In his essay “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” Stuart Hall argues that “identity is not as transparent or as unproblematic as we think.” He goes on to suggest that we “think… of identity as a ‘production,’ which is never complete, always in process, and always contained within, not outside, representation” (Hall 222). In poet Mark Doty’s Firebird: a memoir, this argument is strongly supported as young Mark learns about his own desires, learns to understand that they are considered wrong by the society around him, and alternately divorces himself from and throws himself madly into his physical being – his own body – throughout his youth and young adulthood. As a passionate artist, he cannot remain alienated from his physical self for long, but each trauma visited on his body and his desire, which seem somehow to be wrongly formed, sends him back into hiding – into wishing he were not. This escalates with drug abuse and a suicide attempt and culminates in his mother’s attempt to murder him, a trauma in which he feels he has left his body completely and is “halfway to the next life already and good riddance to this one” (177). As the story leaves this scene to jump into the last section of the text, recounting Doty’s continued mistakes in reconciling with his own identity and the hard-won relative stability that eventually follows, the narrator-poet makes it clear that his relationship with his past is valued as the source of his becoming, that “what happened defines us, always: erase the darkness in you at your own peril, since it’s inextricable at last from who you are” (194).” He has gained hindsight and the ability to tell his own story powerfully, yet still he remarks, after time spent with his family at age forty-four, that “reconciliation and resolution are things that happen in stories, and are never complete in this life” (195). While the wisdom of age and the support of peers soften the impact of the alienating “out-of-body” experiences of his past, his identity is still “never complete, always in process, and always contained within, not outside, representation” (Hall 222). Here, Doty’s attempt is to represent that process of identity-finding from the perspective of memoir, a perspective somewhere in between that of the lost young boy finding his own path and that of the firebird that sees “from the correcting perspective of above” (194).
The first inkling of Doty’s future contention with his physical body is evident as he starts school and recounts the vague horrors of the safety movie “[making] you think your body is vulnerable, subject to invasion… that means you have a body, are a body” (17-18). This feeling of visceral fear is contrasted by the way he sees “Little Miss Sunbeam” as a performer and artist who “has entered a realm in which she is above all harm” and the feeling he will later have when, becoming an artist himself, he dances away his fear and bodily shame in the classroom in the Suite from the Firebird dance and is “no longer weighted, without limit, hardly held to earth” (19, 82). He is captivated by the portrayal of the body as “mutable and untrustworthy” in his favorite monster films and he is “eager to pour his attention out of his body up onto the screen,” but the lonely boy is looking for something there, something that makes sense to his own identity (46,52). He wants to be the Other, the strange and sensual Beast from the movie, he “contains what he wants to become” (51). He is then, both discovering and producing his identity even in these moments of escapism.
Throughout the book, art continues to have a transformative influence on Doty’s production of his own identity, giving him the space and novel perspectives that he needs to work out his place in the world. “What transforms us like the experience of enchantment?” the narrator asks. His fourth-grade teacher Miss Tynes introduces him to exotic places and ideas and tells him that “copies are lifeless but your own designs are aglow with life,” a message that seems to stick with him far into the future as he finds his way as an artist (71). His youthful tap performances are curious, enigmatic – he is obsessed with the costumes and the made-up nature of the activity and he seems to love dancing, but he “can float in the air over… the spotlight in which [his] body executes” the steps (96). The reader is left unsure of the relation of the dancer to his body, first it seems like he is finding himself in it, then that it is another escape into the incorporeal world where his body is no longer a problem.
And Doty’s body is a problem, as comes into focus as his mother catches him dancing in drag and negates his exploration of his identity as she “says, with a hiss, with shame and with exasperation, Son, you’re a boy” (101). His mother, whom he loves and fears above all, has convinced him that he “absolutely does not know how to be who she wanted” him to be (102). The identity he has been performing, and discovering through the performance of, is wrong. He has been “initiated… into an adult world of limit and sorrow” (102).
After this, Doty fumbles for identity throughout his school years and his family’s frequent moves mean he gets to try out different performances of his identity. He becomes the “sissy triumphant,” “simultaneous debased and elevated” (106). He then defines himself as the “Brain,” acting and dressing the part, before he adopts a more bohemian look “with an obvious flair for style” (108 -110). Despite his newly found flair, he knows “there’s something wrong” with his eighth grade body and with the fact that he finds the adult male bodies he sees “a troubling delight” (114). Faced with maturing sexual urges, he sees his body as “a stiff insulating container for [his] desires, an armor” (119). In his mind he is not in his body and the men he is attracted to are in pieces, cut out bits of bodies without faces from magazines (120). He is at the beginning of understanding the sexual performance of the identity he is finding and it is a troubling path to see down as he has very little evidence that anyone in the world considers it acceptable to feel as he does.
He both finds and loses himself in art again, in drama class, “haven for the… dreamy and peculiar” (138). It is a place he can belong but also “the best place yet to hide” (139). Then, the trauma of his forced haircut drives him far out of his body, as it turns out he still isn’t allowed to control it anyway. He “[starts] to float up out of the confines of [his] skin” and turns to look down at his body there, feeling “no use for that awkward form” (143). So divorced from the physical, all lost soul banging against the body’s confines, he attempts suicide. He believes that his identity and the way he needs to perform it are “something to be ashamed of,” a belief his parents’ actions reinforce (145). He is “floating above… deeply disloyal to [his] body,” as he walks down Fourth Avenue, but at the same time he is finding “evidence of possibility… new ways to live” there (151). In his own room, “giving himself over entirely to the delights of flesh,” he finds that same body that he ignores on the street “capable… of occupying [him] entirely” (151). He discovers weed and psychedelics, another type of divorce from the body, a search for “some further understanding – entrance to the world above the world, or down beneath it,” but his narrator-self says that in intoxication “one is released from shame… but somehow the falling back into limit is that much worse” (160-161). Yet another way out of the pressing, shameful physical confines is transcendental meditation, which he takes up briefly in his search for identity, while still taking drugs (167).
Doty’s conflict with his mother escalates, however, as she realizes he is not going to somehow stop being a homosexual (173). One day she calls him into the hall, where she has the family pistol held in both hands and he stands in the line of fire and leaves his body as he has learned to and the narrator ponders his thoughts then. “Maybe I’m thinking I won’t miss it, this sorry stubborn queer flesh, maybe I’m thinking nothing at all, merely empty” (177). The main body of the book ends on this note, with a few pages of wrapping up, a glimmer of hope of a life not healed, exactly, but lived and discovered, of a future in which Doty’s identity still belongs to him to perform but is no longer being questioned and denigrated by everything around him.
The sense that Doty leaves us with is that identity is not easy to define, is performed and lived and experienced and remade everyday in such a way that even he as the narrator of his own life cannot pull together all of the pieces. He has tried to escape the trauma and responsibility of his own identity, the one that didn’t fit in, the one that wasn’t what his mother wanted, but he cannot be anything else. He always comes back to himself – the man that the boy discovered, desires and body moving forward on the life-long task of reclamation and reintegration of who he has found that he is. The reader is reminded of, far back in the memories unearthed here, the young boy’s favorite book, the book of archeological digs: “A promise, a world or worlds beneath this one. And at the end of the long cool shafts, the empty passageways: the sealed chamber, the treasure” (28).
Doty, Mark. Firebird: a memoir. HarperCollins, 1999.
Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. Johnathan Rutherford, editor. Lawrence and Wishart, 1990.
All quotes from Doty unless otherwise specified