M Mark Doty

Bill’s Story by Mark Doty

Mark Doty’s ‘Bill’s Story’ appears in his best-known poetry collection My Alexandria (1993). This poem is about the death of a speaker’s sister suffering from dementia and AIDS.

Bill's Story by Mark Doty Visual Representation

‘Bill’s Story’ is about the story of a girl named Annie who came from Africa to settle down in a foreign country. The person named Bill in the title is Annie’s brother from whose perspective this poem is written. Through this piece, Mark Doty shares the journey of a person from a phase that back then had no treatment. The poem is not about the lack of clinical diagnosis. Rather it is about how one looks at death and what it actually means to a person who is suffering from dementia and AIDS.

Bill's Story by Mark Doty


Summary

‘Bill’s Story’ by Mark Story describes the story of two siblings Bill and Annie, and how their mother tries to help her ailing daughter.

This narrative poem begins with Annie’s arrival to a new country from her homeland Africa. His brother Bill states what happened to her after the arrival. She was suffering from a mental disease called dementia due to which she lost control over rational actions. After settling down in this alien land, she made some rash decisions such as filling her closet only with men’s clothes. Besides, she was a performance artist. According to Bill, when she was nearing her death, their mother used to help her with the knowledge she acquired from the book Deathing by Anya Foos-Graber.

You can read the full poem here.

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-12

When my sister came back from Africa,

we didn’t know at first how everything

(…)

we didn’t even have a name for,

in 1978. She was just becoming stranger

The poem ‘Bill’s Story’ is written in the form of a narrative. That’s why it begins in a story-like fashion. The speaker tells the story of her sister in this poem. At first, he records the events just after the arrival of her sister Annie from Africa. Neither he nor his family was sure of how their Annie changed, not by the fashion sense of a new country but by an underlying disease.

She bought a number of men’s and boy’s clothes not knowing whether she could use them or not. Those dresses filled her clothes alongside other things that she could never wear.

Moreover, she kept buying rashly. The items she bought include theatrical shops and rental places. She swept in and kept on saying that she would buy everything. No matter how funny such actions of Annie seem, there is something more to understand from her acts. She was trying to break free. Bill knew that she was suffering from a mental disease, Dementia that was not recognized in the 1970s.

Lines 13-24

—all those clothes, the way she’d dress me up

when I came to visit. It was like we could go back

(…)

(a cheap, ugly verb if ever I heard one)

and took its advice to heart;

As the days went on, she acted strangely and behaved irrationally. When Bill came to visit her, she dressed him up with the clothes she bought. So, the dresses were not meant for her personal use. She loved her brother and somehow tried to please him.

Bill and Annie played together. The latter was a performance artist. Bill accompanied her sister to her shows. There she dressed up in different clothes and performed her best pieces. She put them all one by one and went on showing her skills. It was the time when she was unsure of what was going to happen next.

Those events took place a few years before she was hospitalized. Back then, their mother used to read a book to be helpful to her children. She badly needed something to hold onto. So, she picked Deathing: An Intelligent Alternative for the Final Moments of Life by Anya Foos-Graber. According to the speaker, he never heard such a title that sounded so cheap and ugly. But, his mother took Foos-Graber’s advice to heart.

Lines 25-36

she’d sit by the bed and say, Annie,

look for the light, look for the light.

(…)

Maybe she wanted to give herself up

to indigo, or red. If we can barely even speak

After her daughter was hospitalized, she would sit by her and share her learnings from the book. She told her daughter to stay strong and “look for the light”. No matter how grave death could be, she was sure there was light at the end of the gloomy tunnel.

However, Annie did not want to distract herself from the thoughts she actually cared for. She was not ready to take in her mother’s “light” instructions. Annie already went far deeper than her mother’s imagination. So, her mother’s talking somehow annoyed her.

Still, Annie’s mother was adamant with her instructions. She forced her to look at the “white light” as if she was sure of its presence at the end. This struck Bill. It occurred to him as a presumptuous thought of her mother. Not the light everyone would go into would be the same. Her sister might see some different colors.

Lines 37-48

to each other, living so separately,

how can we all die the same?

(…)

and flannel, khaki and navy

and silks and stripes. If you take everything,

‘Bill’s Story’ takes an ironic turn in these lines. The speaker poses a rhetorical question to readers. He asks if people are so marooned from each other and live in different dimensions, how they can die the same. It is impossible to think that everyone sees a similar light while finally closing their eyes.

Bill used to take a train ride to the hospital. While computing, he observed the empty seats facing backward. The emptiness reminded him of his dying sister who was lying in the hospital bed. He sat there and blurted out the unnecessary details of his life in order to look at what he still had. Looking in this fashion seemed more beautiful to him as it made the memories less specific.

According to him, her sister might have seen some different kind of light. It was as hazy as gabardine and flannel. Annie probably saw khaki or navy colors. The texture of her light resembled that of silks and stripes.

Lines 49-59

you’ve got to let everything go. Dying

must take more attention than I ever imagined.

(…)

it was to reach her, if I heard her calling.

Shut up, mother, I said, and Annie died.

In the last few lines, ‘Bill’s Story’ nears the death of Annie and the final events. The first line begins with a maxim. Doty’s speaker says that if one takes everything, she has to let everything go at some time. The time had come for his sister. He never imagined that death could arrest such attention.

When Annie was finally paralyzed in her thoughts, her mother frets upon the light she was observing. She somehow tried to help her daughter and repeatedly told her to “Look for the light”.

Bill took her sister’s arm and told her wherever she was going, he would return. It did not matter how difficult it could be. He had to return if he ever heard her calling. Finally, he asked her mother to shut up, and then Annie went from inanition to nonentity.

Structure

Doty’s ‘Bill’s Story’ is a narrative poem about the death of a speaker’s sister. This poem records the events just before her death. Her brother Bill and mother had different approaches in consoling her dying heart. The overall poem is based on this plot. Besides, it is written in free-verse. It means that there is no regular rhyme or meter in the text. Alongside that, it is written from the first-person point of view. It gives a lyrical quality to the poem. There are a total of ten stanzas, each having six lines. The last stanza contains five lines.

Literary Devices

Doty uses the following literary devices in this poem.

  • Enjambment: This device is used in a number of instances. Doty incorporates this device to connect the lines internally. For instance, it occurs in “we didn’t know at first how everything/ had changed.”
  • Allusion: There is an allusion to Anya Foos-Graber’s book Deathing: An Intelligent Alternative for the Final Moments of Life and the concepts mentioned there.
  • Asyndeton: Doty uses this device in the last two lines of the third stanza. It also occurs in other instances.
  • Aside: In the fourth stanza, the poet uses an aside in the fifth line in order to comment on the title of Foos-Graber’s book Deathing.
  • Irony: It occurs in “as if the light/ we’d all go into would be the same.”


Historical Context

‘Bill’s Story’ was first published in Mark Doty’s third poetry collection My Alexandria. It was published in 1993. This book reflects the grief, perception, and awareness gained while facing great and painful loss. Through this piece, Doty contemplates the prospect of mortality. He somehow tries to find some way in order to make the prospect of loss momentarily bearable. This collection won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1993. Doty became the first American poet to win the T.S. Eliot Prize in 1995 for My Alexandria.

FAQs

What is the poem ‘Bill’s Story’ about?

Mark Doty’s poem ‘Bill’s Story’ is about the death of a woman named Annie, Bill’s sister. This poem is written from Bill’s perspective. He records the events that occurred before his sister’s death and the changes in her mind.

When was ‘Bill’s Story’ published?

The poem was first published in 1993. It appeared in Mark Doty’s best-known poetry collection My Alexandria. Doty won several awards for this collection including National Poetry Series (1992), National Book Critics Circle Award (1993), T.S. Eliot Prize (1995), etc.

What type of poem is ‘Bill’s Story’?

It is a narrative poem about the death of a speaker’s sister for AIDS. This poem records the final moments of Annie’s life and how her brother Bill tried to cope up with her imminent death. Besides, it is a free-verse lyric poem.

What is the theme of ‘Bill’s Story’?

Doty makes use of several themes in this poem that include death, mortality, loss, perception, and loneliness. The central idea of the poem concerns the death of a sister suffering from AIDS. Her brother describes how he tried to handle the loss.

What is the tone of ‘Bill’s Story’?

The tone of the poem is emotive, sad, nostalgic, and depressing. In some instances, it sounds ironic and a bit humorous. The tone has a similar effect on the mood of the text.


Similar Poems

The following list contains a few poems that similarly tap on the themes present in Mark Doty’s poem ‘Bill’s Story’.

You can also read about these incredible poems about death.

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Bill's Story by Mark Doty Visual Representation
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A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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