Mark Doty
Firebird A Memoir

Book Reviews

Published by Jonathan Cape
Over the Rainbow

This high- wire artist of American poetry has come down to earth with a moving, intimate memoir.

When I first heard Mark Doty read, a number of years ago in London, his work was utterly new to me so I was unprepared for its impact. Here was a different poetry to the, all too often, ironic word play – poetry as BritArt – that pervades so much of the English scene. Here were poems that grabbed your heart and squeezed it till it missed a beat. In two of his best-known collections, My Alexandra and Atlantis, not only did he deal with AIDS, with grief, life and art, he also spun intricate linguistic webs, so fine, so fragile that he risked them dissolving into hyperbole, yet was somehow so certain, so sure-footed that he never fell from his high wire.

Full of light and shimmer, of surface sheen and sensual detail, Doty’s poetry mixes an acute observation of the perceived world with an astute poetic ear to create lines that not only luxuriate like a sinuous sequined dancer in their own beauty, but also have a sense of real urgency. Both scintillating and searing, he seems to have created a new poetic form; a synthesis of emotional power and linguistic experimentation. So a Doty publication is awaited with anticipation.

Firebird is his new memoir, a form much over-exploited in contemporary American writing, but which Doty manages to elevate to the discipline and structure of a well crafted novel. His language is much simpler than in the poems and, therefore, in a sense more intimate, for one is not dazzled in the same way by its pyrotechnics. In the prelude he is in London awaiting the results of the T.S. Eliot prize (which he wins) looking, in the National Gallery, at Perspective Box with Views of a Dutch Interior by the 17th century Dutch painter, Samuel Von Hoogstraten. This image of piecing the fractured world back into some sort of shape or meaning echoes Melanie Klein’s psychoanalytic theories of the creative impulse. It is not what we have experienced or seen, but the way that we reconfigure it that ultimately counts. “Does he mean,” Doty asks of Von Hoogsraten, “that even the most distorted form might come true? No matter how deep the trouble, how twisted the form, the rectifying lens of art could set it right?”

As a “chubby, smart, bookish sissy with glasses and a Southern accent” with an ‘artistic’ mother prone to alcohol and religious mania, a father who worked in aluminium, and with phallic appropriateness, on the Apollo moon rocket at Cape Canaveral, and a wild sister who ended up in prison for credit fraud, Doty had more than enough to contend with before discovering the early stirrings of his gay sexuality. Through a collection a acutely observed period detail: his absorption in the delights of the knick-knacks found in his sister’s bureau draw, his flirtation with the songs of Petula Clarke and Judy Garland, and above all his love of dance where he identifies with the Firebird “Isn’t it fire itself, the fact of burning which enables the bird to dance”, Doty begins his long journey towards self-acceptance and that of his dysfunctional family. This is not before his psychedelic experimentations with drugs and a near shooting by his deranged mother.

The memoir may lack some of the linguistic glitter-dust of the poems, but Doty holds us from the start on his emotional roller-coaster towards his artistic redemption and always avoids the easy and pat. For despite the transcendent finale, when he and his current partner visit the Virgin of Guadalupe who has appeared in Salt Lake City, he is acutely aware that “reconciliation and resolution are things that happen in stories, and are never complete in life.”

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2000

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