The Gate of Desire

I should say that this year’s Key West Literary Seminar — how the light gets in — was organized around 14 metaphorical “gates,” each meant to provide an entryway to talk and think about literature of the spirit. Saturday morning’s gate was Longing and began with a talk by Mark Doty about Desire. He said that language begins in wonder and awe, and that our response to that wonder is naming. How interesting, he noted, that our mouth is the place that connects us to all that is outside of us. He recited several poems, beginning with one of his own: “Messiah (Christmas portions)”and what struck me the most were these lines:

If art’s
acceptable evidence,

mustn’t what lies
behind the world be at least
as beautiful as the human voice?

The poem continues — and then these lines to end the poem:

Aren’t we enlarged
by the scale of what we’re able
to desire? Everything,
the choir insists,

might flame;
inside these wrappings
burns another, brighter life,
quickened, now,

by song: hear how
it cascades, in overlapping,
lapidary waves of praise? Still time.
Still time to change.

The poem and Doty’s commentary made me think of Whitman, the way he used desire and male-male sexuality in “Song of Myself.” Desire, Doty explained, is the very point of difference for gay men (his specific reference — obviously true for women as well), and so perhaps that point of difference, that desire, was well worth celebrating. (As I sit here and read and grade Scarlet Letter papers, I’m also thinking of Hester and of Hawthorne. Was that his point? “Aren’t we enlarged by the scale of what we’re able to desire?” Hester is punished for seeing the possibilities beyond what society offers her. I see so many similarities between her life and Margaret Fuller’s. Fuller’s tragic death, a retribution for daring to imagine a new kind of life.) The light, then, is ours. We’re the lucky ones.

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