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Firebird: A Memoir

Sam Gaskin



Mark Doty – Vintage
As a teenager, Mark Doty had a gun pulled on him by his alcoholic mother. After discovering his sexuality, she tried to kill him. She had been taught to use the gun previously, but was too drunk to release the safety. To Doty, that the potentially fatal physical harm did not occur does not mitigate the harm, the pain of rejection and condemnation of his mother’s intention.
As a grown man, Doty and his monogamous partner of many years, Wally, took an HIV test. The test’s results categorically separated them: Mark negative, Wally positive. Wally’s advanced state of disease meant Doty could only care for him for a short time before the pivot of earth, which separates the living – six feet over – from the dead, turned and took Wally’s life.
Despite candidly relating and addressing these desperate hardships, and perhaps because of their occurrence, one of the most apparent aspects of Doty’s memoirs and poems is his great sense of gratitude.
Firebird: A Memoir relates Doty’s early life, predominantly from ages six to sixteen, and his parallel discoveries of art and sexual desire. Doty, as author, shifts from the present to the past tense empathetically expressing the slightly alien perceptions of his young self directly and then offering reinterpretations from his adult viewpoint.
The formative experience for which, in part, the book is titled occurred when Doty’s fourth grade teacher asked him to perform an interpretative dance to Stravinsky’s Suite from the Firebird for his class. Doty becomes the phoenix burning off self-consciousness and shame while immersed in the music, an image that escapes cliché because of the actuality and particularity of the experience. Fire has become a motif that suggests the grace of vitality and struggle throughout Doty’s poetry.
Paradoxically, art becomes both Doty’s means of fully realising himself, as in the dance, and of escaping himself. Doty engaged with surrealist poetry as a means of contributing to something external, an artistic tradition and community. However, his poetry clearly became of essential importance to him. As a sixteen-year-old he reads a poem for the brilliant poet Charles Simic, who, in his ‘lush European accent… says, “read me another one,” which is the very best thing he could say, the perfect thing.’
Doty’s discovery of and refuge in his artistic self temporarily delays the full expression of his sexual self. In Firebird, Doty rightly refuses to postulate the origins – genetic? Did his mother dress him in girls’ clothes? – of his sexual desire because doing so implies a will to control that desire. Moreover, the origins of desire may well be banal; they aren’t so immediately interesting as the way in which desire is identified and negotiated. Doty claims that writing beautifully should serve to write clearly, and not the other way around. His artful writing is terribly successful in this respect, and lucidly conveys the difficulty of Doty’s attempts to understand his homosexuality in the context of 1950s and 60s US society.
Doty’s gratitude for rare moments of reassurance and assistance is moving. He interrupts his narrative to thank a nameless doctor for getting him out of unbearable P.E. classes: ‘Dear Doctor Whoever-You-Are, this adult thanks you still, not for the note so much, though that’s what the boy wanted, but for your acceptance, your tacit recognition of that kid’s courage, or at least his nerve. You are a good man.’
Although Firebird is an interesting picture of the events of a life – Doty’s murderer for a grandfather, his father’s work on nuclear missile silos, a convict sister, her abortion, his drug taking, a suicide attempt, et cetera – it is Doty’s questioning, observations and his acrobatic turn of phrase that make the memoir a worthy read.
At his recent performance at Readers and Writers Week (Sunday 14th of March) Doty explained our understanding of our personal histories as climbing the internal staircase of a lighthouse, spiralling around an experience, one’s perspective always changing and developing. To Doty, this changing perspective permits us, each an artist of our own past, to reinterpret ourselves without losing the core of our formative experiences. Firebird seems to be a cathartic text for the author, a clarification of how he chooses to feel about his past, but it is also an offering to others to choose how to view themselves.
Doty claims a boon of adulthood is the capacity to identify the significance of things as they happen. The same gratitude with which Doty looks back on events in his young life is more immediate in his poetry. At the same time, it often possesses an aspect of defiance. In Atlantis and, to a degree, in Source Doty finds and clutches treasured images and moments of experience to fight past the utter despair he recalls of the Aids-struck late-80s/early-90s gay community.
The imagery of Doty’s poems is filled with colour and other visual properties of materials. Doty’s palette is vast and splendid; he can bask in the sensation of the superficial. In ‘A Letter From the Coast’ as a storm approached “every metal shone in the sea: / platinum, sterling, tarnished chrome.”
Doty identifies inherent value in surfaces, which should not be dismissed as incomplete, as they may in fact be ‘visible cores,’ complex concepts expressed simply (a partial explanation of a gay stereotype: a unique personality may be deliberately expressed through a unique sense of style). However, Doty’s sensitivity to the sensory is matched by and merged with an emotional connectedness. In ‘Four Cut Sunflowers, One Upside Down’ this connection is obvious: “They are a nocturne / in argent and gold, and they burn / with the ferocity / of dying (which is to say, the luminosity of what’s living hardest).” Doty denies the flowers’ death passivity, which, in the wider context of the poems, echoes the thought of Wally’s fight for survival.
Relating Wally’s AIDS-related death is an inherently political act. However, as a gay poet, Doty is at times more overtly political. He responds to a religious bigot’s slogan ‘homo will not inherit’ by arguing, “This failing city’s / radiant as any we’ll ever know, / paved with oily rainbow, charred gates / jewelled with tags…”
Yet the politics of Doty’s poetry is not its most dominant facet. Instead, I am most aware of the persistent questioning and the self-consciousness of Doty’s poems. What am I trying to achieve? Where does the value of the attempt lie? At times this persistent questioning implies a sadness that incessantly thirsts for solace. Yet, when I read the poems now, using or imagining the slow, rich, deep, rhythmical voice I heard at the Embassy, I am confident he will capture thoughts and images for which he – and we – may be grateful. At times these may be as simple as his observation at ‘Fish R Us’:
… each fry
about the size of this line,
too many lines for any
bronzy antique epic,
a million of them,
a billion incipient citizens
of a goldfish Beijing,
a Sao Paulo,
a Mexico City.