Mark Doty

‘Brilliance’ by Mark Doty describes a dying man who wants to control his own life. He eventually opens himself up to new experiences.


Mark Doty

Nationality: American

Mark Doty is a contemporary American poet who is regarded as one of the most important poets of his generation. 

He won the National Book Award for Poetry.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: By giving up control, we can experience true beauty

Speaker: A friend of a nurse

Emotions Evoked: Compassion, Courage, Enjoyment, Grief

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 21st Century

This sad yet thoughtful poem describes a man's personal philosophy during his dying days.

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‘Brilliance’ describes the last days of a terminally ill man as he grapples with his own mortality. Mark Doty uses vivid imagery and an extended metaphor to examine the idea of a life well-lived. Despite its difficult subject matter, the poem ends on a note of hope.

Brilliance by Mark Doty


‘Brilliance’ by Mark Doty is an evocative poem about how a dying man chooses to live out the end of his life and the nurse who helps him see a new possibility.

This poem’s speaker is friends with Maggie, a woman who works as a palliative care nurse for a dying man. The man has done everything he can to keep his life under control, including sending his pets to new homes. Despite the man’s hesitance to open himself up to anything new so close to death, he eventually accepts Maggie’s suggestion that he get a bowl of goldfish. The speaker muses on love, death, and rebirth.

Structure and Form

‘Brilliance’ consists of nineteen stanzas, each of which is three lines long. A three-line stanza is called a tercet. The poem is written in free verse, meaning that it does not have a rhyme scheme. Although the lines do not rhyme or follow a set meter, they are all relatively similar in length. For most of the poem, new lines do not start with a capital letter as long as they are part of the same sentence as the preceding line. In the last four stanzas, however, each new line starts with a capital letter. This indicates a thematic shift in the poem’s meaning and tone.

Literary Devices

  • Enjambment: the continuation of a sentence or clause across two or more lines of poetry without a pause. ‘Brilliance’ makes use of enjambment many times, as in lines 1 and 2 (“Maggie’s taking care of a man/who’s dying”) and in the break between stanzas 6 and 7 (“how their tails would fan/to a gold flaring”).
  • Imagery: vivid descriptions that appeal to readers’ senses. The descriptions of goldfish throughout the poem are particularly evocative, as in lines 51-53 (“Fanning the veined translucence/ Of an opulent tail,/ Undulant in some uncapturable curve”).
  • Conceit: an extended metaphor that is woven throughout the poem. Goldfish are used metaphorically throughout the poem. Initially, they represent the possibility of continuing to accept love and beauty even in the face of death. By the end of the poem, the speaker imagines the dying man being reborn as a goldfish. This suggests that love is a force that can allow people to live on after death.

Detailed Analysis

Many poems use each stanza to focus on a distinct idea, but this poem breaks that mold. ‘Brilliance’ often changes direction in the middle of a stanza or even in the middle of a line. As a result, breaking the poem up into sections that discuss distinct ideas makes more sense than breaking it up into individual stanzas.

Lines 1-8

Maggie’s taking care of a man
who’s dying; he’s attended to everything,

but he wants everything
squared away, no balance owed,

In the opening stanzas of ‘Brilliance,’ the speaker introduces Maggie, the nurse, and her patient, a terminally ill man. The man has already done everything in his power to prepare for death. He has said goodbye to his parents and paid off his credit card debt. The man does not like the idea of leaving anything unfinished, of having a balance owed. That balance, the poem implies, refers not just to money but also to emotional attachments. In some ways, the man is choosing to behave as though he is already dead by severing his connections to the world.

Maggie asks her patient why he doesn’t just run up a huge balance on his credit card since he will be dead long before any debtors come to collect. She is suggesting that the man make the most of his remaining time to have fun and engage with the world; her patient takes a different philosophical approach. Instead of engaging, “he wants everything/squared away.”

Lines 9-16

though he misses the pets
he’s already found a home for


He says he doesn’t want to start
with anything

Although the dying man in ‘Brilliance’ has worked hard to cut his ties with the world before his death, it turns out that he has some regrets. He misses living with dogs and cats, but he had to send his pets to new homes. There is “too much risk” otherwise; living with animals could worsen his health. The man says that he “can’t have anything.” He believes that this is true, but it still hurts him to know it.

Echoing her suggestion about using the man’s credit card, Maggie asks him if he would like to have a bowl of goldfish if he cannot have a dog or a cat. He is initially reluctant, feeling that getting goldfish would mean starting something that he cannot finish.

Lines 16-23

and then describes
the kind he’d maybe like,

they’ll go pick some out
though he can’t go much of anywhere

Immediately after the man turns down the goldfish, he talks about what kind of goldfish he would like to have. The change in tone happens in the space of a single line. His immediate sense is that goldfish, like the rest of life’s joys, are forbidden to him. However, he still thinks in great detail about exactly what kind of fish would make him happy. He and Maggie discuss what color they would be.

Just for a moment, the man indulges in the fantasy. He agrees that he and Maggie can go and buy some fish, though he knows that he is very ill. It seems as though Maggie has gotten through to him, that maybe he will be prepared to accept new joy and beauty into his life. However, the poem has not yet finished with its twists and turns.

Lines 23-35

and then
abruptly he says I can’t love
anything I can’t finish.

her knitting as she does because
she needs to do something.

Just as it seemed that the dying man was prepared to say yes to the goldfish he clearly wants, he tells Maggie that he “can’t love anything [he] can’t finish.” He allowed himself to imagine bringing something new into his life, but he is not prepared to follow through.

Here, the speaker of ‘Brilliance’ makes an important distinction regarding the man’s philosophy. He turns down Maggie’s offer “like he’s had enough/of the whole scintillant world,” but the speaker suspects that his real reason for saying no is different. While the man may want the goldfish and, by extension, want more life, he fears that he will “never be satisfied” with his choices. Because of this fear, he is engaging in “a kind of severe rehearsal” for death by opting out of any new ways of engaging with the world around him.

Lines 36-46

Later he leaves a message:
Yes to the bowl of goldfish.


and at that instant was reborn
in the stunned flesh of a fawn

At last, after Maggie has left, the dying man changes his mind. He would like to have a bowl of goldfish, after all. Even so near death, he has chosen to embrace something new even if he cannot see his new project through to its end. This marks a turning point in the poem where the dying man’s life philosophy changes. He will no longer be self-denying; he will no longer prepare for death by behaving as though he has already died.

The speaker then switches topics for the first time in the poem to relay a story he once heard about a Zen master. This man, the speaker says, had “perfected/his detachment from the things of the world.” This negation of desire is a central tenet in Buddhism. However, just before dying, the Zen master suddenly remembered a deer he used to feed. He worried about who would care for the deer after he died. This momentary connection with the world caused him to be reborn as a fawn.

Lines 47-57

So, Maggie’s friend —
Is he going out


Doubloons, icon-colored fins
Troubling the water?

In the last few lines of ‘Brilliance,’ the speaker connects the story of the Buddhist monk to the dying man, whom he now refers to as “Maggie’s friend” rather than her patient. He wonders if, when the man dies, he will transform into the “last loved object/Of his attention,” a goldfish. Will he, like the Zen master, return to the world after death in the form of something beautiful, something that he cared deeply about?

According to Buddhism, being reborn as an animal is a negative outcome. It is better to be reborn as a human or, ideally, to reach Nirvana. In the story that the speaker tells about the monk, being reborn as a fawn was not a positive thing. However, for Maggie’s patient, the speaker implies that being reborn as a goldfish would indicate that he lived a good life. It would suggest that instead of cutting himself off from the world, the man chose to embrace love and beauty in his final moments.


What is the tone of ‘Brilliance’ by Mark Doty?

‘Brilliance’ is a quiet, thoughtful poem. It uses straightforward language and evocative imagery to describe the final days of a man’s life. While the poem is sad, it has a hopeful ending. The dying man connects to the world once more while the speaker imagines what his afterlife might look like.

What is the meaning of ‘Brilliance’ by Mark Doty?

‘Brilliance’ is a poem about what makes life worth living. It emphasizes that it is important to remain open to joy, love, and beauty, even in the face of death. The speaker argues that closing oneself off from the world means denying the possibility of happiness.

Why is ‘Brilliance’ by Mark Doty important?

‘Brilliance’ is important because it deals with death and mortality, which are issues that impact everyone. It offers a thought-provoking look at the different ways that people can live their lives.

What are the themes of ‘Brilliance’ by Mark Doty?

The main themes of ‘Brilliance’ include life and death, dealing with grief, and the importance of joy. The dying man in the poem is using his last days as a “rehearsal” for death. His nurse persuades him to open himself up to joy by getting goldfish.

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Sasha Blakeley Poetry Expert
Sasha Blakeley is an experienced poetry expert with a BA in English Literature from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. With a focus on Romanticism, Sasha has extensive knowledge and a passion for English Literature and Poetry. She is a published poet and has written hundreds of high-quality analyses of poems and other literary works.

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