Review: KGB Monday Night Poetry – Vijay Seshadri and Mark Doty

The former US Poet laureate Mark Strand died last month but one fringe benefit of being a poet is the strange relationship such people have with eternity: his words live on. Two years ago he read at KGB Bar‘s final Monday Night Poetry event of the year. At this year’s final event his words came from the lips of his fellow Pulitzer Prize winner Vijay Seshadri, who began the reading with this section of Strand’s From Dark Harbor:

Mark Strand

I am sure you would find it misty here,
With lots of stone cottages badly needing repair.
Groups of souls, wrapped in cloaks, sit in the fields
Or stroll the winding unpaved roads. They are polite,
And oblivious to their bodies, which the wind passes through,
Making a shushing sound. Not long ago,
I stopped to rest in a place where an especially

Thick mist swirled up from the river. Someone,
Who claimed to have known me years before, 
Approached, saying there were many poets
Wandering around who wished to be alive again.
They were ready to say the words they had been unable to say
Words whose absence had been the silence of love,
Of pain, and even of pleasure. Then he joined a small group,
Gathered beside a fire. I believe I recognized
Some of the faces, but as I approached they tucked
Their heads under their wings. I looked away to the hills
Above the river, where the golden lights of sunset
And sunrise are one and the same, and saw something flying
Back and forth, fluttering its wings. Then it stopped in mid-air.
It was an angel, one of the good ones, about to sing. 

Vijay Seshadri’s soft, creamy voice fit the dark room and intimate gathering. He spoke of coming to America during the Eisenhower era and feeling as he grew up, “I don’t know if I’m an American but I know I’m an American poet.” For thirty years he’s subscribed to Science Digest, hoping to find poetic inspiration. All those years of waiting finally paid off in the form of the following poem from his 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning collection, 3 Sections,which he read:

Guide for the Perplexed

The bedroom slippers’ silk linings.
The dressing gown of brocade, stitched with the zodiac.
The pajamas underneath also made out of silk,
for which how many individuals of the species B mori,
having munched the succulent, pale-green mulberry leaves

Vijay Seshadri

and insinuated a sack wherein to magnify themselves,
were steamed to death from the inside out?
The delicate fibres are intact.
He feels their ripeness on his skin.
He listens deeply into the night, which listens back.
The birch log pops in the fireplace.
The fetishes brood on the mantlepiece.
The ice melts in the gin.
And yellower and deeper than dandelion yellow,
yellower and stronger than Moroccan yellow,
the color, almost, of a yellow marigold, is
the yellow silk kimono she wears to greet the floating world.
Moths on the wing clutter the starlight.
Ghosts of dead moths are on the windowpane and
knee deep in the ballroom,
in social clubs and places of worship.
They are proof, if anyone still needs proof, that
awesome are the powers of humankind,
who have taken this selfsame moth
and endowed it with a gene from the jellyfish
so as to produce fluorescent silk!
And all in the interests of beauty!

The mellow flow of the first half of the program gave way to Mark Doty’s sharp, almost angry energy as he took the podium. This may or may not have been due to the fact that he lost his wallet on the bus into the city from Amangansett. The thought of hitting the streets of Manhattan without money or identification led to a flash of panic that lingered even after the wallet was found. The fatalism caused b
y his predicament inspired Mr. Doty to recite the work of another gone-but-not-forgotten poet, Galway Kinnell’s Prayer:

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

He talked about admiring but never quite getting Jackson Pollack until he found himself alone in MOMA with a few of the man’s paintings, saying, “to be alone in a room full of Jackson Pollacks is transformative.” Then he read some of his poems of transformation, including this one:


Mark Doty

A month at least before the bloom
and already five bare-limbed cherries
by the highway ringed in a haze
of incipient fire
                      —middle of the afternoon,
a faint pink-bronze glow. Some things
wear their becoming:
                                the night we walked,
nearly strangers, from a fevered party
to the corner where you’d left your motorcycle,
afraid some rough wind might knock it to the curb,
you stood on the other side
of the upright machine, other side
of what would be us, and tilted your head
toward me over the wet leather seat
while you strapped your helmet on,
engineer boots firm on the black pavement.

Did we guess we’d taken the party’s fire with us,
somewhere behind us that dim apartment
cooling around its core like a stone?
Can you know, when you’re not even a bud
but a possibility poised at some brink?

Of course we couldn’t see ourselves,
though love’s the template and rehearsal
of all being, something coming to happen
where nothing was…
                                    But just now
I thought of a troubled corona of new color,
visible echo, and wondered if anyone
driving in the departing gust and spatter
on Seventh Avenue might have seen
the cloud breathed out around us
as if we were a pair
of—could it be?—soon-to-flower trees.

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