Theory of Multiplicity

by Mark Doty

I don’t like the laundromat on Sixteenth Street in the winter,
the single aisle between washers and dryers too narrow
to allow one to sit down, and the women who work there
doing the laundry of others seem generally to resent one’s in-the-wayness,
and why aren’t you paying them to do your wash anyway?

But in summer it’s fine: you can read on the street, in white plastic chairs
set out for this purpose, watch people go by, and, as I liked to do
one summer, look into the garden someone made next door
on the edge of the sidewalk, spilling onto the pavement,
surprisingly wild, with prairie grasses, a shrubby purple coneflower,
strapping and frowsy black-eyed susan, even a few bees

drowsing through it—how do they live, in Manhattan? Once,
leaning back on the legs of the white chair and staring into the garden
I thought of myself as one of its many viewers. What I knew
was this singular aspect, this vantage, in this light,
but didn’t its actuality consist in being seen multiply,

color and dimension attracting the gaze of many?
Those who did not ignore it in their hurry took it in
from the particular height or angle afforded them,
and even those who paid no mind must have registered,
subtly, the tumbled blur of periphery. What was
the garden but the sum of all that, studied or casual?

Perception carried, loved, considered, dis- or regarded.
Late in the season, frost probably not far off, afternoon
slanting down from the London plane trees, their already yellowed
and thinning leaves, sunlight humming into the stalks
and flowers, the garden I saw one occasion of many.

And this was in some way an accomplishment,
a contribution to the work; it took all of us to make
the garden known. No one could assemble
the entire vantage we made together,
if anyone could it would be the vision of God.

I felt in that moment complete
—not dissolved in anything, not selfless,
but joined in a layering of singularities—
a multiplicity which is not God, exactly, that theoretical viewpoint,
but a satisfying gesture in that direction.
The next summer the garden would be sparse,

not well tended, and offer
no consolation, though even its diminishment
might be said to be one of its nearly endless dimensions.

 

Mark Doty is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently Deep Lane (W. W. Norton, 2015); A Swarm, A Flock, A Host: A Compendium of Creatures (Prestel, 2013); Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (HarperCollins, 2008), which received the National Book Award; School of the Arts (HarperCollins, 2005); Source (HarperCollins, 2002); and Sweet Machine (HarperCollins, 1998). This poem originally appeared in the Autumn 2005 issue of the Bulletin.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.