HarperCollins / 216 pages / $23.95
A young poet once asked Mark Doty if it wasn't "too easy" to take loss as a subject. Although Doty considered making a sarcastic comeback, he ultimately restrained himself. In 1994, his partner of several decades, Wally, died of complications from AIDS. Doty's thinking about Wally's death as well as his own, about death in general and about life and art has informed all of his subsequent work: four poetry collections and four works of nonfiction that feature Doty's particular blend of memoir and discourse on poetry and art. One British critic, responding - in that blood-curdling style British critics have perfected - to this unwavering focus, called the author a "vampire feasting on his lover's body."
Doty's latest effort, Dog Years, is also a book about death. Subtitled A Memoir, it is a tribute to two dogs, Arden (a black lab) and Beau (a golden retriever), who lived with Doty for a decade and a half and died within several months of each other, sometime in the past few years. Here, we watch Doty care for the ailing dogs even as he thinks about his own death, aided by Arden and Beau, who show him what it means to be truly involved in a world beyond speech.
In many ways, Dog Years is the book in which Doty acknowledges the true limitation of words. "Our full immersion in language brings with it qualification and condition; once we enter the world of signs, we can never again be so single-minded," he writes, marveling at the ability of dogs to love unconditionally. They are, for him, a portal into true love, "a door toward feeling and understanding." Doty has long searched for a detachment that allows "a pure kind of engagement" with the world. There is no question in his mind that love provides the "gateway to the world, not an escape from it."
Still, watching Arden and Beau get sicker and sicker, steeling himself for more loss, the author starts to lose his will to live. This is a source of rage in Dog Years; it is the force that illuminates this book, the way that light burns inside objects in certain paintings. Doty is furious at people who fail to understand why one's love for a dog is every bit as important as one's love for a human being, people who offer sentimental truisms about loss. "[T]he sentimental," he writes, "represents a rage against individuality, the singular, the irreplaceable. (Why don't you just get another dog?)" Later, in a state of rueful recognition, he reflects on his frequent role as the angel of death, helping loved ones pass. "I'm good at this," Doty notes, "putting everything else on hold, to be in this moment with the dying; I'm practiced; there is some deep intimacy about it that feels enclosing, essential."
Loss and death are not, in Doty's cosmography, necessarily sources of depression. No, Doty observes, depression comes from an inability to feel, to engage. In one terrifying, suicidal moment he realizes that although he has sought, as a poet, to "bring more of the unsayable into the world of speech," poetry can't help but fail him in the end.
And yet, look what happens when he recalls a dream he had as a young man which featured an enormous skull: "What you are, [the skull] seemed to insist, is air; beneath the solid self lie the bones, and beneath the bones simply the clean, whistling, open void. It's the other pole of life, the negation that lives beneath the yes; the fierce chilly gust of silence that lies at the core of music, the hard precision of the skull beneath the lover's face. The cold little metallic bit of winter in the mouth. One is not complete, it seems, without a taste of that darkness; the self lacks gravity without the downward pull of the void, the barren ground, the empty field from which being springs." What Doty does with death, in this passage and elsewhere, is sheer alchemy. Using language to penetrate its thick curtain, he transforms it, even (if such a thing is possible) brings it to life.
Doty's earnestness is not for everyone. "I am prone," he admits, "to interpretation." He can be relentless, but he chooses relentless subjects: love, death, how to live. In spite of this, when he opens his hand and simply describes a place or a thing, the beauty has a flooding effect that reverberates outward from the heart.
Unlike Doty's previous memoirs, which were set in such venues as Provincetown, Mass., and Vermont, most of Dog Years unfolds against the background of New York City, in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. The landscape is full of floating ashes that settle on bus seats but also of remembrances, like this one, as Doty writes of walking Beau in a gentler time: "We'd turn southward when our walk was done," he recalls, "heading home in the cold, usually just at the deepening hour of twilight, come early in winter, when the world went blue. Before us would loom two tall rectangles of little winking lamps, wavering in the exhaust and turbulence of the air. By day, they'd been merely harsh geometry, dully regular office towers, the city's pillars. But when evening fell, they'd suddenly seem welcoming, a little darker blue than the sky, glowing with evidence of warmth and habitation."
For strength, Doty invokes Emily Dickinson, whom he calls "the great teacher of contradiction." He quotes her poems of despair and hope, of helplessness and strength. He invokes the spirit of Judy Garland, her ability to "stand before her audience in both transcendence and degradation at once," a stance "that gay men instinctively understood." In a few glorious places, he slips into pure poetry - as in a dream sequence in which he imagines the tunnel to death filling up with his own whirlwind of objects: "that bird's nest collected one winter, in a thicket on the Cape, with a single empty blue egg inside. A love letter received and never acted upon. Sheets of marbled paper from Venice. A box of books and papers lost on one of our moves, containing my passport. It's sort of a cozy whirlwind, strangely, nothing in any great hurry, everything moving past."
This is Doty at his best, crossing lines between dream and reality, poetry and nonfiction, life and death, human and dog.
In the end, with the help of Arden and Beau - as well as his own ability to love and connect - Doty does in fact make the unsayable sayable, bringing the ungraspable within our reach.
Susan Salter Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.