Monthly Archives: January 2014

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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Filed under Book Review, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

What Can You Learn From Reading a Memoir?

Six years ago, I had probably read fewer than 10 memoirs. To a non-reader, that might sound like a lot. But compared with the quantity of books I’ve read, it was an appalling number.

Then I got the idea I wanted to write a story about an aspect of my life and realized that I wanted to write a memoir. So I started reading memoirs to get the hang of how to write one.

After that, I started taking online courses in how to write a memoir.  And I continued to read them.

I’m trying to pull my book into a structure at this point, so I don’t have time to write reviews–and maybe you don’t have time to read reviews anyway ;).

But let me share the memoirs I’ve read with you one at a time.  No special order. Just as I pull them off the shelf.  Because they are all in my house. I bought each one of these so I could mark them up (if I desired) and keep them.

I’ll answer one question for each memoir: what did I learn by reading this book?

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For the Birds

A year ago, I posted this piece about the place of birds in my life. I wonder if you have threads like this that run through your life.

I stand on a chair to reach my grandmother’s birdcage.  My dress and petticoat flip out in back, as I balance on my palms, my sturdy toddler legs straining toward the parakeet.  The parakeet contemplates my nose poking between the bars.  I want it to sing.  It’s all I want of this place, this apartment which rattles like death when the El rushes by. I think how much I miss my own home.  Unless the bird will sing.

Maybe it’s something that happened to me even before I was born.  I started reaching out for the word music with my baby fists, if only to rush them like a bottle to my mouth:  “Little Miss Muffet”; “See You Later, Alligator”; “A Fairy Went a-Marketing.” I recited and sang them repetitively—until my mother screamed at me to stop.  Even then, I slipped under the bed covers and sang “My bonnie lies over the ocean, my bonnie lies over the sea.”  My breath billowed up the sheet.

Only a fifteen-year-old can make the leap from puppy love to bird lover.  That’s what happened when I became fascinated with a boy with a bird’s name.  My girlfriend and I followed him oh-so-subtly-and-cleverly in the halls, only running into him “by accident.”  On the weekend I couldn’t wait for school to begin anew on Monday, so we went to the mall.  Woolworth’s had a department with birds in birdcages.  An arched cage so much like my grandmother’s parakeet cage held two lovebirds.  I paid $9.99 for the lovers.

When my husband and I got married in an ice storm, we drove from the hotel reception in a burgundy Marquise Brougham with a prayer on the dashboard.  Songbirds flew after us into the dark.  That’s the way I remember it.

I sat in Grandma’s old oak rocker, holding my baby son in my arms, murmuring:

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,

Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,

Out of the Ninth-month midnight,

Over the sterile sands, and the fields beyond, where the child, leaving his bed, wander’d alone, bare-headed, barefoot

Whitman‘s poem managed something the others hadn’t been able to—it crept into my body, spreading out and occupying my flesh like a snakeskin it merely tolerated.  I still can’t get rid of it.  The poem and I battle inside like the gingham dog and the calico cat, but if it decided to leave, I’d be as empty as that snakeskin, discarded and colorless.  It’s a poem about a he-bird who loves and loses the she-bird.  Or it’s a poem about the curious boy who observes the bird and his troubles.  But really it’s about a rocking like the surging of the sea and the hissing and whispering and all manner of delicious delicacies of words and rhythm.

When my parents put Grandma in the nursing home, she had to leave her parakeet behind.  Not that yellow parakeet she had when I was a preschooler, but the green one she’d had since then.  Dad brought the cage to our house and put it in the family room where the bird could watch TV.  I kept changing the food and water, but the bird refused a single seed and died within a week.

Richard Siken told us wannabe poets never to write poems with birds in them.  “It’s been done to death,” he said.  I think he said that the bird as trope for poet was old after Whitman.  Or maybe he said before Whitman.  I went home and wrote a poem about Andersen’s Nightingale and the Chinese countryside and didn’t use the word bird.  That’s what you call a writing constraint.

We had such a problem with roof rats and teenagers.  The latter we knew would eventually move out.  My husband called in the pest control people for the former.  The man the company sent shuffled and mumbled, so we let him go about his business.  That afternoon my son ran into the house yelling his head off, and since he’s a mild-mannered young man, I scrambled to get to him.  He led me out to the back steps where three baby birds hung on a glue trap like Jesus and the thieves.  We poured a sort of holy kitchen oil to release them.  One had already died and a second stilled the instant it rested in my palm.  The third one regarded me with one black eye, vibrant as a drop of ink.  We hustled it to the veterinarian where the techs hustled it out of our sight.

My daughter writes songs that come out of her fully formed.  I don’t know how anyone can do that, but then she sings them and her voice sounds like warm magma flowing.  She sends me links to private songs on Myspace so I can listen before anyone else.

Over ten years ago cats started showing up at our house, looking for food and, later, shelter.  We only had a couple of dogs left.  The birds had departed long before for their heaven.  Now the cats outnumber the humans, and they think they have an equal vote.  They vote that anything with a fast heart rate can be considered prey.  So no more birds for our family.

This house in Arizona has a tile roof, and the pigeons think it’s a rocky hillside, like their homes before humankind. While pigeons have those pleasing round breasts and iridescent feathers like abalone, they excrete their body weight every day—and always from the eaves above my exterior doors.  I asked my neighbor to stop feeding the birds, but she doesn’t speak to humans.  We put up screens to stop them from roosting in the obvious places.  But a stubborn contingent stay put, and from my fireplace I hear them cooing.  My brown striped cat purrs on the hearth, in rhythm with the pigeon coos.

A young pigeon dances on my patio, with his wings akimbo across his back, like a child stuck in a shirt he’s attempting to put on.  Two adult pigeons watch from the roof.  I put him in a brown bag and drive him to the pigeon lady.  She has big man hands and examines him brusquely, but listens with her eyes closed, like a good doctor.  She says, “I’ve never seen this before.  It’s not a broken wing.  He’s twisted his wings together across his back, like you twist a twisty on a bag.”  She carefully and surely untwists his wings and puts them flat against his sides.  “I’ll keep him for the winter and release him in the spring when he’s healthy.”  I write a poem about the pigeon lady and through it she becomes a religious icon in my religion of one.

In the summer, I bring her another pigeon.  This one acts odd, walking around the yard, but only flying a few feet at a time.  She tries, but can’t save this one.  “He had an illness, and I don’t know what it was.”  She wants my permission to do an autopsy.  That’s the way she learns how to take care of the living pigeons.  When I hang up the phone, I can see through the window that another pigeon resting at the edge of eaves is breathing rhythmically as its body empties and fills and empties and fills in an unbroken pattern.

My grandmother outlived her parakeet in the nursing home for a year.  I told my parents that if she had had the parakeet in her room, she and the parakeet would both have lived longer, but they explained that she died of uremia from renal failure.  “The bird died because it didn’t eat, Luanne,” my mother said.  “Stop trying to connect things that are not related.”

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In June, I wrote about the pigeon lady in another post. Birds and trees are two of my writing obsessions. When a motif turns up repeatedly on this blog, I can tell it’s another obsession ;). What are your obsessions . . . um, motifs?

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Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Poetry, Writing