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Firebird: A Memoir Hardcover – September 22, 1999

4.6 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

"Childhood's work is to see what lies beneath," Mark Doty writes in his memoir, Firebird. And adulthood's work, he suggests, is to make sense of what the child-self once saw. Doty, a poet, does this remarkably well, capturing the peculiar talismans of youth--"little cars of fragrant plastic whose wheels turn on wire axles that can be popped loose and examined; hard candies; sweet, chalky wafers strung together into wristlets and necklaces"--as well as a child's experience of sin:
I am standing paralyzed by what I've done, there's a rush and roar from the direction of the living room, my father rising from the couch, he's coming down the hall, I'm afraid he's going to spank me, I remember the last time, the humiliation of it, him pulling my pants down on the porch and whaling me, his red face filled up with blood and rage, striking at me because what have I done? Now I've done something plain and sharply lit like the big shards of glass on the floor...
It's clear from the start that the author's home life was not happy. His father's job with the Army Corps of Engineers kept the family crisscrossing the country; his older sister got pregnant at 17--"these girls knew what they were doing, these girls married to get out"--and ended up, eventually, in prison; and his mother, a frustrated artist, sank eventually into depression and alcoholism. As if growing up in this family during the 1950s and '60s weren't difficult enough, Doty's homosexuality provided additional anguish. A confrontation over his long hair led to a humiliating scene at a barbershop where Doty's father had dragged him and ended up with his attempted suicide at the age of 14. There are plenty more heart-wrenching episodes like this, and at times you might wonder why you'd want to put yourself through the ordeal of reading about them. Doty himself seems aware of this. "Why tell a story like this, who wants to read it?" he demands near the end of the book, then responds, "Even sad stories are company. And perhaps that's why you might read such a chronicle, to look into a companionable darkness that isn't yours." That may be one reason for reading Firebird; the other, undoubtedly, is Mark Doty's precise and lyrical prose, his acute perception, and his compassionate heart. --Alix Wilber

From Publishers Weekly

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.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1st edition (September 22, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060193743
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060193744
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,757,590 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
For several years I had read favorable reviews of Mark Doty's work and wondered if this writer was "that Mark Doty"--the smartest boy in my junior high school, the one we voted "Most Likely to Succeed."
My curiosity got the better of me when Firebird was released, since it is autobiographical, and yes, it is that Mark Doty. Those junior high years were but a blip on the screen of Mark's life (chapter seven), but his memories and descriptions of the place and the same people I knew are spot on. This book, however, is so much more than a snippet of shared history. There is nothing I could say about this book that would accurately describe its impact on me--all of my words would be an understatement.
Mark Doty's work is fine art. His prose and the structure work beautifully together. This is not another package of self-pity in which the author is intentionally pulling up emotions. Yes, I cringed and felt outrage at some of the most uncomfortable parts, but the writer soothed me and reassured me that where there is art, there is a home, a place in the world--like that which Petula Clark sings about in "Downtown."
I am proud of and pleased for Mark Doty's outstanding literary achievements. I also thank him for having the courage to write this book. Many of us who are fortunate enough to have read it are grateful and forever changed through the experience of his work of art.
I recommend it to anyone who is gay, straight, or undecided.
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By A Customer on October 5, 1999
Format: Hardcover
To the ostracized, Mark Doty's "Firebird" is testament. To insiders, the frank and moving memoir of growing up gay in '50-60's America, is a lens into which a casual gaze will stun. Looking deeper, few readers will come away from "Firebird" without recognizing themselves. Fewer still will leave Doty's life story without empathy. This is the book's chief victory; while the memoir may be a personal account of a young gay man's salvation, it is a story few would find utterly foreign. Self-discovery, after all, is solitary and often pits the inner polliwog against the larger, and often shifting, societal/peer context. The gay boy; the geek; the punk with the Mohawk; the girl with the braces all belong to the same childhood tribe. En masse, outsiders separate themselves through the discovery of what, ultimately, comforts them and affords them a place in this world-and where they find others just like them. Our young "Firebird" misfit finds beauty, a place to belong, within art. First he comes to love dancing and music; later he finds solace in painting and finally, poetry (on the urging of poet Richard Shelton to whom we poetry-lovers owe a huge debt of gratitude). Through it all, the emerging Doty, the evolving gay boy, is most at home in art, not in the rule-bound world of little boys. "Most boys...who seem already possessed of forms of knowledge opaque to me, things they grasp...I do not." When Mark's mother finds him performing playful drag for a friend, "She says, with a hiss, with shame and with exasperation, Son, you're a boy." No, he is a "queer" boy-"simultaneously debased and elevated.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
I bought this book with a cynical heart; I loved Bernard Cooper's _Truth Serum_ memoirs so much that I was pretty sure all other coming of gay-age autobiography would be inferior in comparison. I'm happy to have been wrong. I thought _Firebird_ was wise and unpretentious, articulate and clear: it works for all the same reasons _TS_ succeeded. It is a very well-written book by a thoughtful writer.
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Format: Paperback
It's not always a pretty story, but it's always intellectually and emotionally moving. Mark Doty is one of America's finest writers of poetry and prose. That such a mind should have triumphed over his stressful growing up years is remarkable. His background would have landed many other kids in a foster home. Firebird is a coming-of-age memoir of a pre-gay geeky kid with a deranged and alcoholic mother, a passive/conflicted father, and a sister whose middle name is Trouble.
Firebird is beautifully written, revealing how a person who lives in a world of art, music, and literature rose from the ashes of his youth like the proverbial Phoenix of legend. It could easily have been titled Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but somebody got to that one first.
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Format: Hardcover
In his memoir, Mark Doty says, "The older I get, the more I distrust redemption; it isn't in the power of language to repair the damages." Though I agree with Doty's thought-prevoking statement, I would also venture to say that the power of this book, though it does not attempt to sugar-coat the past, does make of what is difficult a thing of beauty.
Poet Mark Doty has a uniquely adept ability to find beauty in the most tragic of events, not in a way that minimizes, but ironically, in a way that points them up even more clearly. For it is those events that shape us, Doty says, like it or not, and we cannot run from them, we can only claim them.
This memoir is brave and honest, profound and wise, beautifully and powerfully written. I believe my life more rich for having read it.
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