Sunday, April 15, 2007

Mark Doty's 'Dog Years'

Mark Doty's 'Dog Years'

The latest chapter in Mark Doty's ongoing autobiography focuses on his love for his canine companions

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Among the hundreds of poignant images to come out of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy was a photo of a dog swimming through the floodwaters, most likely searching for its lost family. Undoubtedly, its owners were just as distraught by the separation.

As Mark Doty writes in his new memoir, "Dog Years," "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."

"Dog Years" spans a decade of Doty's life, one filled with many deaths, including those of his lover Wally from AIDS in 1994; an acquaintance on Sept. 11, 2001; and, most central to this book, his beloved dogs Beau, an energetic golden retriever, and Arden, a loving black lab.

A peripatetic writing instructor, Doty takes his dogs with him to numerous locales — Vermont, Iowa, New York, Provincetown, Mass., and Houston (where he now teaches half the year at the University of Houston). The canines explore each landscape with their noses to the ground and as much, if not more, enthusiasm than their owner.

Anyone who has read any of Doty's seven books of poetry and three previous volumes of prose knows that he has long dwelled on the "always present" specter of death: "peeking out of the pocket, down in the socket of the bone, the shadow in the photograph, the fleck in the iris of a living eye." His 1996 memoir, "Heaven's Coast," offered a vivid and moving diary of Wally's battle with AIDS. "Dog Years" serves as a companion piece to that volume, one that documents every detail of his affection for his dogs and their eventual demise: Beau, at age seven, from kidney disease, and Arden, at 16, from old age.

Beau, who was introduced to Wally just a month before Wally's death, was intended as a new companion who would comfort him in the bed he was confined to. Arden, whom the couple had raised since a puppy, had become too fat to jump on the bed after eating so much of the hospital-cooked bacon that Wally was surreptitiously feeding to him. Beau ultimately serves his purpose, providing one of Doty's enduring memories of his lover — that of Wally fighting his crippling disease to lay a trembling hand on Beau's flank.

After Wally's death, Beau and Arden become Doty's primary companions, reminding him to pay attention to the quotidian demands of life — walking, eating and sleeping. Later, a new partner, Paul, makes the family a foursome again.

Doty is a capital "L" literary writer who separates his chapters of narrative with brief "Entr'acte" — short meditations on topics such as dog names and photographs, grave sites, time and God. These observations alternate between pithy — "The saddest dogs in the shelter are the ones without any names" and downright sententious: "Sometimes I think the place where God is not is time; that is the particular character of the mortal adventure, to be bound in time, and thus to arrive, inevitably, at the desolation of limit."

In short, "Dog Years" isn't "Marley and Me" — John Grogan's saccharine 2006 best-seller that was loved and loathed in equal numbers by dog owners. For starters, it's unlikely Grogan would ever consider comparing the smell of a dog to the richly scented rooms described in Joris-Karl Huysman's 1903 novel "Against Nature."

Doty challenges time-worn clich├ęs about pets, asking, for example, "Does everyone truly want a baby, or a baby substitute? The idea seems reductive. But the truth within it is that we are charmed by certain kinds of limitation: the dog's dependence, like that of the little child, engages rather than repels. There is a certain pathos in the fact that they cannot speak to us, that they can be so fully present without entirely communicating."

"Dog Years" is itself something of a personal challenge for Doty. He strives to match, in prose, his poetry's ability to communicate the paradoxical emotions in our lives, such as simultaneous feelings of love and despair. Doty's touchstone is Emily Dickinson, whom he calls "the great teacher of contradiction," and her verse serves as a kind of refrain throughout. But, he realizes, there are moments poetry itself fails: In January 2001, near the sixth anniversary of Wally's death, Doty experiences what he calls "the worst moment of my life" when he suddenly feels an urge to drown himself by diving off the Staten Island Ferry. He relents after looking down at Beau and, he writes, "something in me breaks." He continues, "The purpose of poetry, it has been said, is to bring more of the unsayable into the world of speech, but poetry fails me in my attempt to evoke that moment."

Unsurprisingly, there are moments when Doty still finds poetry to be a reliable medium of expression. Doty's most acclaimed book, 1993's "My Alexandria," which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, opens with a poem titled "Destruction." It describes the razing of an old building in New England, where "Suddenly the stairs seem to climb down themselves, /atomized plaster billowing." A similar image resurfaces here when Doty describes the tumbling of the first of the World Trade Center towers, which he watches, as it happens, on a computer in the New York Public Library: "One of the twin images on the screen begins, it seems, to consume itself, from the top down, the smoke billowing out only a little before it is sucked down into the great earthward rush and road. Well, no road, on the computer screen: a silent, shimmy column of smoke climbs down itself, in a few seconds time."

When Doty returns to his apartment later that day, it is Arden whom he seeks solace from, as much as Paul. Arden, too, is affected by the tragedy: he can smell the acrid scent of the fire for many months thereafter.

The passage is key to Doty's overall message: Animals are not divorced from the greatest events of our lives, as we are not from theirs. We share life and death equally, but it is our duty alone to try to understand the meaning of it — they're just dogs, after all.

Despite occasional lapses into highfalutin' aphoristic moralizing, "Dog Years" delivers an eloquent meditation on the symbiotic relationship between humans and their dogs, one that is likely to provoke owners to view their dogs less as pets and more like partners. As Doty writes, dogs are blessed with "a fixity of devotion, a deep reliability" — something only the truly fortunate can expect from their human companions.

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