“If You Don’t Hold Still”

photo of Ned by Mark Doty
photo of Ned by Mark Doty

Deep Lane

by Mark Doty

I’m resting on a bench in the cemetery
while Ned scrawls his self-delighted wild-boy trace
over the slopes of grass, but we can’t stay long,

since it’s a day I need to go into the city,
and when I stand up suddenly my left leg’s half a foot
lower than my right, because I’ve stepped into the sunken,

newly filled grave of one Herbert Meyer.
I don’t know it then, but that’s when the wind
blows up from beneath; I think I’m just off balance,

and make a joke of it later, telling people my day began
with falling into a grave, and where can you go from there?
Later a storm blows down the moraine,

crisp and depth-charged with ozone and exhilaration,
chills my face and arms with a wind I’ve already met,
winds up the lanes and rattles the cups in the cabinet,

bends the beautyberry and Joe Pye weed down
in the direction of beautiful supplication;
the maple and walnut sway in the highest regions of themselves,

leaves circling in air like the great curtain of bubbles
blown by the humpback to encircle the delicious schools . . .
Blows in my sleep and blows while I’m cooking,

blows while I read and when I kiss does it ever
blow then, the wind not particular to Mr. Meyer
nor anyone else, and thus the nervy thrill

of its invitation: to be unbound, not at all
what you thought, to rush up from the sinking earth
on a gust of investigation: now go be

the crooked little house, and the cracks in the shingles,
tunnel your hour as the mouse in the stale loaf, fly back
to the strong hands of the baker, further back into the wheat,

forward into the belly of the mouse-child,
what reason to ever end? I know one:
if you don’t hold still, you can have joy after joy,

but you can’t stay anywhere to love. That’s the price,
that rib-rattling wind waiting to sweep you up,

that’s the price the wind pays.

from Deep Lane © W. W. Norton, 2015
Reprinted with permission. Buy now

The force of the wind that blows through this poem seems to be (at least partly) a metaphor for the movement of our unruly minds. We are almost always thinking, without pause and with insatiable curiosity, very much like the speaker’s golden retriever, Ned, who “scrawls his self-delighted wild-boy trace” across the grassy hills of the cemetery. Thought, of course, is not always a bad thing, especially since our minds (and hearts) give us this amazing ability to empathize and feel compassion for each other. We can widen our sense of self by imagining our way into the lives of other people and even things—”the crooked little house, and the cracks in the shingles/ . . . the mouse in the stale loaf.”

As a writer, I know well “the nervy thrill” of imagination’s invitation: “to be unbound, not at all/what you thought.” Growing up as a gay kid in rural Missouri, I always felt safer living inside my own head, in the company of fantasies and obsessions I could direct and control. But after years of using thought to escape the present moment, to run from discomfort, pain, and the universal truth of our mortality, I have learned (and try to remember) the lesson that Mark Doty imparts at the end of “Deep Lane,” with such aching clarity and precision: “if you don’t hold still, you can have joy after joy,//but you can’t stay anywhere to love.” We can ride the wind of our wild minds, he seems to say, chasing pleasure after pleasure, but it is only by “holding still,” and sitting with ourselves exactly as we are, that we come to know and love this one life.

—James Crews