Return to Sender: Memory, Betrayal, and Memoir
Mark Doty | October/November 2005
It wasn't my idea to go to Memphis. It was okay with me, if Paul wanted to drive through, and see if we could find the house on Ramses Street where I lived in 1959, the year I started first grade. We were heading from Houston to Cape Cod, a northward migration we used to make together every year, after my annual teaching stint in Texas. Memphis wasn't exactly on the way, but it wasn't wildly off course either, and if Paul thought that would be an interesting outing, then I was game to give it a try.
Or at least that's the way I put it to myself, that morning in the car, driving north from the Mississippi motel where we'd spent the night. This travel had become ritualized; we'd become skilled at loading the station wagon with our computers, a couple of suitcases, the necessary books. The largest amount of space in the car was, in fact, given over to pets—the rear area for our two retrievers, who pass the time curled up asleep or sitting up staring out windows, awaiting the gift of a livestock sighting, a welcome occasion to perk up and bark. The two cats rode in carriers on the back seat, secure in their contained spaces, sleeping or sitting staring into space from their beds of our old t-shirts. It took at least three days, this long haul, and by the end of it both human and animal travelers were weary and spiritually diminished. Not much side-tripping or sightseeing; we needed to get there, get this pilgrimage over with.
But Memphis, well—that was a temptation. Or it had been, back when I'd been studying the atlas, thinking about the long span of freeway in front of us, and the red letters of the city had caught my eye. I hadn't been to Memphis for exactly forty years. Though I felt I had. I'd been imaginatively revisiting the place not so long ago, in an early chapter of a memoir. The scenes of my life there—the peculiar paste and varnish and wet-jacket smell of Peabody Elementary School, my next door neighbor Carol gleefully chopping a huge earthworm in half with a trowel, the sickly flap of skin on my father's wounded foot, cut by a shard from a glass I'd broken when I tried to balance it on my head as if I were a model—well, all those scenes had arisen in my memory with an hallucinatory vivacity. My recollections had a kind of intensity which betrayed the way that imagination and memory had fused, which is what happens, with our earliest memories—particularly when they concern places and people we can't revisit, times and realms left behind. My family left Tennessee, one of the many places we would leave, when I had just turned seven years old, and so everything about that life remained for me sealed away, as if in a sphere of its own, a set of memories and impressions unrevised by experience, uncorrected by time.
Unrevised? Well, in a way. Ask someone who's lived in the same house all his life what that house is like, and you'll get the adult's perspective, the point of view of now. But when you've left a house years ago, it only changes in your memory, and those changes are different—subtler, dreamier, the past gently rewritten in the direction of feeling. Memory erases the rooms which didn't matter; locations of feeling become intensified, larger. The dream of the past becomes a deeper dream.
Nabokov addresses this in Speak, Memory, when he reconstructs a world that cannot be revisited because it no longer exists; the world of prerevolutionary Russia has been atomized, demolished. What exists of the history he knew lies in some photographs, some artifacts—like the traveling valise, that becomes an emblem of all the Russian exiles—and in his gorgeous, hammered sentences. In a way, everyone's past shares with Nabokov's its irretrievability, but if there are such things as degrees of vanishing, then his past is gone to a greater extent—memory's players dead, its country houses destroyed, its social fabric swept away.
Odd, then, to think that I'd written a memoir in which I chose not to revisit the places of the past, when, unlike Nabokov, I could. I could have found the sites of childhood scenes, and interviewed relatives, seeking corrections or corroboration, but that wasn't my book's project. What interested me was memory itself, the architectures memory constructs, the interpretive act of remembering. There is a passage in a poem by Alfred Corn which says it beautifully:
The idea hard to get in focus
is not how things
Looked but how the look felt,
then—and then, now.
"How the look felt" was precisely what I wanted. I didn't realize how much this was the project of my book until I was done. In one passage, I'd wondered about why my sister, who married as a young woman, wore a beige wedding dress. I imagined a number of reasons she might have made this choice, or it might have been made for her—and then, in the margins of the manuscript, a copyeditor wrote, Why don't you just ask her? (This was not a particularly sympathetic copyeditor.) Then I wondered why it had never occurred to me to ask her, and immediately I understood that it simply wasn't that sort of book; my inquiry was into memory, not history: how it was to be that child, as that child re-arises in the mind, imaginatively reconstructed, reinhabited. Which is how the past goes on and on in us, changing, developing, its look and meanings built and rebuilt over time.
The past is not static, or ever truly complete; as we age we see from new positions, shifting angles. A therapist friend of mine likes to use the metaphor of the kind of spiral stair that winds up inside a lighthouse. As one moves up that stair, the core at the center doesn't change, but one continually sees it from another vantage point; if the past is a core of who we are, then our movement in time always brings us into a new relation to that core.
It was that sort of movement into "new relation" that seemed to make my book possible. As a young poet, I'd written about my family, but I can't say in retrospect that any of those poems are any good. First I disguised them through surrealist means; I remember, at my first poetry reading at the University of Arizona, reading a poem in which I presented my parents as circus performers, my mother perched on an elaborate trapeze, my father juggling broken dishes. My parents, who were in the audience, didn't know what to make of it, but I remember being so nervous that I stubbed a cigarette out and jammed it into the pocket of my jacket, and had to be told by a concerned audience member, after the reading, that I was smoldering.
Later, I wrote poems about my family which were, if not a byproduct of therapy, directly influenced by it; I wanted to arrive at a kind of clarity about who we'd been and what had happened to us, and I wanted to take possession of my story; that's therapy's work, after all, the narration of a tale for the benefit of the teller. These were plainspoken, investigative poems; they were after the truth, and that was an important project for me then, but now the poems seem a bit unidimensional, their point of view finally not complex enough to satisfy.
But I was in my twenties or early thirties when I wrote them, and by the time I came to write a prose book about my family—one that wanted both to enter that child's experience in a lyric way and spin a context around him and his upbringing—I was forty-five or so, around the age my father was when my book begins. I was standing, to return to my spiraling metaphor, on another tread on the stairs; I had a somewhat more detached (or at least differently attached) and inquisitive attitude toward the past. Or at least that was true some of the time; one of the first things writing a memoir teaches you is the startling elasticity of the self: how the perceptions of the seven-year-old and the anxieties of the fifteen-year-old you are perfectly available, states of mind into which one can simply slide. Childhood, it seems, is in the next room from this one; adult detachment is gained and lost and gained again, and in the realm of memory, time and location spin like an old fashioned toy, the kind where still pictures can be suddenly spun into motion.
Somewhere outside of Memphis, we turned to the radio for distraction, and a program began about African music of a particular sort: songs generated by ancestor possession. The singer, in trance, does not write the song, but receives it; these are the words of the ancestors, and they must be repeated exactly; to change the song, to improvise, is to betray them. The songs are beautiful and alive, and the program resonates in my imagination on into Memphis. We stop for a street map of the city, and while I drive Paul, who is fond of maps, searches and studies, turning the unfolded sheet every which way, but he can't find my old street. We stop again, in a shopping center parking lot, and when I step out into the humid sun-struck atmosphere rippling over the asphalt, I suddenly know I want to be in Memphis, I want Memphis intensely, the heat and smell of it, the pressure of its humid air on my scalp, the scent of its leaves and mulch in my nose, its speech in my ears and on my tongue. And at the same time I am suddenly unsteady on my feet, and ready to burst into tears: I have betrayed the ancestors, haven't I, writing about them, I have done it the wrong way, I have mis-sung their music; I have, with my words, wounded the powerless dead.
Firebird is a book very much concerned with performance, and how experiences of performing lift one out of a self defined by others toward some more joyous, self-generated, more open identity. A series of performances provide structure to the story, and the first of these took place at Peabody Elementary School, in Memphis, when Little Miss Sunbeam, an emblem and spokesperson for the eponymous bread company, appeared at my school to what in memory is a rapt audience of children astonished by her beauty and accomplishment.
We are scouring the map, focusing on older areas of town. There's an amusement park I think I might remember, and there's the Pink Palace, a children's museum I used to visit with my father, and—there! Peabody School. Evidence of the past, it seems, can actually be found. We leave the suburban shopping center behind and find the neighborhood—which doesn't in truth seem all that familiar, though it's interesting and lively: there are old storefronts getting remade into galleries and cafés, a familiar urban dynamic. We try once more to find Ramses Street, but it's no luck, nothing seems right, until we turn a corner and there is the school—limestone or some other yellowy stone, a handsome if somewhat self-important looking building from the first half of the 20th century, not a school anymore, but a community center. We park, walk across the street, up the steps—and it is only there, when I turn around and stand facing the street, that the body remembers: suddenly it is very clear to me, what I need to do to walk home; I know the way, the turns to take, which had been so important forty years ago, my first long independent walk. It's the strangest sensation, knowing the way on a level which seems to reside beneath thinking—and it leads us down one street (there were big trees there that dripped in the rain), a right turn, another onto—McIlhenny! That was it, the name of our street was never Ramses. I made that up, out of the memory of mummies in the museum, and the word "Memphis," and the fact that our house had fat, tapering columns like diminutive versions of the pillars at Luxor. I loved archaeology as a child, and I'd have to be an excavator to find any remnant of our old house now-gone, torn down to make way for apartments, but all around it are the bungalows of a neighborhood I recognize. It's become a black, working-class neighborhood now, which has preserved it, to some degree, since nobody's had the money to make these houses unrecognizable: same columns and porch swings, same grassy lawns and delicate mimosas and live-oaks with their big roots buckling the sidewalks. All vaguely familiar, none of them quite mine, and of course we aren't quite welcome here, we don't really make sense, two white guys in a Volvo full of pets—a car my memoir paid for, incidentally—driving around slowly, looking and looking.
Why did I experience my book as a betrayal?
The lives of other people are unknowable. Period. I wouldn't go as far as a poet colleague of mine who says that "representation is murder," but I would acknowledge that to represent is to maim. When I go to describe the forces that shaped my mother as a girl, I am working from a combination of memory, intuition, evidence, family story; I can make reasonable interpretations and educated guesses, but the fact remains that I must create her as a character in my book, and I am making decisions about how that person—in this case complex, dramatic, haunted—will be presented. I simply can't write a book in which she remains inscrutable, merely the kind of giant shadow on the wall our parents are to us in childhood—the whole point of memoir, in a way, is to make these people known.
Yet, like any biographer, I sift through what I know and I choose emblematic moments, emphasize one strand over another, and must finally acknowledge that there are threads I can never recover. My picturing will distort its subject; it is, of course, a record and embodiment of a process of knowing; it is "about" the making of knowledge, which is a much larger and more unstable thing than the marshalling of mere facts. This would be true if I'd interviewed every surviving relative and wandered around my mother's little Tennessee hometown like a detective stalking clues—and therefore how much more true if I make a book allegiant to memory, interested in the ways that a child made sense of those people, in how they look and seem "in the then now."
This particular form of distortion—the inevitable rewriting of those we love we do in the mere act of describing them—is the betrayal built into memoir, into the telling of memories. But the alternative, of course, is worse: are we willing to lose the past, to allow it to be erased, because it can only be partially known? For many memoirists, the story we tell is all there'll be of our characters, or at least all there will be of them as we have known them. My sister remembers my mother, too, of course, and so does my father, but the person they remember is not my mother, not exactly; there are a set of internal relations, a phenomenology, if you will, that only I can name, because only I have known them. This is what my sister meant when she said, charmingly, after reading my book: "The things you got wrong just make it that much more you!" Perfect, and a gift to the memoirist, that response.
My father's response was not such a happy one.
In truth I must here, as Shakespeare says, "admit impediment." I have, so far, been telling you a story—though you have doubtless recognized that the evocation of my visit to Memphis is relayed here in order to allow me to say some things about memory and about memoir. Narration is comforting; as readers, we feel reassured by the presence of a narrator, whose shaping voice assures that things are more-or-less in control, that there is some reasonable expectation of coherence.
But when it comes to talking about my father and my memoir, I have to choose between honesty and coherence; if I take the former course, then it seems almost inevitable than any sense of stability I've cooked up here will tumble into a morass of contradictory feeling.
He and I have an unsettled history, when it comes to my written words. One difficult evening, after I gave him my first book, a slender chapbook of neo-surrealist lyrics published in the mid-seventies, he threw it at me, saying it made no sense. It didn't, save in the refined, oblique way of such poems, but I wasn't prepared for the intensity of his reaction. What did it mean? That he'd spent money on my education only to have it lead to this useless and incomprehensible product? That he felt angry at being excluded from my inner life, whose text was unreadable to him? Or that he was annoyed that he wasn't represented there, in the way that Oscar Wilde says that society's rage at art is the rage of Caliban not seeing his face in the mirror?
As my poems grew in clarity, so my reluctance to show them to my father—not surprisingly, I guess, after that unhappy evening! We maintained a distance around the subject of my work, aided by the fact that we lived on different sides of the country, and this distance only eroded when my work because more visible. When my father could buy a book of mine in Barnes and Noble at the nearby mall, his sense of the value of his son's work shifted.
And that's when he read my first memoir, a book about grief, a love letter to a dead man, and a meditation on what the church fathers call "last things." He wrote me a wonderful letter about his sense of emotional connection to the book, about times in his life when he'd felt something like what I'd described. By the time he read the book, he was a widower too, though his letter didn't touch on that; I have no idea if the particular experiences of bereavement I wrote about resonated with his experience, but something did, and he had the forthrightness to say so.
This was partly the gift of prose—which, of course, far more people read, and read because of what it is about, than will ever see a poem. This may seem self-evident, in contemporary America, but I can testify that to a poet it still comes as a shock. Who expects to be read by strangers, much less taken to heart by them? If I'd have seriously thought that one of those strangers was my own father, I doubt I could ever have written the book. I wasn't accustomed to being seen by him, and like many gay or lesbian children, I'd protected my inner life from my parents' scrutiny for fear of judgment—quite a reasonable fear, given the level of homophobia in our country and in my family.
But that homophobia had simply been washed away, mediated by time and the ways in which age (and in my father's case, remarriage to a socially liberal woman) rearranges one's priorities and values. I think my father honestly felt that he gained a new kind of access to my life, and for a time we were closer.
Not, I hasten to add, close. There has been a sense of awkwardness between us since—I don't know, the dawn of recorded time?—so it would have been absurd to expect that to shift entirely. But it was fascinating and odd to me to discover that the distance between us was not about sexuality, not really—unless you could say that a lifetime's distance originated there and then we were powerless to revise it. There were some truly odd moments (I mean odd in the sense that they were nothing I could ever have predicted in my life) when my father and stepmother and Paul and I were two couples, going to lunch or for a walk on the beach together. If you'd told me, as a young man that this could be possible, I'd have probably had some sort of cognitive meltdown; the structure of reality would have to shift first.
Perhaps it was also some element of this sea-change that spurred me on to write Firebird. If I could be seen this far, if this much honesty were possible...? But early on, when the book was just beginning, I asked my father something about that childhood year in Memphis, and heard the tone of his voice shift in his reply, "Why do you want to know?" Now I think he must have already been anticipating the day when I'd write about my growing up, when I'd put my version of the family romance in print. And he must already have dreaded it; every once in a while he'd ask me, "How's that writing about Memphis going?" I never asked him any more questions, in part because I understood I wasn't writing that sort of book, and in part because I knew that if I did so, I would simply inflame his fears.
Fears of? Well, my family never wanted to deal directly with anything, really, and I grew up with the sense that to name a problem was to invite mighty trouble. The problem, if there was such a thing, was my mother's alcoholism, the reputed source of which shifted variously: my homosexuality, my sister's misbehavior, my mother's own back pain or loneliness or thwarted creativity or mismatched marriage. None of these "causes" were directly addressed, not quite; they simply floated in the air of our household, or were blurted out in drunken and agonized moments, or were overheard, or were offered as whispered, confidential explanations. I guess that my father was scared that his adult son would do the naming, for all the world to see, and that this revelation of our story would not be told in his favor.
Or afraid that I would say the unspoken thing between us, that I felt he'd failed to protect me? The truth of my high school years is that I was pretty much on my own while my parents were entirely absorbed in the drama of my mother's spectacular collapse. There was about a three-year period when no one remembered, for instance, to buy me shoes. I tried to kill myself, at fifteen, and sometime in there, I can't remember exactly when (who would want to?) my mother tried to shoot me with my father's revolver. In other words, he did fail to protect me. Having left home at seventeen to marry an alcoholic myself, I paid the tough dues necessary to learn childhood's impossible lesson—that you cannot save anyone, not mother or spouse, and the most powerful child in the world, which is surely what I must have imagined myself to be, cannot fix anything, no matter how good or smart he is, nor how he disguises himself to try to be who he thinks he's supposed to. No matter how loyal he is to his drunken mother, or how loyally he later behaves toward his father by acting just like him.
No wonder my father didn't want me to write another memoir!
But write it I did, holding at bay the awareness that he and my sister would be reading the book; in order to work freely, I needed to behave as if, in the composing process, I was in an arena of pure freedom, of irresponsibility; here I could say anything without consequences. That's the sort of permission the imaginative life requires, and I could allow myself that—increasing, actually, my sense of freedom in successive drafts of the book, which each time seemed to grow riskier and to probe further. Sometimes I'd catch myself saying, Oh, you don't have to write that, who wants to read it? And then realizing that in projecting these doubts outward onto readers, I was actually protecting not the potential reader, but myself; I was the one who didn't want to read about whatever it was that troubled me. And then, once I understood that, I did want to read it, and to write it.
But the time came, of course, when I had to show the book to the two living people most implicated therein. I gave it to my sister with some eagerness; I wanted to know what she thought. And I didn't know what she'd told her children and grandchildren about her wild old days, and certainly didn't want them to learn these stories from my book! Her response—much laughter—was gracious and tender and lovely.
To tell the truth, I simply avoided giving the manuscript to my father, though I told myself I would. I didn't do it and didn't do it, and then my publisher's lawyers told me I had to. Not a wise plan on my part: now my private trepidations about his response were twinned with an external, legal concern. The lawyers asked me to present him with a release to sign, saying he wouldn't sue them, but I declined. I just couldn't imagine handing him the manuscript with a note that would suggest he might want to file a lawsuit!
So I sent the thick pile of pages that comprised my book, an autobiography from the ages of six to sixteen, along with a letter explaining that I understood it might not be the easiest thing to read, and that if there were things in it that he couldn't live with I wanted to talk about them. I don't know what I would have done had he identified things he wanted me to change; it's difficult for me to imagine, now, what that exchange might have been like, because it never happened. My father simply never answered me at all.
When I wrote to him, a week or two later, my letter came back with a stamp from the post office on the front of the envelope: Refused, return to sender. My response to the words was visceral; I felt they were stamped on my face, burning a little there, like a slap or the sensation of rushing air when a door slams in your face.
I tried again, with the same result, and then I didn't try anymore. I didn't want to keep knocking at that door. And I began to feel, justified or no, melodramatic or not, that Refused, return to sender was in fact a motto I could have worn on my skin my whole life; it was, in some unspoken way, inscribed upon my childhood, and the ink had never really faded.
My father, who is now in his nineties, hasn't spoken to me for five years. There has been no contact of any sort between us. I ask my sister how he's doing; I don't know if he asks about me. She told me that he once said he thought the book "had an agenda against him," and that she'd said to him that it shouldn't be taken so literally, that things might be shaped "to make a better story." But then I think they had to stop talking about it.
Because my father never talked to me about the book, I have devoted a considerable amount of energy to imagining the specifics of his response. What didn't he like? (Maybe what he did appreciate about it would be a more challenging question!) Was it simply that I had told the family secrets, exposing our shame to the neighbors? Was it that he was embarrassed that I talked about how many times we'd moved because he'd shift jobs again and again, something I'd always understood had to do with government transfers he couldn't control—until he told me that actually he couldn't ever get along with his supervisors or his co-workers, and that was why we'd never stay anywhere long? It is quite possible that my father has told people—my stepmother, for instance—very different versions of the stories I've told.
Was it because I told the darkest moment in the family story—how, when my mother was dying of cirrhosis, my father made a concerted attempt to allow her to die at home, without medical intervention. He said he didn't want her to suffer, at the hands of doctors. The physican in the hospital where she died told me he'd never seen a patient brought into the hospital in worse condition. If my father thought he was being heroic, it was a heroism of a profoundly perverse sort—the ultimate co-dependent's gesture.
For which I do not wish to blame him; experience teaches us that one could have been these people, that there's no gesture or choice they made that I couldn't have made myself, under the right circumstances, without the luck or grace of some correcting perspective. In fact, I worked very hard, writing Firebird, to arrive at empathy. This is the great psychological magic act of memoir; the people you've known become your characters, and you cannot hate your characters—if you treat them as evil, one-dimensional, or even merely inscrutable, the form simply collapses into a narcissistic muddle. Thus, the work of trying to write a good book becomes, unexpectedly, an empathic adventure, a quest for trying to see into the lives of others. Even if such a "seeing into" is by nature partial, an interpretive fiction, it's what we have.
Thus, not only because I have also been married to an alcoholic in the face of whose illness I had to admit I was entirely powerless, but also because I have written a book that attempts to understand a bitterness, a human disaster—well, for those reasons I want my father to see my memoir as a gesture of compassion. Or at least as an opportunity to know his son, inside and out. In my experience, which is admittedly distorted by the sort of family in which I came of age, it is not usual for children to allow their parents to know them. It doesn't feel safe to do so. If I were a father, I think I would want nothing more than to know my children, to see how they understood and experienced their lives, even if it discomfited me.
But that is what I would want, not necessarily what my father wants. And I must also face the possibility, I guess, that he knows me better now, and doesn't like what he knows.
The experience I report here is, I suppose, every memoirist's nightmare; that we will lose people in our lives by writing about them. I have replaced an inauthentic relationship—the conversation we had before, with its many elisions—with an authentic silence. Is that better? I can't honestly say that I am sure. My father plans to die, it seems, without talking to me; that is his form of taking power. Because I am an American writer, I don't feel powerful, but I forget that to other people, especially those who don't write, the ability to tell a story, to make language and publish it in a book, is, after all, to be an author; it confers author-ity. I have told the family story now, the author-ized version, and perhaps my father feels powerless to correct it.
It is also perfectly possible that my father dislikes my book for reasons entirely unknown to me. My late editor told me a wonderful story about a memoirist who was a scion of a famous family rife with mental illness and turmoil. She showed her manuscript to family members with the greatest trepidation, and indeed some of them were upset, but not because she'd chronicled breakdowns or divorces. The content of their complaints was more like, How dare you tell everyone that I put that underwear on the dog when I was five? Or, I do not have a dark mole on my chin.
When my partner Paul published a memoir about growing up in New Jersey, the most surprising letter he received was from a high school math teacher—not even his teacher, it turned out—who feared he'd given Paul math anxiety for life, and was disturbed and saddened by this report of his own failing. But the passage in question, in Paul's mind, is actually about the way that his fascination with composing liturgical music made him entirely lose interest in school, math included.
Moral: it is a strange and dire thing, to be represented, and what the represented make of it is not in the representer's power to control.
Given all this, I have asked myself why I had to write the book. It began with an odd memory—a wonderfully liberating experience of improvisational dance, in 1962, when my fourth grade teacher in Tucson, Arizona, put Stravinsky's Firebird Suite on our classroom phonograph and said to the class, "Now children, move." I danced with abandon, without self-consciousness, and my teacher loved it. Looking back at that bit of memory, I wondered about my education in the creative life, about the relationship between art and survival. And I began to think about other instances of performance in my childhood, and of the sense of joining my little limited and confused self to the larger world of what people make, the traditions of artistic creation in which, for me, there was a sense of safety, permission, and enlargement. That is surely the story of many gay boys of my generation (and of many other kids too, and of a number of generations): the freedom held out by the creative life becomes a refuge, and the sense of accomplishment one might gain there becomes a source of strength and solace. But of course I couldn't tell that story without talking about why I needed strength and solace, and thus the waters of my book almost immediately darkened. What is it that art saves us from?
Like any life story, mine could be told from many perspectives; a different organizing principle (economic, spiritual, intellectual) would produce a very different story. I wanted to tell the tale through the lens of art (and, concomitantly, of sexual orientation and performance) because that is what I wished to understand better at that moment.
And I wanted to tell the story of my life in order, once again, to take control of it, to shape some comprehensible element of cause-and-effect, because the instability and complexity of experience means that this sense of pattern is always slipping away from us. Memoir is a way of reclaiming, at least temporarily, the sense of shapeliness in a life.
And it would be disingenuous to deny that there is not some element too, if not of revenge then at least of a personal version of setting the record straight. I can't change what happened, but I can tell my side of it, can't I? Tell it with every resource at my disposal, to make it feel real. Did anyone looking at the child me ever think, oh, that boy's going to write this story? Like that wonderful moment in Sharon Olds's poem "I Go Back to 1933," when the speaker imagines intervening in her parents' relationship before her own birth, warning them off—and then says no, do what you are going to do, and I will write about it.
And one hopes, always, that telling a story out of one's own life becomes useful; that others might see themselves reflected there, in an enlarging and clarifying glass, or at least one that helps them to examine the particular character of their own experience. (Talking to a group of queer kids in Minneapolis on the Firebird book tour, young people either homeless or at risk of being on the streets, I felt this so acutely. These kids had been so damaged, so nearly thrown away by the schools and by their parents that most of them couldn't actually read the book, but we could talk about it. And in that conversation I felt such power, for them and for me: I had been a kid who'd come close to being discarded for my sexual difference, and now I was an adult, a working, reasonably happy, thriving adult, who had lived to say so.)
If the reader hears guilt in this attempt at self-justification, she's right. After all, I have wounded an old man, who plans to die without forgiving me; I have made a rupture; I've shown light into dark places, and thus brought shame upon my family; I have told the truth, which may indeed set you free, but not without the price of betrayal. You cannot sing your ancestors' songs as they intended them to be sung, as they would have phrased them themselves. If you choose to sing them at all, you will betray your forebears, because you will never understand them as they'd wish to be understood.
This "betrayal" is life-giving; it is a condition of truth-telling; it is a condition of actual alive-ness, which requires emotional honesty with one's self—without that, what on earth is this life? The alternative is silence, a frozen politeness, a fake life. I suppose that being emotionally honest with oneself doesn't necessitate writing a book about it—but for me it has always been the written word that enters where speech cannot, that shapes what would otherwise remain oppressively inchoate. Did I need to publish that book while my father was still alive? I seem to have needed to do so, perhaps simply because of the hungry child in me who wanted to be seen.
And, like any artist, when I've made something I believe to be beautiful, what is one to do with it but give it to someone?
If there is a meaning to be taken from this, it is that art cannot be counted to mend the rifts within or without. Its work is to take us to the brink of clarity. Joy Williams writes, "The writer writes to serve—hopelessly he writes in the hope that he might serve—not himself and not others, but that great cold elemental grace that knows us." Clarity, whether we'd ever have wished for it or not, is a genuine thing. And any instance of the genuine, no matter how discomfiting, and though it may not seem like it at all, is something to be grateful for.
I am used to it, my father's silence, and his silence is a burning in which I reside. In my worst moments I think, Well, now I have no parents. Then I think, I never did. Then I think, yes I did, there were moments of affirmation, there were lessons in beauty and making, there were instances of instruction in which I was shown those things that have sustained my life. Both are true. There's the rub, the caught inbetween-ness of it. I don't care any more what my father thinks, and I am to some degree crippled by his reponse. I don't want his presence or his absence. I am proud of my book, and I wouldn't change a word of it. I wish I'd never written it. No, I don't. Yes I do. No, I don't.
Mark Doty is the author of several books of poems including Source, Sweet Machine, Bethlehem in Broad Daylight, Turtle, Swan, Atlantis, and My Alexandria. His recent collection is School of the Arts. Doty has also published three books of prose: Heaven's Coast: A Memoir, the autobiography Firebird, and Still Life With Oysters and Lemon. He is the only American to have won the T.S. Eliot Prize.