Over the rainbow

<i>Firebird</i> by Mark Doty (Jonathan Cape, &pound;12.99, 200pp)
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The Independent Culture

When I first heard Mark Doty read a number of years ago in London, I was unprepared for his impact. Here was a different poetry to the ironic word-play - poetry as BritArt - that pervades so much of the English scene. Here were poems that grabbed your heart and squeezed it until it missed a beat. In two of his best-known collections, My Alexandria and Atlantis, not only did he deal with Aids, and with grief, life and art. He also spun intricate linguistic webs, so fine, so fragile that he risked them dissolving into hyperbole, yet was somehow so sure-footed that he never fell from his high wire.

When I first heard Mark Doty read a number of years ago in London, I was unprepared for his impact. Here was a different poetry to the ironic word-play - poetry as BritArt - that pervades so much of the English scene. Here were poems that grabbed your heart and squeezed it until it missed a beat. In two of his best-known collections, My Alexandria and Atlantis, not only did he deal with Aids, and with grief, life and art. He also spun intricate linguistic webs, so fine, so fragile that he risked them dissolving into hyperbole, yet was somehow so sure-footed that he never fell from his high wire.

Full of surface sheen and sensual detail, Doty's poetry mixes acute observation with an astute ear to create lines that not only luxuriate in their own beauty but also have a sense of real urgency. Scintillating and searing, he seems to have created a new poetic form; a synthesis of emotional power and linguistic experiment.

Firebird is his new memoir, a form over-exploited in contemporary American writing, but which Doty manages to elevate to the discipline of a well-crafted novel. His language is much simpler than in the poems and, therefore, in a sense more intimate. One is not dazzled by its pyrotechnics.

In the prelude, he is in London awaiting the results of the T S Eliot prize (which he wins) and looking, in the National Gallery, at "Perspective Box with Views of a Dutch Interior" by the Dutch painter, Samuel Von Hoogstraten. This image of piecing the fractured world back into shape echoes Melanie Klein's psychoanalytic theories of the creative impulse. It is not what we have experienced or seen, but the way we reconfigure it, that counts. "Does he mean," Doty asks, "that even the most distorted form might come true? No matter how deep the trouble, how twisted the form, the rectifying lens of art could set it right?"

As a "chubby, smart, bookish sissy with glasses and a Southern accent", Doty had more than enough to contend with before discovering the early stirrings of his gay sexuality. His "artistic" mother was prone to alcohol and religious mania, his father worked in aluminium (and, with phallic appropriateness, on the Apollo moon rocket), a wild sister ended up in prison for credit fraud. Through a collection of acutely observed period detail - his absorption in the delights of the knick-knacks in his sister's bureau draw, his flirtation with the songs of Petula Clark and Judy Garland, and above all his love of dance, where he identifies with the Firebird - Doty begins his long journey towards acceptance of himself and his family. This is not before his experiments with drugs and a near-shooting by his deranged mother.

The memoir may lack some of the linguistic glitter of the poems, but Doty holds us on his emotional roller-coaster towards artistic redemption. He always avoids the easy and pat. Despite the transcendent finale, when he and his partner visit the Virgin of Guadalupe who has appeared in Salt Lake City, he is aware that "reconciliation and resolution are things that happen in stories, and are never complete in life".

Sue Hubbard is the author of 'Depth of Field' (Dewi Lewis); her poems are included in 'Oxford Poets 2000' (Carcanet)

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