FIREBIRD

A Memoir

By Mark Doty

HarperCollins. 200 pp. $25

Reviewed by David Tuller

Poet Mark Doty has plumbed his life with passion and elegance in several acclaimed volumes of verse and a gut-wrenching memoir, Heaven's Coast, about the AIDS-related death of his longtime partner. Now, in Firebird, Doty offers us a lyrical, heartfelt and ultimately haunting account of his early years. It is a pleasure to read a memoir that eschews the outsized traumas of recent confessional volumes -- incest, domestic violence, schizophrenia and the like. Until its final pages, Firebird is more a tale of the quiet pain and subtle hurts that families inflict than of high drama and rage.

Doty's larger theme, however, is not the mundane miseries of childhood but the complex art of recollecting them -- the ways in which we shape and transform our experiences into narratives that torment or sustain us. The author acknowledges his own unreliability as witness; memory, he notes, serves the needs of the one who remembers, and facts themselves are often altered in the process. "The allegiance of this book is to memory," he writes. "This is a past colored, arranged, and choreographed entirely by that transforming, idiosyncratic light. . . . As my sister -- bless her -- put it, `Well, the things you got wrong just make it that much more you.' "

Doty grew up in a struggling middle-class family with rural roots, and he recounts his story in a series of poignant, sometimes humorous vignettes. The family hopscotches across the South and West because his father, a gruff man who works for the Army Corps of Engineers, keeps fighting with his bosses. The author's genteel mother paints Arizona landscapes, takes her chubby, awkward son to dance classes, and sings hymns with him as they sit on their porch swing at twilight. Nothing much happens, really, except life. The boy goes to school, makes and loses friends, reads, observes the world around him with an acute and melancholy eye.

This sort of material could be deadly in the hands of a lesser writer. But Doty trains his gaze not just on the events of his childhood but on the mysterious nooks and crannies of his internal life. He describes his fascination with the intricacies of artifice and disguise, his sense that what is not expressed may reveal more than what is, his first intimations of a hidden world of homoerotic desire. He also explores his growing awareness of the power of art to transcend reality, to create beauty out of his suffering. The book's title refers to a pivotal moment when he twirls to Igor Stravinsky's "Suite from the Firebird" and identifies with the resurrection of the phoenix, which "immolates itself and dances in the veils of its own ashes, and then rises up again, radiant and new in the flames of its old body."

Firebird convincingly evokes the isolation and cruelty of childhood, the potent blend of torment and pride experienced by those who sense, from an early age, that they are different. Doty's nuanced touch makes it easy to identify with the wistful young boy who sits in dark theaters watching horror movies like "Beast From the Year 5000"; the 10-year-old who secretly dons black stockings and a tux to mimic Judy Garland singing "Get Happy"; the high school student who, by confessing that he is gay, convinces a sympathetic doctor to write a note excusing him from humiliating gym classes.

As one would expect from an accomplished poet, the writing is vivid and arresting. Judy Garland's television performances, which inspired the child's drag routine, were "an amalgam of glamour and damage so peculiar as to both transfix and unsettle at once." And here is Doty comparing his home life to an archaeological site: "Under my family's surface, I could feel the buried foundations, the desires or disruptions, the longings and unfulfillments. I watched for the ways they'd push up, heave against the plain surface of the days."

One stylistic quirk irritates. Doty peppers his text with too many questions, sometimes as a rhetorical device, often to illustrate the uncertainty of his own memories. And the book's key strength is also, in some ways, its weakness. The author's inner world is so richly evoked that other people in his life -- neighbors, friends, teachers -- come across less as concrete individuals than as shadows gliding across the screen of his own consciousness. The book, heavy with rumination and introspection, is rarely enlivened by the sort of dialogue or conversational exchanges that might allow other characters to emerge as sharply as the author himself.

This omission is most problematic in the case of Doty's ever-present but ultimately opaque parents. We never fully grasp the reasons for their growing unhappiness; as a result, the roots of his mother's descent into alcoholism and the impetus for her one shocking act of betrayal remain hazy and inchoate.

But that may be critiquing a book that the author didn't intend to write. Perhaps Doty is suggesting that the behavior of even those closest to us will always defy understanding, and that all we can really know is how we ourselves perceive them. If so, it is a testament to his engaging persona and his skill at mining his own psychic depths that we follow him willingly down the path he has chosen to reveal.

David Tuller is the author of "Cracks in the Iron Closet: Travels in Gay and Lesbian Russia."