Mark Doty

The day after writing a poem is a strange day, as if some psychic weather system had moved through, disrupting the familiar, energizing the air, leaving a feeling of volatility and unsettledness. That state of receptivity can last a while. Sometimes one poem leads to another, as if the energy that generated the poem is still around, still swirling, and maybe if you’re lucky it will lead to more.

I’d hoped this would happen today, but I couldn’t quite settle in to work. It was that fritzy, distracted feeling—static on my inner radio. In part because my poem confronts the illness of my dear dog Beau, which I haven’t much wanted to think about. He’s lived with me for seven years now, and he came into my life in the most difficult of circumstances, at a moment of crisis. I was in despair, just then, but he was brimming with life; no matter how dark things were for me, Beau needed a walk, a run, dinner, a swim, and something about his shining sense of fun helped to pull me back toward life.

Therefore it’s that much harder to admit that he’s mortal—something we’d prefer not to examine about any creature we love anyway. And, of course, the mortality of animals is a way we approach our own, a means through which we rehearse our own aging, our ineluctable transits through time. My poem’s only partly about dogs.

All this was tumbling through my head today, along with the need to do the laundry and my need to start getting ready for a little trip I’m taking tomorrow, flying to New Jersey to appear at a high school for a day celebrating the art of poetry. So, when I tried to write, to see if there was more where “Ultrasound” came from, I managed a few little silly, self-critical lines, making fun of myself for my preoccupation with death. Nothing much. I thought the workday was lost, so I gave up and paid attention to other things. Picked up the house. Shaved off my beard. Suddenly I felt much better, lighter. I remembered my friend Julia Alvarez, who, just a couple of weeks ago, was sporting short hair for the first time since I’d known her, a modified Jeanne d’Arc bob. She looked great, and when I commented on it, she said, “Oh, I just finished a novel, and I had to do something.”

This makes perfect sense to me, but poets probably can’t change their look each time a poem makes it onto the page. And since I keep changing my mind as to when a poem is actually done, I’d be putting myself through a dizzying series of looks! Oh, well—today a shave and an afternoon walk in the woods with Arden and Beau was exactly the thing. When I came home I decided to try one more time, and a few more lines tumbled out—nothing complete, but enough to make me feel my day wasn’t wasted.

I’ll end today with a gift for everyone who loves poetry, courtesy of my student Mary Louse Penaz. Mary Louise reports that a new photograph of Emily Dickinson has been discovered, and though it’s still being researched to determine its authenticity, neither Mary Louise nor I have much doubt. (When I told Mary Louise I planned to pass along her discovery in this “Diary,” she admitted that she found the photo’s Web address on Slate! All things come round.) You can view it on the Web here, and it’s definitely worth a visit. The look in those eyes is electric, knowing, troubled, alive. I’d guess she’d written a poem that day, or the day before.