Lost in the Stars

by Mark Doty

Mark Doty

The Café Musicale,
a benefit organized by Billy—
sweet, irksome Billy,
who seemed fundamentally
incapable of organizing anything,
though he’d managed

to fill a hall, a midwinter Saturday,
the town muffled by snow,
and dozens ready to perform:
girl singers with severely sculptural hair,
earnest poets, West End Wendy,
who played cowgirl tunes

on her ukulele, and a pianist
who’d driven all the way from a lounge
where he was appearing in Hyannis.
Where did Billy find us all?
The cause: PWAs, a fund
for art supplies, paint and clay

and darkroom chemicals.
We filled the folding chairs;
act after act the snow piled up
outside, scrolling the windows
with an intimate, tumbling rhythm,
ethereal. Marie read poems,

and Michael—in a thrift-store retro
ensemble that meant I want a boyfriend—
made his literary debut.
Someone played the spoons.
Davíd, who’d said our town
averaged that year a funeral a week,

did a performance piece
about the unreliability of language.
Someone showed slides: family snapshots
tinted the colors of a bruise. (Art heals,
we thought. It was 1992,
and we were powerless.)

We were studiedly casual
in our clothes, which is why
the drag queen who appeared,
at intermission, startled so:
black glittery leotard, eyelashes
spiking from kohl-rimmed, huge

black eyes, bouffant hard
and black, high thick heels:
it was a wonder she’d come out of the snow.
When she took the stage,
the houselights—though
there were none—dimmed.

The music was Kurt Weill,
“Lost in the Stars.” Nothing
overtly funny about it:
since she was irony
she did nothing ironic,
only a raised eyebrow,

a subtle turn of the wrist
to acknowledge the ways
the limits of flesh
resisted her ambitions.
A long time, in those lyrics,
before “I” appears,

to tell us the chanteuse
has wandered her way
toward disenchantment:
I’ve been walking through
the night and the day,
she sang, and sometimes

it seems maybe God’s
gone away, not without
a certain warmth in those tones,
not without wisdom.
(He is unpossessed
of any special understanding,

daytimes, off work, but she
was a contained storm,
her body’s darkness opening,
as if one of the windows
had fallen open, startling us
with that continuous scrolling freefall.)

Then those who’d left someone
home in bed, someone not well enough
to come, began to tug on scarves
and coats. And the half-dozen
who’d been helped to their metal chairs,
canes leaning against them,

men with portals in their necks
or chests for foscarnet
and gancyclovir, who’d clapped
or nodded off while
we raised money for art supplies—
they all went home too.

I walked into the snow
(I’ve been walking through
the night and the day);
Wally was home in bed blocks away—
sleeping, I hoped, though I’d left him
alone as long as I dared.

I can hardly remember how
it felt now, that relentless
hopelessness. The Musicale,
in the way of such things,
went on long after it was over,
and the next year there was another,

though Billy’d begun to unravel
then, his introductions less sensible,
his imitations of his friends opaque.
No one had the heart
to tell him to sit down.
We’d stay through it;

we’d stay for Billy,
and to buy the men we knew
clay and brushes and sketching paper.
How will I remember them?
I wouldn’t have guessed
it would be this: how

—dark and glittering and
strangely self-contained—
she reached her gloved hand
toward us (We’re lost)
in a gesture unmistakably twofold:
she wanted to touch us,

and we were already,
in her lyric, contained.
This is what imagination
must do, isn’t it, find a form?
She dazzled our estrangement.
She asserted her night.

She was the no one we needed;
she sang the necessary
gleaming emptiness.
You who were taken,
you who are gone now
in the drift and ash of the lyric

we’ve made of you,
gone into the snowfall
still unreeling somewhere,
repetitive, poised, so relentless
you might take it for stillness,
how will we remember you?

The black glove opens
and there it is, still falling,
beyond memory, beyond recovery,
the snow of 1992.


Last updated December 21, 2022