Explication: Mark Doty’s ‘Nocturne in Black & Gold’
August 22, 2011 § Leave a Comment
In ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold,’ Mark Doty transforms “harbor and heaven,” the tangible and the ineffable, into “one continuum / sans coast or margins,” and compels the reader to dissolve into the residual vapor. The poem, from Doty’s 1995 collection Atlantis, is an ekphrasis, a literary depiction of a visual work of art, the subject matter here being James McNeill Whistler’s “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket.” Doty references the painting as well as a famous soprano part of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, weaving these works together into a poem aimed at the possibility of transcendence.
Whistler’s painting of fireworks over a London harbor holds distinction as one of the first major examples of abstraction in art. Whistler, an American expatriate, earned respect in his early career for his realist portraiture. Yet in the 1860’s, with his painting, “Symphony in White, No. 1,” Whistler asserted himself as one of the foremost proponents of ‘Art for art’s sake,’ culminating in his abstract renderings of London’s shadowy moorings, which he likened to music, titling them “nocturnes,” a term for musical compositions which evoke the night.
Ironic that Doty uses Whistler’s painting, intended to be devoid of meaning, as the building block for a sentimental riff. The poem begins with ruminations on what he sees amidst Whistler’s gray “lustrous wall.” He poses questions: are these dots of light boats? Or “ghosts of lamps / where the pier ends? / The memory of lamps?” Amid Whistler’s expanse of gray, Doty finds a universal “volatile essence,” then posits that we can transcend humanity by abstracting ourselves. To break into stars, to live within the abstract, is to achieve nirvana, or “feel at home in the huge / indefinition of fog.”
To strengthen his argument, Doty quotes a line from John Keats’ correspondence with his friend Benjamin Bailey: “‘If a sparrow / come before my Window / I take part in its existence / and pick about the Gravel.’” In simpler terms, I am one with what I see, what I experience.
Doty adds a second example of humanity breaking from the material into the ethereal, the otherworldly vocal of the character Konigin der Nacht (the Queen of the Night) in “The Magic Flute.” The Queen glides through notes seemingly impossible in the human vocal register. Doty compares her voice to “a gilt thread raveling in the dark.” (Listen to Diana Damrau as The Queen above).
Doty’s third major image of the poem is its most direct and intimate, “a cigarette lighter wrapped between hands in the dark.” By punctuating each return to this image with the imperative “Listen,” Doty slows his poem, whispers, goads us on. “Haven’t we wanted / all along, to try on boundlessness, / like mutable, starry clothes?” And with the line, “I’ve been no one / so many times I’m not the least afraid,” his whisper opens symphonically, extending the invitation to disavow the temporal and board a ship to the vaporous, not breaking through clouds, but becoming them.
Inside Whistler’s purportedly meaningless abstract painting, Doty has projected the exact opposite, art for the purpose of galvanizing the spirit. In his eyes, the painting stands as a visual manifestation of catharsis.