Chain Link Fences, Microscopes, and Mark Doty--A Novelist's Take

Editor's Note: Jo Harkins, a superb fiction writer, details her fascination with fences, plankton, and Mark Doty.

I discovered Mark Doty in the infancy of my obsession with chain-link fences. Oh, those fascinating fences! I enjoy the patterns made by the diamonds, restlessly leaping away, patterns made by perspective. I love how the steel lengths twist upwards, holding each other with their elbows, and at their brief contact make a double helix, a splash of DNA. A chain-link fence is a barrier one can see through, but its translucence varies at the angle of sight. It functions as a fence, boundary, and limit, yet is easy to bend, cut, and climb. As an actual barrier, its function is mostly psychological. As with other symbols, I labor to understand. I despair that I will never fully comprehend chain-link fences. And as I revise my first novel, I discover chain-link fences described on my pages--often when a character tries to gain new insight or struggles to grasp a concept. It’s an odd fascination. But they are a detail of the world and thus are worth apprehending, a concept Mark Doty showed me, through his poetry.

I first read Doty one afternoon in my university’s geology library. The book was Atlantis, poems about the death of his lover from AIDS (a tidy summation that doesn’t do it justice). Sitting on the floor in the stacks, my back against books on the study of time, I read the epigraph--from Wallace Stevens--with the words O bright, O bright…. Then I read the first page of the first poem--these day hammered fields--and slammed the book shut.  I had to get up and walk, circling the bookcases, trying to catch my breath. A great feeling had upwelled in my chest, feelings of excitement and hope and wonder, and even terror, all spiraled together--linked, you might say, the feelings holding each other by the elbows.  The book grew heavy in my hand as I circled, and I had to sit down. I knew, suddenly, instinctively, this book was too heavy to carry and too heavy to read and too heavy inside of me because it was the most precious and rarest of books: the book that goes beyond an experience and changes you as person.  I would not be the same when I finished reading, thus the terror, and when I opened Atlantis again my hands trembled.

I read the book straight through, twice. I don’t remember breathing but I do remember how unbearably the space between my throat and tongue ached. I sobbed both times at the title poem and again during “New Dog.” (I remember how, when weeping overpowered me with the poem “Two Ruined Boats,” I tore the title page from my chemistry textbook and, not very poetically but unable to put the book down, used it to blow my nose.) After the first reading I sat dazed, exhausted, and in contrast to my tears murmured to myself, “All of that light. The light!”

Fittingly, the line to affect me the most deeply would be one I didn’t fully catch on the first reading but found the second time, in the poem “Grosse Fuge”: "how hard/ it is, to apprehend something so large/ in scale and yet so minutely detailed.”

I read the line probably five times, stunned. When I started my third reading, the line pulled at me so strongly I had to close the book yet again.

A life-changing book not only gives you a new worldview but evokes the truth you’ve always known. My “real job” involves geology and fossil plankton, my specialty plankton type so small I have to use the most powerful light microscopes available to see them. In these minutest of details I try to understand how the earth works. I’ve murmured “to apprehend something so large” in business meetings. I once stood below the Cliffs of Dover, which are nothing but thousands of feet of fossil plankton, and shouted, “and yet so minutely detailed” at the chalk cliffs above me. “How hard it is,” I’ll remind myself when, head in my hands, I stand in a day-hammered field trying to unravel the earth’s processes. I’ve penned the line onto my microscopes.

In a book of poetry I found my ars geologica.

But it’s as a writer I clutch the line most tightly. It sums up what drives me to write. As a novelist I’m trying to apprehend the world, so large, using details: to write about the forest using the trees, if you will. And it’s hard. Novelists need the generosity of poets: the minute details require their precision. Poets see the veins in the leaves, the soil, and the insects. By applying metaphor to those details they help us comprehend.

Or, as Doty says in “Description”: “What is description, after all,/ but encoded desire?” Readers often note that Doty’s strength is how he sees detail and what he chooses to convey, from salt marshes to sweat stains.  But he doesn’t just use the minute for his metaphors and symbols: in the details he finds courage. Still a novice at apprehending the world, in my struggles I’m learning how challenging it truly is--too large, too many details, the details too minute. To appreciate Mark Doty is to appreciate a human who both apprehends the world and has the courage to convey it.

When I emerged outside after I first read Doty, it was evening. I almost ran down the sidewalk. I almost ran over the tar-gum spots on the concrete, past the birds squawk-rustling in the trees, past the still sun warm brick buildings. But I didn’t run. I walked, looking, thinking about the minute details in chain link fences, finding courage in those details, enough, maybe, just maybe, enough courage to write a novel about the ideas those fences inspired, thoughts that were really a struggle to apprehend the world. I walked in joy. I have new eyes, I wanted to shout. Come see the new eyes this poet gave me.