"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.