book by Mark Doty
annotation by Wendy M. Fontaine
Firebird by Mark Doty examines the roles that art and beauty play amidst lives characterized by sorrow and disappointment, while also telling the story of a young boy who grows up gay and finds his calling as a poet.
The book also takes a nontraditional approach to the many ways in which nonfiction writers manifest their perceptions of memory.
Doty opens Firebird with a metaphor that becomes the basic mosaic of the book: his comparison of memory – or remembering – to a Dutch perspective box he finds in a London museum. The box has two lenses, he tells us. Observers can look through one lens to see rooms with distorted contents, such as an elongated picture of a dog, or they can look through another lens, which shows a chain of rooms that appears to go on forever.
“Maybe around some corner, at some angle I’ll finally discover, if I lean into the eyepiece, if my eye works hard enough to probe the hidden recesses – I’ll find them…the family I can’t seem to see through any more direct means,” he writes. “They are hard to approach; they don’t want to be known. Memory confounds and veils them, and were they ever clear to begin with?”
Firebird takes an interesting approach to point of view and memory perception. It is told primarily in the present tense, leaving less room for reflection than memoirs written in the more traditional past tense. But to establish a stronger sense of hindsight, which is critical to the genre of memoir, Doty changes point of view from first person to third person in certain passages and uses phrases such as “that boy I was” to introduce reflection.
During his most painful memories, Doty switches from first to third person, referring to himself as “he” rather than “I.”
The switch from inside the author’s head to outside of his body, as though he were observing himself as a character in a movie or play, creates a greater narrative distance – not only between the writer and the reader but also between the writer and himself. If Doty is stepping back to see his boyhood self more clearly, he wants the reader to do so as well.
In one of the most intense passages of the book, Doty’s mother catches him dressed in drag as Judy Garland singing “Get Happy.”
“Am I wearing her lipstick?” he writes. “I feel blank; I have no explanations. She says, with a hiss, with shame and with exasperation, Son, you’re a boy. And they’re held frozen also in the son’s fear and shame, since of course he knows he’s a boy, doesn’t need reminding. The fact that she feels she must tell him this means he has failed: he isn’t who she wanted, he absolutely does not know how to be who she wanted.” Continue reading