41 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2000
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.
31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on October 5, 1999
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." By Doty's own definition, "inside the rejected boy, inside the unloved body, reigns the sissy triumphant, enraged, jeweled by an elegant crown of his own devising." "Firebird," opens and closes focusing on this devising, this art and how the humanities, while on the surface may manifest itself as the serenity of stilled water, dazzles and confounds the soul and marrow in the murky depths below mere appearance. The opening work of art introduced to readers (and I don't want to give it away) is a clever piece of happenstance only a poet could mine to illustrate the book's theme. While Doty says much about himself and his salvation by art, it is when art is thrust in face of recrimination that it is most potent. "The Firebird, in fact, is used to (it), and doesn't care about the difficulty of circumstance; if anything it burns brighter in a gloomy wood. Go ahead...do what you will, I'll find the music in it." I'm beautiful, dammit! Young Mark needed to find the music in his own being. Life in the Doty household was anything but pedestrian; it was full of alcoholism; self-loathing; strained relations; and the proverbial generation gap, among other human frailities. Although I found at times his regaling of familial woe to be a tad tiresome (which might say more about me than the author), readers find the dolor is followed by incredible, inconceivable moments. The banal often served as the calm before the storm. Doty's sexuality and his sister's proclivity for the wild life, both proved to be touchstones of extreme prejudice to which neither would find solace from their parents. In "Firebird," the motherly succor is poison and the fatherly guidance is doled out in dollar bills and insouciance. Readers will discover this negligence and bias nearly ends the memoirist's life. For every gay man this book should become a Baedeker; for every straight person it should be required reading. Doty, mostly known for his searingly-beautiful and evocative poetry ("Sweet Machine" being his best), has written a memoir that is startling in its revelations and oddly moving in its reportage. It differs from his previous memoir, "Heaven's Coast," in its introspection. While "Heaven's Coast" (on the death of partner, Wally) has immediacy and intimacy, "Firebird" is more assessing and inclusive. "Firebird" is raw, exquisite and prosaic in the equal proportions mirroring the natural rhythm of family life, of growing up and inward. It is a sand papering off the layers of familial varnish; it is the story of how art saved a little, sissy boy residing in a house of dysfunction, in a world not always ready for the outsider. It is a story of us all rising from our individual pyres of prejudice and to what we owe the power of flight.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on November 22, 1999
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.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on August 20, 2003
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.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 1, 2000
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.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on January 20, 2000
This is a beautiful memoir. I admit I was attracted to the cover: the author's picture was totally adorable. In fact, after reading the book I can honestly say he is one of the few writers I have ever really wanted to meet, because I felt as if I was reading the autobiography of a dear friend.
My heart broke when I realized that his first foray away from home, to the big city of San Francisco, dropped off by his parents on the highway, was at AGE FOURTEEN! I thought, what kind of parents would allow their child to go out into the world alone like that?
I also felt sad when he realized, fully, that his parents didn't "see" him anymore, that he was something of a ghost in his home, being "allowed" to nest there.
I had to laugh when his father said he could get a job at a casino if "the professor thing" didn't work out, and the man's non-sequitor conversations with his son. It reminded me of my father. When I was in my mid-thirties I told him I felt suicidal over a recent romantic loss. "Gee, the price of real estate is going up around here!" he exclaimed.
I, too, am writing a memoir, so Mr. Doty's unusually poignant and open-hearted one was very helpful. He's a wonderful storyteller.
Thanks to the author. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org if he's ever going to be in Santa Fe.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on April 30, 2000
This is an interesting and succinct memoir of an unusual childhood. When I saw it at the library I thought, "Oh, Okay . . . another book about some writer's childhood." But I grabbed it anyway thinking that it might be fun reading a sort of autobiography of a person with whom I an totally unfamiliar. I ended up enjoying it. Doty is only a little older than me - but his childhood was amazingly different than mine. Sometimes it was hilarious - like the description of his mild contempt for his fellow dance school student. Or his getting caught dressed in drag practicing show tunes in his room. At other times it was terribly sad and pathetic - his mother's end, for example. Parts of it left me a little astonished - "Huh? His parents dropped him of on the highway so he could hitch to San Francisco at age fourteen?" After reading his intriguing childhood memoir I will certainly be reading some of Doty's poetry.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on October 14, 2009
As you read Mark Doty's memoir, you may wish you could reach back though the decades to the 1950's to let this sensitive, awkward, and talented gay boy know that he would some day find himself. Knowing you can't reach back, you watch the story unfold on its own and almost hold your breath lest he succumb to the stifling forces of that era.
Doty is the son of an artistic mother--who was also a tragic alcoholic--and an engineer father who moved the family often from job to job. Doty was often lonely and ostracized and filled with shame that he was somehow different. In that cultural milieu--before the internet and media exposure that we now take for granted--there was almost no context for an emerging gay identity. And Doty clearly suffered from that drought. He was always trying to find and sustain himself in this arid landscape.
What saved him was art. Throughout his childhood, just enough light and air was able to penetrate through art to keep him alive, starting with his mother's artistic pursuits, and continuing with the encouragement of a charismatic elementary school teacher, Miss Tynes, and, later, the mentoring of a poet, Richard Shelton, who taught at a university.
This is not to say that his survival was a foregone conclusion. Doty endured a suicide attempt and an apparent assault by his mother who once pointed a gun at him but could not remove the safety to get it to fire. Still, it is a testament to the tenacity of the human spirit that he could turn these encounters with art into a lifeline.
Toward the end of this memoir, we know that Doty has emerged on the other side, but not without collateral damage. He invested nine years in a marriage to a woman before he was willing to pursue his gay identify. He recalls a visit with his father and new stepmother (his own mother had died of alcoholism) and his then partner, Paul. While we're happy for his emergence, we know it comes with an imperfect combustion. He and his father will never be really close. His mother's half love and half loathing for him and her gruesome death cannot be undone. Like all adult stories, it is a partial victory, but one we can celebrate nonetheless.
If you are ever called to reach back in time for a self that was struggling to emerge, you will be richly rewarded by reading Doty's memoir.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on April 29, 2008
Firebird is another tour de force by Mark Doty. The power in this book comes from two sources - the writing and the story. Mark Doty is first and foremost a poet. He uses language to paint pictures, using metaphors that speak to the imagination and causes the reader to consider the power of language. Metaphors cause us to go deeper into the story and make it our own. Mark Doty is a master of language. He can make even the ugliest realities beautiful and personal.
The story in Firebird is also very powerful. It is a story of longing and discovery. In some ways, Doty centers his story on the line from Petula Clark's classic Downtown -"Maybe you know a little place you can go to / where they never close - Downtown." He searches for that place where he can go and be himself, a whole person not torn apart by insecurity and loneliness. How well so many of us can relate to this!
It is interesting to note that Firebird was written after Heaven's Coast, a memoir about Doty's later life and the death of his partner. Maybe he needed to delve into the meaning of the present before he could unearth the pains of the past. Both books are very much worth reading. They will remain with you long after you finish reading them.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Mark Doty is one of the finest poets of our time, writing eloquent, informed poems, essays, books, and musings about life and art. To read FIREBIRD: A MEMOIR almost breaches credibility, so stressful and trying was his childhood and youth. But perhaps, and probably, this is why he is able to write with such sensitivity today. FIREBIRD relates the coming of age of a chubby, nerdy, alienated, pre-gay, geeky kid who finds little solace in his family (a deeply disturbed alcoholic mother, a passive ne'er-do-well military type father, a sister headed for incarceration) yet manages to capture moments from this distorted childhood, like expressive dancing to Stravinsky's 'Firebird' and learning to paint from his mother, to head him toward the sucessful communicator he is today.
If this sounds a bit like a book you'd rather not endure, then think again. This is one of rare memoirs that reveals all the pain and learning that life offers to the sensitive mind and then shows how the body that holds that mind can rise from the ashes (phoenix/firebird) and behold a world of art, music, and write about it like few others. The book is immensely well written. There are comic moments, childlike reveries, imagination blooming among the atrocoties of discovery of what is adulthood that are related so clearly and eloquently that they beg to be re-read again and again. Example: "A life hurtles forward, tumbles out and ahead from these twin poles: firebird and revolver, diametrical opposites like the yes and no which rule the Ouija board: twin magnetic poles which cause a kind of gyroscopic spin, advancing the motion of my tale." and "All along, the firebird watches, patient in ashes, smoldering till the hour to flame. Just one dance teaches it to believe in the brightness to come. All it ever needed was a practice run, in preparation for someday's full emblazoning."
And with words like that this reader can only recommend this experience book to all who wonder whether they are of worth. Highly and joyously recommended!