- Dog Years: A Memoir, and: Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems
It’s a rare treat when a writer gracefully negotiates between genres. Including nine poetry collections and four (soon to be five) works of nonfiction, Mark Doty’s career has made this negotiation while earning him many awards. Perhaps most notable along with the 2008 National Book Award in Poetry is the 1995 T. S. Eliot Prize in Poetry, for which Doty remains the only American recipient. Doty’s poetry and prose have always demonstrated a shared subject matter, so it was both predictable and satisfying when his dogs, after figuring in several of the poems in his 2005 collection, School of the Arts, became the focus of a memoir, Dog Years. Eye roll: a memoir about his dogs? Knee-jerk skepticism is not unmerited in a post–Marley & Me world, but Doty is fully aware of the risk. He even uses it to his advantage. “With the world in such a state, isn’t it arrogance or blind self-absorption to write about your dogs,” Doty asks from New York City a month after the 9/11 attacks, later adding, “In the scheme of things, shouldn’t this be a smaller matter?” The answer, thankfully not a definitive yes or no, stands instead as a defense of the individual experience in the face of abstractly received tragedy. “We use the singular to approach the numberless. The local provides a means to imagine the whole,” he declares.
Accordingly, the book is not “just” about the dogs, but rather what its punning title literally suggests: the years of Doty’s life graced by Arden and Beau, the twentieth century’s fin de siècle and onward into a new millennium. When Doty brings Beau home from the animal shelter, we return to the painful moments of Heaven’s Coast (1996) and the death of Wally, Doty’s partner. And when Arden is put on anxiety medication, Doty implicates the electric anxiety of New York City after the terrorist attacks. It’s all context, Doty assures us, and it works both ways. Just as the “greater” context makes the dogs’ stories less “kitsch,” as Doty knows they can be, the dogs provide a local context for the otherwise abstract and flatly academic. “This is it, what surrounds you, the daily life to which you are much of the time asleep,” he writes, “this is it, and this was it the whole time.” The dogs thus “humanize” the situation, a point Doty powerfully emphasizes. When he writes of the “zero point” in his life, for example, his intense and despairing urge to leap off the Staten Island Ferry, he could have alienated his readers by plumbing the impermeably [End Page 195] personal, the abstract rawness of emotion. But this intensity is tempered by the inclusion of Arden and Beau and how Doty’s thoughts and urges consistently return to the dogs’ irreducible presence. In fact, it is Doty’s realization of Beau’s will to live that partly pulls him through the ferry ride. Doty later asks, “Do I dramatize?” He does, but responsibly so, not solipsistically.
This responsibility is manifest in Doty’s sober and unassuming voice that nevertheless penetrates the most intense emotions and intellectual profundities. The book, though grounded in the dogs’ lives, is not chronologically organized. Dog Years thus performs the act of remembering with great fidelity to the associations and intimations that constitute a life narrative. The story is about how we remember our lives just as much as it is about its own particulars. Doty makes these gestures subtly, yet evocatively; for instance, he fluidly moves from a Judy Garland drag show to Arden’s “putting on a show,” in which the dog lies belly up and makes noises as if trying to imitate a human. But Doty goes even further to assure that his narrative never falls flat by inserting flash essays between the chapters, much like intermissions. The lucid mixture of nonfiction essay and memoir in these entr’actes (the French term by...