Firebird : a Memoir
by Mark Doty
"And that is close enough to forgiveness, to find that any character in the dream of your life might be you. But you don't know that until you tell the story; caught in the narrative yourself, how could you see from that height?
Though the firebird can; that's the business of birds, to see from the correcting perspective of above. 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." (p 194)
How well do we know others? Our family, our friends, ourselves? How do we perceive each of these? Through a glass, darkly, or through a perspective box, in a way like an artist. From the opening page of Mark Doty's poetic memoir, Firebird, the theme of art is present.
First it appears in a description of the famous "perspective box" of the Seventeenth-century Dutch painter Samuel Van Hoogstraten. Then as the narrative continues the artistic view and way of life is a theme that provides a way to understand the many colors of Mark's life from his early years to his middle age. He says that "I believe that art saved my life." Whether in the fourth-grade art class or when his poetry first received professional recognition from the surrealist poet who gives of himself to a shy young teenage poet; introducing him to the world of poetry and to an artistic family that, like Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera provides a haunting image of what a family could be but his is not.
It is his family that provides much of the drama of this portrait of a young artist, with a passive/aggressive father who cannot hold on to a job and insists on denuding a teenage Mark's head of its long hair or his mother whose addictive personality leads to storms of emotion so harsh and frequent that Mark "can feel when the storms are brewing" and makes himself scarce, exploring various methods of easing his tension from hashish to transcendental meditation.
I was moved by his gradual recognition and acceptance of his sexuality. Early on, his latent homosexuality is suggested by among other things by an episode when he's a ten-year-old in a top hat, cane, and red chiffon scarf, and is interrupted while belting out Judy Garland's "Get Happy" by his alarmed mother at his bedroom door who exclaims, "Son, you're a boy!" His journey continues resulting in the blooming of the artist that would eventually win prizes for his poetry. He withstood the fire of the pressures from his family and grew into a successful artist and firebird who watches his own life emerge like a dream from the elements that made it his own.
Firebird: a Memoir by Mark Doty. Harper Perennial, 2000 (1999).