Memory in the Poetry of Leontia Flynn and Mark Doty

By Evelien Vermeulen

Mark Doty’s poem “Lost in the Stars” provides an elegiac retelling of a musical evening in 1992, at the height of the AIDS crisis. In it, the speaker reflects on the idea of memory, and what it means to remember loved ones who have passed. Leontia Flynn’s “Letter to Friends” explores different ways to remember the past, before turning to ponder the future. Both poems seem to focus on shared experiences, on shared memories that shape communities, whether it be gay men during the AIDS crisis (Doty), or Belfast right after the Troubles (Flynn). This essay explores the theme of memory in these poems, and how this theme is emphasized through the form of each poem.  

I will first study Mark Doty’s poem “Lost in the Stars”. This poem describes a nightclub singer who reflects on life and the people in it. Doty’s poetry makes extensive use of enjambment, with lines rarely ending in a full stop. Instead, sentences are cut up, creating the sense of one long, running thought that continues throughout each poem. Especially interesting to consider here are the stanza breaks. Doty’s sentences do not end where stanzas do, the thought instead runs over to the next stanza. This creates a meandering effect, as sentiments are stretched across the space of the poem. This flow is interrupted, however, by the white space between stanzas. The physical emptiness of the space abruptly cuts the movement of the poem. In Doty’s “Lost in the Stars”, this results in a sense of stammering. It feels, and sounds, as if the poet is trying to find the right word to continue on, as though caught up in emotion. Consider the white space between the fifth and sixth stanza:

Davíd, who’d said our town  

averaged that year a funeral a week, 

did a performance piece 

about the unreliability of language.
(Doty, Source 11)

The emotional reality of the last line of the fifth stanza seems to leave the poet at a loss for words, and forces him to take a break before continuing. Doty himself reflects on the absence of words in the face of grief, arguing that “elegy needs to fumble its way toward what sense it can make” (Doty, “Can Poetry”). The stanza breaks in ‘Lost in the Stars’ parallel this sentiment, as they leave the poet struggling to express himself, while he tries to remember his lost friends. While it is not explicitly mentioned, the time in which Doty wrote this places it directly in the context of the AIDS crisis of the late twentieth century, adding an intense layer of interpretation: the “lost” friends here are presumably those lost to the AIDS pandemic. The sixth stanza further presents one of the few occasions in which a stanza break does end a sentence: “It was 1992 / and we were powerless.” (Doty, Source 11). Here, the full stop at the end of the line places emphasis on the word “powerless”, which alerts the reader to the severity of the AIDS crisis. Furthermore, the use of “we” conveys the community that the poet is a part of, creating a feeling of universal struggle, as opposed to a personal struggle. According to Doty, the AIDS crisis placed an emphasis on bodies as “a location of instability”, and of “so much danger and uncertainty” (Hennessey 83). Doty emulates this focus on the precarious male body in ‘Lost in the Stars’, by describing the physical effect of the illness on the body. He mentions patients who were “not well enough / to come”, and patients “who’d been helped to their metal chairs, / canes leaning against them” (Doty, Source 12). Another point of focus on the body is the figure of the drag queen, who in her dark attire provides a stark physical contrast between her and the audience, who are dressed in more casual clothes:

black glittery leotard, eyelashes 

spiking from kohl-rimmed, huge 

 black eyes, bouffant hard 

and black, high thick heels
(Doty, Source 11)

The poet’s listing of the drag queen’s physical attire results in the feeling of a sense of excess: the glitter, the kohl liner, the excessive hairspray. It is evident that the drag queen is very much over the top compared to the rest of the crowd. The drag queen fits in with the idea of Camp, as described by Susan Sontag (1961). Sontag notes that Camp “is not a natural mode of sensibility, if there be any such. Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration” (275). The excess of the drag queen makes her an otherworldly figure compared to the other bodies in the room. However, the poet describes that even the drag queen is subject to fragility: “the limits of flesh / resisted her ambitions” (Doty, Source 12).

These references to fragile bodies, specifically fragile male bodies, emphasize the feeling of collectiveness. These bodies are all affected by the same horrible disease, and those not physically ill are indirectly affected through their relationships with those who are. As Judith Butler argues, the fact that these bodies are all fragile, implies that the body is “constitutively social and interdependent” (31), thus creating a sense of community. This is the key to memory for Doty, who expresses that poetry, for him, involves a shift from personal emotions to shared ones (Doty, “Can Poetry”). In “Lost in the Stars”, this shift occurs multiple times, for example in the instance above, though it is perhaps most obvious from the central question in the poem. The poet asks himself “How will I remember them?”, but later reflects on a shared memory: “How will we remember you?” (Doty, Source 13-14). An answer, perhaps, to this question, presents itself in the final section of the poem. Its form is vastly different from the rest of the poem, as it is prose rather than poetry, and is printed in italics. Thus, the form is a radical departure from that of the section before it, but its content does suggest a continuation. It is described that a saucepan, a physical object, provides the speaker with a memory of Billy, who is confirmed to have died. It is not confirmed, however, that physical remembrance is the only form of memory, as the speaker reveals that Peter, another friend of Billy’s, holds on to the exasperation he often felt around Billy, thus suggesting that memory also exists in the emotional.

Leontia Flynn’s “Letter to Friends” is an epistolary poem, as is evident from its title. The letter in question is seemingly addressed to the poet’s friends. However, the intended audience for this poem is perhaps more ambiguous than it might seem: a specific addressee is never explicitly named. The only idea of an addressee that the reader receives is Flynn’s constant use of “we”, confirming a relationship between herself and some other person, or multiple persons, who remain unnamed throughout the poem. Rather than confirming the identity of this “we”, Flynn seems to play with this personal pronoun, so that it can be applied to a larger community. Consider, for example, the ninth stanza of the poem. The poet has been summing up different physical embodiments of her memories, and here she paints her audience a picture: “Here we are grinning up the Empire State” (Flynn 37). While it is possible that this is a picture of the poet and a friend on the Empire State Building, it is interesting to consider the possibility of the “we” in this instance being the poet amidst the dense crowd of tourists, which reflects the fact that people share experiences, sometimes without even knowing it. Flynn’s use of “we” therefore elicits a wider meaning of the word. This wider meaning is further explored in parts two and three of the poem, as Flynn moves from her personal world of pictures and old train tickets as physical memories, to the broader, more emotional memories that Belfast holds. Here, the word “we” is replaced with Belfast. Like Doty, Flynn’s perspective shifts from personal to collective memory: “Belfast, long the blight / and blot on lives has now brought to an end / or several ends, it’s grim traumatic fight” (Flynn 41). As Neal Alexander states, “many recent Northern Irish poems treat the idea of an achieved peace with marked irony and skepticism. They typically employ complex or distorted temporalities, bringing past, present and future into new relations with one another” (60). This presentation of “distorted temporalities” is exactly what happens in “Letter to Friends”, as the lines between the individual and the collective are blurred.

Flynn further creates ambiguity about the addressee of her poem through her use of language. Throughout the poem, she plays with the syntax and rhythm of speech. This is perhaps most evident in the second part of the poem, in the following lines: “(I love the way our students talk today), / but we were going to need, like, some employment” (Flynn 39). Here, the poet emulates the way her students speak. This creates a chatty tone, as if the poet is conversing with the reader, which engages the audience, further blurring the line between the addressee and the reader.

Flynn emphasizes the importance of material memories, especially in the first part of the poem. Her descriptions of “artefacts that now seem relics from some ancient bureau” (Flynn 36) express how physical objects can make a person relive certain memories. From these first few stanzas, the poet’s longing for the past becomes evident. For example, the mention of old tickets for “flights not booked online / but in an actual travel agent” seems to reflect that the poet misses the times in which flights could only be booked through a travel agent (Flynn 36). Later, the poet reflects on the need to hold on to the past: “my corny slob’s / memory-hoard lets me now retrace a day / ten years ago” (Flynn 37). Interestingly, Flynn does tend to end her stanzas on a full stop, as opposed to Doty. Rather than one flowing thought, her stanzas feel more finite, creating a more static feeling to the poem. This makes the poem seem more restricted than the ones by Doty. However, there are a few instances in which the end of the stanza cuts off a sentence and continues it in the next, thus creating a similar flow to Doty’s poem, for example in: “crouched in the sweaty damp / of that old bedsit, why stuff mattered – for // this box of doodles, bills, old cards and prints” (Flynn 38). Here, the enjambment places emphasis on “why stuff mattered”, reflecting the importance that Flynn finds in memorabilia. Flynn does, however, find other ways to connect her stanzas. Whereas Doty’s poem is in free verse, and barely makes use of rhyme, Flynn’s “Letter to Friends” is quite explicit in its rhyme scheme. Each stanza has ten lines, with an ABABCDECDE rhyme scheme that stays consistent throughout the entirety of the poem. Due to the enjambment, however, it is quite difficult to make out the rhyme scheme upon the first reading. It thus seems that Flynn uses a rhyme scheme not to attract attention to her poem’s form, but to the particular words that she rhymes. In the first stanza of the first section, she strikingly rhymes “friend” with “end”. The line between these two words implies the passing of time, in “when the last millennium rolled over”. The emphasis on time connects the two rhymes: it implies that friendships end over time. The mention of “the distance of the screen” encapsulates the growing distance between old friends as friendships fall apart. This is even explained in the stanza when it is stated that: “Things carried on”, signifying that no matter what happens, time goes on. The rhyme scheme becomes pivotal to the idea of remembrance, as the poet struggles to remember details of the past: “What happened in between, / those and these days?” Similar to the poetry of Doty, Flynn places focus on a shared memory here, evident from the use of “we” in “Were we, perhaps, surprised / -and are we still?” (Flynn 35). This particular stanza is a great example of Flynn’s use of rhyme to display memories.

Both of these two poems contain specifics in form and content that allow for a comparison between them regarding how they each deal with memory. Be it in a catastrophic pandemic or in a national conflict, both poems show that events such as these bring people together and allow for the existence of a collective memory. If anything, both poems are fascinating reflections on the past, and shall undoubtedly be the subject of many more studies as they themselves, over time, slowly become memories.

Evelien Vermeulen (1998) currently lives and studies in Utrecht. She is an alumnus of the English Language and Culture programme at Utrecht University and is currently finishing a master’s degree in Literature. She specializes in adaptation studies, classic English literature, and romantic poetry. Her work aims to find links between literature from the past, present and future.

Works cited

  • Alexander, Neal. “Remembering the Future: Poetry, Peace, and the Politics of Memory in Northern Ireland.” Textual Practice 32.1 (2018): 59-79. Taylor Francis Online. Web. 8 Dec. 2019. 
  • Butler, Judith. “Introduction: Precariousness Life, Grievable Life.” In Frames of War, Verso, 2009, pp. 1-32. 
  • Doty, Mark. “Can Poetry Console a Grieving Public?” The Poetry Foundation, First published 12 Sep. 2006.  
  • —. Source. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002. 
  • Flynn, Leontia. ‘Letter to Friends’. Profit and Loss, Cape, 2011, pp. 35-45.  
  • Hennessey, Christopher Matthew. “Mark Doty”. In Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets, University of Michigan Press, 2010, pp. 74-91.  
  • Sontag, Susan. “Notes on Camp.” In Against Interpretation, Vintage, 1961, pp. 275-292.

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