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Mark Doty and the Seattle Ricin Scare

By Travis Nichols

threateningletter.jpeg.jpg
The Seattle weekly The Stranger reported on its blog this week that eleven area gay bars have been sent the threatening letter posted above.
The upshot:
“I have in my possession approximately 67 grams of ricin, with which I will indiscriminately target at least five of your clients.”
The Seattle police have been notified (and, presumably, the FBI), but as of today the case remains open. The Metafilter site has kept tabs on the story, and The Stranger has followed it closely as well. In the comments sections of both sites writers have tried to track down the letter-writer based on clues in the text (Is it a man or a woman? Is he or she British? Etc.), but it all seemed idle speculation until the Slog commenters turned up a curious connection between the language in the letter and a poem by Mark Doty.


The end of the letter states that “the targets won’t care much that they’ll be dead and nearly frozen, just as, presumably, they didn’t care that they were living.”
Which is an odd thing to say about bar patrons (since they often seem to be living it up, right?), but even odder still since it is a nearly word for word quotation from Doty’s poem “A Display of Mackerel”.
The terrorist, it seems, knows his poetry.
On his blog, Doty has weighed in on the heartbreaking strangeness of his poem, written after the death of his partner, being used in a letter targeting the gay community:
“It’s hard for me to describe how horrified I feel by this. On the literal level, my poem describes looking at a group of mackerel on ice in a fish market, and contemplating both their beauty and their apparent absence of individuation. The poem was written in 1994, in the awful latter days of the AIDS crisis here, when there was no hope in sight and the losses just went on and on. I wrote a number of poems then which try on positions toward the fact of mortality — trying to make it bearable, at least for a little while, the notion that we lose what we love. No poem can do that, really, but the attempt to make meaning out of loss or to seek a way of understanding it is practically as old as poetry itself.
So — now here are my lines twisted to a new context, and what was intended to suggest consolation is instead bent to an occasion for creating fear.”
Doty has written eloquently here about the ways in which poetry can (and cannot) console a grieving community, a subject Atlantis explores in depth. The humanity of that language has now been given a perverse twist. In an email to Stranger editor Dan Savage, Doty wrote, “Writers have no control over what people do with their words, but this is as far from my intention as you could get.”
We’ll keep you up to date on the story as it develops.
(Thanks to Emily and James for the helpful links).

Comment (1)

  • On January 9, 2009 at 12:52 pm unreliable narrator wrote:

    Am I the only one who thinks immediately of the whole Donald Barthelme/Dan Rather thing?
    Once words have left the circumferences of our physical bodies, truly, there’s no safekeeping them—e.g. poor Fritz, no doubt revolving in his grave for the better part of a century as his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche (and later, of course, National Socialism) selectively excerpted from/entirely altered the meaning of his work. Or, consider the inexplicably-ever-popular-with-celebrity-murderers Catcher in the Rye.
    As precedented as it may be, I’m sorry this has happened to Mr. Doty (and the citizens of Seattle).


Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, January 8th, 2009 by Travis Nichols.