Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty

INDEPENDENT                               16 November 1996

Jonathan Cape £16.99

Contrary to popular belief – and the familiar lyric – it is not only Jack and Jill who dream of a gentle retirement as Derby and Joan.   Jack and Bill  share this romantic vision.   The difference is that premature senility rather than a benign old age is the fate of many gay men in the age of AIDS.

The particular Jack and Bill in question are Mark Doty and Wally Roberts.   In 1989, eight years into their relationship, they take an HIV test, that particularly cruel rite of passage of modern gay life.  Wally’s comes back positive;  Mark’s negative.  But so close is their bond that, as Doty movingly writes,  ‘I remember thinking it didn’t matter which of us it was, that his news was mine’.

The date of the diagnosis is as marked in their lives as a shift from BC to AD.  All at once, an all too familiar story is played out as Wally’s health starts to fail.  This is the stuff of many memoirs, notably Paul Monette’s in America and Oscar Moore’s here.  The difference is that Doty is the award-winning poet of My Alexandria and Atlantis, and Heaven’s Coast is as much a book of metaphor as of medical fact.

Doty quotes Monet’s admission that, as his wife Camille lay on her deathbed, he found himself ‘without being able to help it, in a study of my beloved wife’s face, systematically noting the colours’.   He himself  is impelled by a similar instinct to describe the processes of Wally’s decline.   His love for his partner radiates so strongly from the prose that, even when he is dealing with the most graphic details of incontinence, the effect is poignant rather than sordid.   This is truly the beauty of truth.

Doty’s poetic vision suffuses the narrative.  On a simple level, he discusses the derivation of words such as the middle-English ‘partake’ or the late-twentieth century ‘cremains’.  On a deeper level, he develops images such as the sighting of a seal into an elaborate analogy for spiritual flight.   At his most complex, he does not merely invoke poetic metaphors but makes a metaphor of poetry itself, taking its ability to make us believe ‘two completely contradictory things at once’ as an illustration of the ambiguity of death.

As in his poetry. Doty is able to invest the most mundane moment with a wealth of meaning.  He intersperses his account of the four years between Wally’s diagnosis and death with memories of an earlier, happier life.  He returns to the apartment block in Boston where they lodged;   although that too becomes tinged with sadness as, like the rooming-house in Tennessee Williams’ Vieux Carre, it fills with ghosts:  Bobby, his lover’s ex-lover; Doug, his lover’s brother’s lover;  David, his lover’s ex-lover’s lover.  The litany of deaths reveals the fragile interlacing of their lives.

Unlike Wally who is spared the indignity of opportunistic infections and hospital admissions and allowed to die at home, other of Doty’s friends are thrown onto the mercy of doctors.  He visits one in a state hospital AIDS ward which has ‘a quality in the air that bus terminals have’.  From there, it is but a short step to the memorial service with its peculiarly American blend of the grandiloquent and the grotesque.  But, in case he should assume that AIDS has a monopoly on his friends’ deaths, further intimations of mortality occur as two of his closest women-friends die in separate car accidents.  He begins to count his blessings.  Unlike their husbands, he, at least, has had time to prepare.

The most vivid passages of the book are those which deal with Wally’s death.  Although every physical lapse is recorded – here is no Dame aux Camellias cosily coughing on a couch. Doty does not dwell on the flesh but rather strips it away to reach to a deeper truth.  He repeatedly stresses the paradox that Wally’s bodily decline only serves to make him more himself.  His face becomes ‘pure self’ as ‘self-consciousness, doubt, circumstance, even history’ disappear.  This transfiguring experience is most manifest at the moment of death, when he feels ‘a shift in the quality of being from the ordinary life of the room’.

In describing the aftermath of Wally’s death, Doty’s prose becomes positively numinous.  Although he does not adhere to any religious  system,  he  evidently  undergoes  a  deep  spiritual rebirth.  His honesty about his own reactions, whether it be the need for sex or the switch from weeping for his lover to weeping for himself, is immensely heartening.  This wise and beautifully written book is highly recommended for its profound insight into the nature of both love and loss.