun
its clockwork turn, pouring,
in the day’s hourglass,
toward the other side of the world,
and our dependable marsh reappears
—emptied of that starched and angular grace
that spirited the ether, lessened,
but here. And our ongoingness,
what there’ll be of us? Look,
love, the lost world
rising from the waters again:
our continent, where it always was,
emerging from the half-light, unforgettable,
Cold April and the neighbor girl
—our plumber’s daughter—
comes up the wet street
from the harbor carrying,
in a nest she’s made
of her pink parka,
a loon. It’s so sick,
she says when I ask.
does she think she can keep
this emissary of air?
Is it trust or illness
that allows the head
—sleek tulip—to bow
on its bent stem
across her arm?
Look at the steady,
quiet eye. She is carrying
the bird back from indifference,
from the coast
of whatever rearrangement
the elements intend,
and the loon allows her.
She is going to call
the Center for Coastal Studies,
and will swaddle the bird
in her petal-bright coat
until they come.
She cradles the wild form.
6. NEW DOG
Jimi and Tony
can’t keep Dino,
their cocker spaniel;
Tony’s too sick,
the daily walks
one more obligation
that can’t be met.
And though we already
have a dog, Wally
wants to adopt,
wants something small
and golden to sleep
next to him and
lick his face.
He’s paralyzed now
from the waist down,
whatever’s ruining him
moving upward, and
we don’t know
how much longer
he’ll be able to pet
a dog. How many men
want another attachment,
just as they’re
leaving the world?
Wally sits up nights
and says, I’d like
some lizards, a talking bird,
some fish. A little rat.
So after I drive
to Jimi and Tony’s
in the Village and they
meet me at the door and say,
We can’t go through with it,
we can’t give up our dog,
I drive to the shelter
—just to look—and there
is Beau: bounding and
one brass concatenation
of tongue and tail,
too big, wild,
perfect. He not only
licks Wally’s face
but bathes every
of his head, and though
Wally can no longer
feed himself he can lift
his hand, and bring it
to rest on the rough gilt
flanks when they are,
for a moment, still.
I have never seen a touch
It isn’t about grasping;
the hand itself seems
almost blurred now,
because so much will
must be summoned,
such attention brought
to the work—which is all
he is now, this gesture
toward the restless splendor,
the unruly, the golden,
the animal, the new.
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