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A Poet’s Memoir

Mark Doty, an American poet (b. 1953), wrote a wonderful coming-of-age memoir called Firebird

To the outside world, the four members of Doty’s middle-class family could be in a sitcom of the time period: the father is an engineer, the mother looks respectable, the older sister is popular, and the little boy is bespectacled and bookish. But all is not as it seems. Alcohol wreaks its slow destruction on the family.

But most crucial to Doty’s identity is a difference that occurs even before the disintegration does. The little boy, Doty himself, gradually comes to realize he is gay, and there is no place for being gay in the world in which  he grows up.

Because this book was written by a poet, the language is rich and evocative. I love the little boy at the heart of the book.

Here is one important thing I learned from reading Firebird:

Doty begins his memoir with a “Prelude” (so termed because of the use of music and art in the book) which is a beautiful essay in its own right and introduces the reader to a way of viewing a memoir. This essay is about a work of art from the 17th century by the Dutch painter Samuel Von Hoogstraten. It’s called Perspective Box with Views of a Dutch Interior.  

This perspective box contains the miniature furnishings of a miniature room which are distorted and misshapen; however, when you look through holes designed for viewing, suddenly the room comes into perfect perspective. Interesting way of viewing memoir itself . . . .

The metaphor of the work of art for memoir and the detailed description both serve as an inspiration to write with detailed accuracy and imagination.

Doty’s website can be found at markdoty.org.

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