“To choose to live with a dog,” Mark Doty writes at the start of Dog Years: A Memoir, “is to agree to participate in a long process of interpretation—a mutual agreement, though the human being holds most of the cards.” In moving but restrained prose, Doty reveals the cards held closest to his chest: his feelings about loving and losing his canine companions, Arden and Beau. “One of the unspoken truths of American life is how deeply people grieve over the animals who live and die with them, how real that emptiness is, how profound the silence is these creatures leave in their wake,” Doty writes. “Our culture expects us not only to bear these losses alone, but to be ashamed of how deeply we feel them.”
Doty is a poet and writer of nonfiction. His lover Wally died of AIDS in 1994, an experience which spawned celebrated-collections of poetry and memoir. Here Doty revisits that time of his life, but focuses primarily on the animals, Arden (the black retriever) and Beau (the golden one). Doty writes, “Their presence masks and organizes time; they’re centers around which memory coheres.” Over those sixteen years, Doty makes a home with two different men (first, Wally; later, Paul) and, mischievously, the mysterious, largely unaddressed existence of two “not-to-be-narrated cats.” (As Doty mentions in a parenthetical aside, “no story can contain everything”). Maybe their book is forthcoming.
After Wally’s diagnosis, the two move to Provincetown from Vermont with Arden. It’s during Wally’s difficult decline that their second dog, Beau, comes bounding into their lives. Of their decision to get another dog at a time like this, Doty notes that “there’s a certain dimension of experience at which the addition of any other potential stress simply doesn’t matter anymore.” He pushes a bed against Wally’s hospital bed in the middle of the living room so they can all sleep together. “If some of the people who came to help us out are quietly horrified that both beds are full of retrievers—well, so be it. We’ve made an island, a small, very full home.” Doty watches his dying lover raise his hand with some difficulty to “rest on Beau’s golden flanks.” Doty reflects that it might be “the last thing he ever did with that hand, I don’t know.”
Doty believes the dogs help him grieve Wally’s passing. “With the two of them, I’m joined to something else, perception expanded, not just stuck there in the world in my own bereft, perishable, limited body.” Doty seems to believe that not only the dogs’ age difference but the color of their coats contributes to differences in their personalities, that “their black and gold seemed to me something more like action versus contemplation, or energy versus stillness, or fire versus earth.”
A year later, Doty is “eager to make connection and terrified that anything I love or desire might simply be swept away.” He doesn’t feel he’s the most eligible bachelor (“I sleep with two seventy-pound retrievers”). Paul doesn’t seem to mind. The dogs also adjust, and Doty suspects that “[r]ealignment of the pack may be the biggest thing that happens in a dog’s life.”
Doty and his new pack move around like vagabonds. He accepts teaching assignments for a semester here and there, and they live at various times in Iowa City, Salt Lake, Houston, and New York. Provincetown is the base they return to again and again “for months at a time,” and it’s where both dogs wind up being buried.
Much of Dog Years concerns the failing of first Beau’s, then Arden’s health. There are trips to different vets, scenes of chaotic clinic waiting rooms. Some vets are villainized more than others, but Doty appreciates the unique role a vet plays “to usher human and animal all the way along the arc [from birth to death], and very often decide when that arc will end.” Arden has a strange lump in his leg, but it’s the younger Beau who is discovered to be seriously ill, and “little pieces of evidence suddenly seem to have meaning.” Doty is with each dog at the time of its passing, and notes of Beau’s that he was “looking right at me, his eyes widening, with a look not afraid but wondering, startled. A look that would be read, were it a text in a language we knew, as What’s happening to me? And the life sighs right out of him like a wind, a single breath and gone.”
As Arden limps into old age, Doty finds himself “in two places at once: relieved and glad that Arden’s in the world, interested in our new life in the city, and at the same time negotiating with a profound internal sense of emptiness, a blank, a nil spot.” Events in New York, where Doty and Paul are living in 2001, push that sense of mortality outward. A large chunk of the book addresses the psychological impact of the attacks on the World Trade Center. After the towers are hit, Doty describes the scene on a Manhattan street: “Everyone stops moving. I have my hand over my heart, involuntarily; some people have their hands over their mouths; all at once, it’s completely quiet.”
The writing changes here to short little paragraphs with deliberate breaks between them, giving little scenes of the city’s shock, and the absorption of that shock, and how its people regain their capacity for movement, and humor, and vitality. Shortly afterward Doty goes on antidepressants, whose praises he sings in an “Entr’Acte.” These italicized asides come between the chapters and include various musings, interpretation of poetry (primarily by Emily Dickinson), an “ethical fable,” and things like a list of dogs’ positive attributes and an alphabetized list of the things his dogs like best, as well as a recounting of the low point in Doty’s life, a crisis on the Staten Island Ferry when he wanted to jump overboard with the terminally-ill Beau in his arms.
On a trip to Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende, Doty wonders how realistic it is to rescue a stray. “[S]he is delightful,” he writes. “She places her delicate head in my two hands, giving me the weight of it, which seems almost nothing at all, the weight, maybe, of an orange.” Although practical concerns tip the scales, Doty realizes what he feels for her “isn’t despair. It’s compassion….grief for her situation, sorrow for her lot. Feeling this makes me more alive, not less so.” Though not explicitly linked, the scene seems to recall something Doty writes about earlier, a time when he was a child and his family abandoned a dog on the side of the road.
When Arden’s time comes, “he’s gone like a whisper, the easiest breath.” Doty remarks that, “Sometimes the house is so empty we can hardly bear it, and then sometimes it seems like no one’s gone—isn’t Arden in one of his favored spots, watching us?”
This question of what happens after we die is one that informs this whole work. In bearing witness to his dog’s passings, Doty notes that “The ghost in ourselves, the animating geist—in that last moment of breathing out, I swear it goes up.” While half-asleep on a rocking train, Doty, despite knowing it’s not rational, talks to the deceased Beau in his mind: “If there’s a heaven and he’s not there, I’m not going.” He then says, or hears, what he calls “the corrective voice” which tells him “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” One of the “Entr’actes” wrestles with the question, “What is the part of the world that does not have God in it?”
Doty doesn’t offer simple, glib answers. He notes that “I am prone to interpretation, and to reading the moment as cosmic evidence, quickly turning things to metaphor.” This is no doubt part of his calling as a poet. He offers evidence of the spiritual in his lucid observations of a dog’s many mysteries, and what we might expect to find should we devote ourselves to one, and know that devotion returned. As a boy, Doty experienced his first dog’s death as the first real trauma in his life, and remembers his parents saying, “Mark shouldn’t have a dog.” Yet Doty doesn’t shut himself off. He seems to know that love demonstrates its resilience only when we risk revealing ourselves. Dog Years is a beautiful meditation on the meaning animal relationships can engender in our lives. In its thoughtful, understated tone, it brings to mind J.R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip. That author didn’t expect to find his understanding of the world deepened by his relationship with his dog, whereas it might be the first place Doty would suggest looking for it: “How should we know ourselves except in the clarifying mirror of some other gaze?”
Dog Years: A Memoir, Mark Doty, Harper Perennial, 2007, 216 pp.