In Firebird, Mark Doty tells the story of a ten-year-old in a top hat, cane, and red chiffon scarf, interrupted while belting out Judy Garland's "Get Happy" by his alarmed mother at the bedroom door, exclaiming, "Son, you're a boy!"
Firebird presents us with a heroic little boy who has quite enough worries without discovering that his dawning sexuality is the Wrong One. A self-confessed "chubby smart bookish sissy with glasses and a Southern accent," Doty grew up on the move, the family following his father's engineering work across America-from Tennessee to Arizona, Florida to California. A lyrical, heartbreaking comedy of one family's dissolution through the corrosive powers of alcohol, sorrow, and thwarted desire, Firebird is also a wry evocation of childhood's pleasures and terrors, a comic tour of American suburban life, and a testament to the transformative power of art.
Doty, an award-winning poet (Atlantis) and memoirist (Heaven's Coast) has penned an autobiography of his early years that, while beautifully and sensitively written, is more moving intellectually than emotionally. Using his family history and personal recollections to create a snapshot of the artist as a young child and beyond, Doty portrays the rocky emotional and psychological domestic terrain of his youth and adolescence: his family moved frequently; his mother was severely alcoholic; he hid his crushes on other boys from his homophobic parents while his sister became embroiled in a bad marriage and was imprisoned for breaking into and burglarizing a pharmacy. Doty's personal material is sometimes wrenchingAat the story's climax, his mother, drunk, holds him at gunpointAbut he is at his best when describing his relationship to the idea of beauty and how it influenced his growth as an artist. From watching monster movies and listening to classical music as a child to participating in drama class and singing along to pop songs such as Petula Clark's "Downtown" as he grew older, Doty details his evolution as a poet. Through it all, he casts his tragic relationship with his mother as a touchstone for his love of art, relating how he moved from his childhood recognition that "my relationship with my mother is immense... and occupies so much space I can barely see around it" to an adult understanding that she "taught me the things that would save me, and then... she taught me I wasn't worth saving." In the end, Doty's story illuminates his poetry, but it doesn't match its power. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 18, 2000
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Excerpt from Firebird by Mark Doty
In 1959, in Memphis, Tennessee, my sister, Sally, became a Rainbow Girl. She'd been initiated, she told me, into a secret society. What did it mean? What were they not allowed to tell? It was my family's year for the sororal; my mother joined the Order of the Eastern Star and wore around her neck a little golden symbol which indicated her membership. I liked their name--ceremonial, vaguely Egyptian--but the simple necklace was far less interesting than the florid ephemera of the Rainbow Girls, the things Sally hid in the treasury of her lowest dresser drawer, mementos of every one of their occasions.
I am not allowed in her room, but I adore secrets, or rather secrecy's trappings, especially the hidden souvenirs of my sister's beauty, her unseen evenings.
Memory (stage designer, costumer, expert in theatrical lighting) orchestrates the scene like this: my sister's darkened room, a little summer twilight bluing the window and the chest of drawers. Chifferobe, my grandmother calls it, rich old word that seems itself to smell like a closed drawer; bureau, my father says, polished word, waxy, tobacco colored. This one isn't dark and varnished like my grandparents' stuff, or the hodgepodge of old furniture in the other houses we've lived in; this new blond suite, angular, forward looking, seems a physical expression of my sister's grownupness and privacy. My parents never buy anything new, so who knows where it's come from; they must have had some little flourish of money as well as some burst of interest in style. Or did Sally choose it? She is almost sixteen, I am newly six; she will leave home soon, but we don't know that yet. For now the important thing for me is that she has become a Rainbow Girl. Is that where she is tonight, off with her new sisters? My parents are down the hall in the living room, watching television, far away, absorbed in something that does not concern me, so I am free to pursue my investigations.
Her room is full of things that might invite my attention: a luscious satin pillow a boyfriend won for her at a fair, with verses written on it in stiff gold cursive and a border of irresistible yellow fringe. An autograph hound, a stuffed dachshund with a lean body of white cloth on which her friends have written salutations and verses and names. A record case made just for 45s, an object that seems feminine and precise, exactly suited to its purpose: beige vinyl fabric, fabric hinges, and when you lift the lid her favorites are revealed, black and glossy. I could pull out the matching phonograph and plug it in, but that wouldn't really interest me much. I like to hear the openings of the songs she likes--"You Ain't Nothin' But a Hound Dog," "Love Me Tender," something by Brenda Lee--but I don't feel like sitting still for the rest of the song; I don't believe I will be rewarded for sustained attention. As I will be, I know with all my heart, the full certainty of my six-year-old power of belief, when I look into the drawer.
To recollect: that verb's exact, since here in the haze are elements of a collection, an assemblage of things so long unseen they might as well be the stuff of someone else's life. That fringed carnival pillow: I haven't seen that for forty years! And there it is, in sharp focus, weirdly noisy, the fabric crunching slightly when leaned into, its texture unpleasant but also fascinating, as you run a finger across the roughish print of the text and the satin interstices: scribble of a sentimental poem of devotion. And though the devoted and the devotee have long moved on, and the physical pillow vanished decades ago, its texture is precisely available to my fingertips now. Am I a repository of vanished things which float to the surface, slowly, one at a time, each with invisible links to another?
My raggedy stuffed tiger, for instance, with its green glass eyes--little fragments of the divine fire, alert, energetic, like something out of Blake, though of course I don't think that then. He has long been put away, in the attic of our house on Ramses Street (the front porch has wide columns which taper at the top, a watered-down reference to Luxor). On some excursion with my mother into that hot, sequestered place, reached only by a mysterious collapsing stair that folds down from the ceiling, I've found him again and have taken pleasure in the recognition, a pleasure more complicated than mere affection. The nicely battered tiger is of a time which I think of as the past--of, as it were, childhood's childhood. Now, at six, I have a past; I have an object which refers to who I used to be.
But the drawer, precious and hermetic, refers to who I am now. And to something else, something veiled, and perhaps there's even a veil inside it, among these scraps of sheer and sparkled treasure. Sally must have shown them to me, proud of her new sense of belonging, though what they meant to her and what they mean to me are quite different things. For her they're evidence of a common bond, proof of sisterhood; for me they are alluring artifacts of difference.