Review: Dog Years

Dog Years, by Mark Doty.

My husband is a poet in the process of earning his MFA. I read a lot–mostly literary novels, classics, and dog books, as you know–but I like to keep up with his side of the world, too. He always speaks very highly of the poet Mark Doty. Last year, at his urging, I read Doty’s beautiful collection My Alexandria. I loved it and have been interested in him and his work ever since.

You can imagine how thrilled I was when I found out that Doty had written a memoir about dogs. How perfect! The book is about dogs, yes, but it is primarily about grief, love, loss, and the hiddenness of the human soul. Dog Years covers the time during which Doty’s partner, Wally, died of AIDS and during which he had two dogs in his life, Arden and Beau, who shepherded him through this devastating loss.

While Wally is dying, Arden and Beau themselves are steadily aging. A large part of the book also deals with Doty processing Beau’s somewhat premature death from kidney failure. He adopted Beau from the local shelter when Beau was a young adult, perhaps one or two years old. Beau, a golden retriever, was so severely underweight at the time that the shelter had called him a “saluki mix” due to his sunken chest and visible ribs. Over time, however, Beau becomes a healthy, vibrant, funny dog who brings the standard amount of light and joy into Doty’s life.

These real stories from Doty’s life with his loves–Wally and his dogs–are so breathlessly beautiful and sad. They are never sappy. They are never excessively overwrought with emotion. Rather, this memoir of grief is so palpable and authentic that it is difficult to read without one’s eyes welling up.

I’ve already posted this passage from Dog Years before, but I want to quote it again, because to me, it captures why I care about dogs so much:

Being human is most likely a much lonelier endeavor than being a dog. Of course, many dogs spend a great deal of their time in solitude, waiting for someone to come home, for the world to begin again–but they live in a state of connectedness, it seems, that we have lost, if indeed we ever possessed it. Is that why we turn to them, they who are always ready to receive, to join in wholeheartedly, as we so often cannot? To be human is to be a watcher; sometimes even at our moments of great joy or great grief there is a part of us conscious of our being, observing that being. I do not think dogs have such a part; they are all right here, involved in whatever it is, and therefore they are a sort of cure for our great, abiding loneliness. A temporary cure, but a real one.

Doty recognizes this beautiful quality of the canine soul, the dog’s ability to enter into that “state of connectedness” that so often eludes us humans. And yet he is consistently a watcher himself. He dutifully records his emotions, his doubts, his rages. But he trusts Beau and Arden to guide him through the deeper, more difficult moments.

Quite simply, Dog Years is one of the most beautiful memoirs I’ve ever read, and I think I’ve read quite a few excellent ones. I would recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone, especially with those who have loved and lost.

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4 thoughts on “Review: Dog Years

  1. Thanks for this review. I am not an avid reader of poetry. In fact, I am definitely guilty of avoiding it when I can. But that doesn’t mean I don’t admire and respect the writers. Every once in a while, a very long while, I will find a poet I connect with and understand. It sounds like Doty may be one of those.

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