I’ve got less than a week before classes start, and I am equal parts anxious and excited. It’s really happening, guys–I’m a grad student! I’ve got my ID ready and most of my summer reading completed, and I’m ready to rumble–probably.
I’ll be writing about the books I’m reading critically again soon enough, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop blogging my more informal, personal responses to the books I read. That means that this week, I’ll be talking a little bit about Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast.
I’ll start off by saying that this book is a difficult one. It’s Doty’s memoir about the experience of losing his lover to AIDS, and man is it rough. The story starts off with the death, circles back through the experience as caregiver and watching the slow decline of someone you love, and then comes around again to the death scene a second time, letting us see it through our new knowledge of what took place before.
Reading this one on my Greyhound trip across the country meant a lot of public crying as I tried to put myself in Doty’s shoes, feel the pain of losing a lover and countless friends to the terrible AIDS epidemic. While I had my “reading-as-writer” goggles on and many of my observations were craft related, there was something else going on at a deeper level, something I know I’ll have to duel with again when we revisit H is for Hawk in my Readings course. The fact is that I can’t read grief memoirs the same way I used to, after the events of this year. The fact is that I know have a window on grief, on my personal experience with it, that makes everything hit a little bit harder, touch me a little bit deeper.
That isn’t to say I can know the kind of pain explored in this memoir. I don’t have the distance yet, for one. And I never had the closeness, the experience of being there and watching a slow decline from a terrible, stigmatized disease. I lost someone I was no longer in steady contact with, and I lost him suddenly. Nevertheless, grief has a new face for me, a new depth, and that made reading this book a challenge for me. Mark Doty makes poetry out of loss, unpacking the experience alongside questions about life, love, purpose, and of course, death. The lyricism of the book sometimes kept me outside the emotion, but in a way that mostly felt necessary–to get to close would be to cut too deep.
This isn’t the sort of book that one says “I enjoyed this” after reading, but it is certainly a worthwhile book. I learned a lot more about the AIDS epidemic from the personal side, something that definitely isn’t explored in health class. Read this if you want to know the experience of a gay man during the epidemic. Read this if you want (or need) a story about love and loss. Read this if you, like me, are a student of nonfiction trying to get a sense of the many ways you can approach the thing.