by Mark Doty
I read this book nearly 20 years ago. I was a freshman at a Catholic college and it was selected as the required reading for all incoming freshmen. Heaven’s Coast is a memoir of Mark Doty’s experience learning his partner has tested positive for HIV and the slow, heartbreaking time leading to his partner’s death.
As you can probably imagine, there was considerable uproar from the local Catholic community that this book was selected as required reading. I like to think that Catholic’s in U.S. are more humble and open in the two decades since that freshman year, especially given the amount of pain and suffering some leaders in our communities have caused. I like to think that Jesus’ charge to give freely and to judge-not have created a more accepting Catholic community in recent years. I like to think that our ever-loving Pope Francis has become an emblematic figure for the acceptance that the Catholic faith calls us too. I like to think those things, but I’m also no fool.
I’m not sure if it was the raucous raised locally with the selection of this book as required reading or the beautifully poetic words that lie within Heaven’s Coast, but this book has stuck with me 20 years later. It’s high time I pick it up again.
“Being in grief, it turns out, is not unlike being in love. In both states, the imagination’s entirely occupied with one person. The beloved dwells at the heart of the world, and becomes a Rome: the roads of feeling all lead to him, all proceed from him. Everything that touches us seems to relate back to that center: there is no other emotional life, no place outside the universe of feeling centered on its pivotal figure.”
“Christmas Eve, I give him packages which I open for him, since the bows and paper represent more labor than he could manage: music videos by the Nashville singers he thinks particularly sexy, fleece-lined slippers decorated with images of bacon and eggs, and a book about breeds of dogs. He says he wishes he had something for me to open, but I don’t want anything except to have him here. There’s nothing more he could give me than his life, right now, his being with me.”
“I used to walk out, at night, to the breakwater which divides the end of the harbor from the broad moor of the salt marsh. There was nothing to block the wind that had picked up speed and vigor from its Atlantic crossing. I’d study the stars in their brilliant blazing, the diaphanous swath of the milk Way, the distant glow of Boston backlighting the clouds on the horizon as if they’d been drawn there in smudgy charcoal. I felt, perhaps for the first time, particularly American, embedded in American history, here at the nation’s slender tip. Here our westering impulse, having flooded the continent and turned back, finds itself face to face with the originating Atlantic, November’s chill, salt expanses, what Hart Crane called the “unfettered leewardings,” here at the end of the world.”
“Desire I think has less to do with possession than with participation, the will to involve oneself in the body of the world, in the principle of things expressing itself in splendid specificity, a handful of images: a lover’s irreplaceable body, the roil and shimmer of the sea overshot with sunlight, a handful of cherries, the texture and weight of a word. The word that seems most apt is partake… We can say we partake of something but we may just as accurately say we take part in something’ we are implicated in another being, which is always the beginning of wisdom, isn’t it- that involvement which enlarges us, which engages the heart, which takes out of the routine limitations of self?”
“After he died, there was a deep calm to his face; he seemed a kind of unfathomable, still well which opened on and down beneath the suddenly smooth surface of his skin…The heat in him lasted a long time. I loved that heat. I don’t know how long I held his face and his shoulders and stroked him; as he began to cool I kept my hands on his belly, where the last of his warmth seemed to pool and concentrate. Here the fire of the body came to rest, smoldering longest, down to the last embers.”
“I don’t know anything different about death than I ever have, but I feel differently. I inhabit this difference in feeling- or does it live in me?- at the same time as I’m sorrowing. The possibility of consolation, of joy even, does not dispel the sorrow. Sorrow is the cathedral, the immense architecture; in its interior there’s room for almost everything; for desire, for flashes of happiness, for making plans for the future…”
Sticky Books are those that you just can’t get out of your head. They stick with you long after you have put the book down and have moved on to something else. These are some of my Sticky Books. I don’t enjoy reviewing books myself. I find I am either full of far too much praise for the book because I know how difficult it can be to write a book, or I am far too negative about a book because, well, I guess I was just in a bad mood. So instead of reviews, I have pulled some of my favorite quotes from each Sticky Book.
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