“Brilliance” – Mark Doty

Brilliance
Mark Doty

Maggie’s taking care of a man
who’s dying; he’s attended to everything,
said goodbye to his parents,

paid off his credit card.
She says Why don’t you just
run it up to the limit?

but he wants everything
squared away, no balance owed,
though he misses the pets

he’s already found a home for
— he can’t be around dogs or cats,
too much risk. He says,

I can’t have anything.
She says, A bowl of goldfish?
He says he doesn’t want to start

with anything and then describes
the kind he’d maybe like,
how their tails would fan

to a gold flaring. They talk
about hot jewel tones,
gold lacquer, say maybe

they’ll go pick some out
though he can’t go much of anywhere and then
abruptly he says I can’t love

anything I can’t finish.
He says it like he’s had enough
of the whole scintillant world,

though what he means is
he’ll never be satisfied and therefore
has established this discipline,

a kind of severe rehearsal.
That’s where they leave it,
him looking out the window,

her knitting as she does because
she needs to do something.
Later he leaves a message:

Yes to the bowl of goldfish.
Meaning: let me go, if I have to,
in brilliance. In a story I read,

a Zen master who’d perfected
his detachment from the things of the world
remembered, at the moment of dying,

a deer he used to feed in the park,
and wondered who might care for it,
and at that instant was reborn

in the stunned flesh of a fawn.
So, Maggie’s friend —
Is he going out

Into the last loved object
Of his attention?
Fanning the veined translucence

Of an opulent tail,
Undulant in some uncapturable curve
Is he bronze chrysanthemums,

Copper leaf, hurried darting,
Doubloons, icon-colored fins
Troubling the water?

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4 responses to ““Brilliance” – Mark Doty

  1. Sigh, I’ve probably missed the point again, because I just kind of feel bad for the Zen master who got so close. The wheel of reincarnation makes me a bit nauseous, to tell the truth. And winding up a goldfish doesn’t seem that poetic even if you can describe a goldfish with pretty words.
    I’d want to tie up loose ends too. I try to keep loose ends as tied as possible ever time I face death. Like, going outside. (Is this weird, or merely unpoetic? Scratch that, I’m ok with either.) It doesn’t keep me from loving; it keeps me from fighting, you know?

    • But why does the Zen master try to perfect the art of detachment, when it is the art of attachment that is more precious? I wouldn’t want to leave the wheel of reincarnation.
      Who is wiser, the Zen master trying to love nothing or Maggie taking care of a man who is dying?

      • I agree, I don’t admire the Zen master’s goal. I also don’t think it would be wise to pursue a gold medal in pairs figure skating, but I feel for the loser.

  2. This is my favorite poem. It has been for many years. Each time I revisit it, it leaves my eyes wet and my chest in tremors. Perfectly, this hits just as I reach the line about the fawn. It is a work of sublime, tender BRILLIANCE.

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