Sweet Machine

By Mark Doty b. 1953 Mark Doty
Glisten fretting the indigo of a plum,
silvered chalk of moth-wing dust:

the young man on the subway platform
—twenty maybe—seems almost powdered,

he is so dirty, the dust lighter
than his skin, which is still,

by a slight stretch of the imagination,
lovely. Though it’s odd to think

of him that way, this shirtless kid
in hugely oversized jeans that fall,

when he stands, around his thighs,
exposing his skinny ass. He yanks

the waistband up, sits down again,
and begins to writhe, palms roaming,

uncontrollable, over his own face,
his close-cropped hair and ears,

down to his flanks, hands disappearing
inside the big jeans, scratching

and rubbing, until he collapses, exhausted,
head hanging between his knees,

and after a few seconds starts
it all up again. Does he want

to rub his own skin away? Then
I understand: what’s powdering his flesh is

his flesh, the outest layer of himself
rubbed to palest chalk. He repeats

his stream of violent tableaux
these might be positions of transport,

of ecstasy, except he’s miserable, I guess,
and it’s two in the afternoon, 96th and Broadway,

and all of us waiting for the local
watch, how can we help it? Crackhead,

somebody says, but it’s a whisper, a question,
and nothing answers our troubled fascination:

nothing to do but watch the pity and terror
of these poses. The express comes and goes,

and the brutal series grows more synaptic:
these might be flashes of the pornographic,

or classical attitudes, rough trade posing
as a captive slave for Michelangelo. Our context’s

neither intimate nor academic, and nothing’s
supposed to be so real in the common nowhere

of the on-the-way-to, while we wait
for the 1 or the 9, strangers and witnesses

pressed knee to hem, back to shoulder
on the platforms and cars. This month,

on the broad haunches of the buses,
another sleek boy’s posed in multiple shots,

black underwear and lean belly laved by rivulets
from a shower or stream. The photographees

left him headless, his gestures multiplied
on builders’ makeshift walls, page after page

of blank torsos already beginning to be inscribed:
on a yard of silvery muscle six feet from Seventh Avenue

someone’s scrawled, in black marker: I am a sweet
suck and fuck machine. Take me home. Big buses

nose through the streets, one after the other,
bearing the model of what we’re supposed to want,

and do, what we’re meant to see and need
but not, unless we have the money, touch.

He doesn’t have the money, my boy
on the platform, and I wish .... What?

I don’t know. Just today, in traffic,
one of those buses eased by my taxi window:

a taut wet waist bound in black elastic,
huge, luminous emulsion inches

from my face. The endlessly reprinted boy
—is he?—could almost be this man,

whitened by his own degrading skin,
dark stone wearing the dust of the quarry.

He’s rubbing himself to flour, he’s giving
his name back to airy nothing, I’m figuring him

on the varnished bench. Moth, plum—hear
how the imagery aestheticizes? He’s nothing

as fixed as marble, and he touches himself
not for pleasure but because he can’t stop.

What unthinkable train is he waiting for?
That boy on the billboard, the headless boy,

could he stop touching himself?
We’re all on display in this town,

sweet machines, powerless, consumed,
just as he consumes himself

with those relentless hands,
scratching his barely hidden center,

hanging his head between his knees,
spent, before he jerks himself up
and starts all over again.

Mark Doty, “Sweet Machine” from Sweet Machine: Poems. Copyright © 1998 by Mark Doty. Reprinted with the permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

Source: Sweet Machine: Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1998)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Mark Doty b. 1953

Subjects Health & Illness, Living, Cities & Urban Life, Social Commentaries, Popular Culture, The Body, Nature

 Mark  Doty

Biography

Since the publication of his first volume of verse, Turtle, Swan, in 1987, Mark Doty has been recognized as one of the most accomplished poets in America. Hailed for his elegant, intelligent verse, Doty has often been compared to James Merrill, Walt Whitman and C.P. Cavafy. His syntactically complex and aesthetically profound free verse poems, odes to urban gay life, and quietly brutal elegies to his lover, Wally Roberts, have . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Health & Illness, Living, Cities & Urban Life, Social Commentaries, Popular Culture, The Body, Nature

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.