Mark Doty is a critically acclaimed poet whose verses have appeared frequently in this magazine. Now he has turned to nonfiction to chronicle the impact that two Retrievers, one black and one golden, have had on his life. Arden is the gentle and affectionate black Retriever puppy Doty adopts from an animal shelter in Vermont. Beau is the more silly and rambunctious Golden Retriever/Saluki mix Doty brings home to serve as a companion for his dying partner, Wally. Wally is confined to bed and seeks “some small, encompassable creature to sleep next to him and lick his face” after Arden becomes too depressed to perform such duties.
Beau turns out to be bigger than bed-cuddling size, notwithstanding the fact that he is severely malnourished. He has a “chest so thin that the bone at the center stuck out sharply, the prow of a slender blond boat,” and is depicted as a “delicate and rather gangly fellow, all sharp bony edges.” But he also seems the “calmest, dreamiest dog,” with an open, steady gaze and happily thumping tail, which makes him the perfect candidate for the job. Little does Doty know that this placidity is the result of the sedatives still in Beau’s system post-neutering, and that a much different personality will emerge once they wear off! In spite of the sudden change in energy level, Beau’s playful intensity, limitless appetite and ceaseless curiosity (he has a propensity for bounding over fences to rummage in neighboring garbage cans) bring new life to the household.
Dog Years is both a buoyant celebration of life and a heartbreaking meditation on mortality, both human and animal. It is clear from Doty’s descriptions of the events surrounding 9/11 that part of his impetus for writing this book came from an attempt to understand how the deaths of so many have had an impact on the living. He goes on to chronicle, in unflinching detail, his lifelong struggle with depression, the unrelenting work of grieving, and the ways in which dogs (his own and, in one instance, a stray dog in Mexico) serve to pull humans back into the land of the living. As a poet, Doty notes his propensity to “fix on the darker note … I think the only kind of beauty I can see is the kind that’s right on the verge of collapse.” But it is precisely at these moments that Beau or Arden arrive onstage to do something (stealing and swallowing a favorite glove, rolling in a “queen-size mattress” of blubber from an autopsy done on a beached whale in Provincetown), their way of saying Notice me, come back.
In one of the book’s most moving episodes, it is Beau who actually prevents Doty from attempting to drown himself. The author steps back from the edge because he knows that Beau, now aged and requiring daily injections of saline and electrolytes for his failing kidneys, would struggle to rescue him: Beau saves his owner by his sheer presence. “Somehow my faith in human attachments, my belief in the cementing bonds that hold us all together, just wasn’t there,” Doty writes. “It was only the trusting silent fellow at my feet, who kept looking down into the racing wake through the small hole at the base of the ferry railing—it was that trust, that day, that kept me in the world.”
Doty weaves snippets of Emily Dickinson’s poetry (Dickinson being no stranger to grief and black moods herself) into the short interludes or “Entr’actes” that separate the chapters of his memoir. Many of these intermissions read like luminous prose poems, dense with detail: “Rain on the old wood of the doghouses, rain on the spots where dozens of visiting dogs have slept or peed, rain picking out the flowers of the field, each with their definite scent, intensifying the odiferous leaves.” Doty is especially good at demonstrating how dogs can connect us to nature and “wildness,” in a time when more and more people are becoming insulated from such things: “The wild intensity of [Beau’s] race up the steep cliff of a high bluff on the ocean side of the Cape in Truro. The salt-marsh smell rising from his body after a walk in June (there is nothing else in the world that smells exactly like a golden retriever dipped in a salt marsh).” In another moment, Doty observes—in a passage so lovely it deserves to be quoted at length—how the mundane activity of walking Beau and Arden gives him a feeling of belonging to something larger than himself:
"Walking is an affirmation of physical life. We’re in the world, we’re breathing, we’re together. I move in a straight line, more or less, along the paths, and sometimes the dogs are right in front of me or beside me, but more often, they are threading around the path, padding in the woods or thickets or marsh on either side of me. I begin to conceive of us as one extended consciousness, reaching out in different directions, sensing, our bodies making a braided trail but our awareness overlapping. That helps, just now, when a self seems fragile, erasable. 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."
One of the lessons of Doty’s work is that dogs, with their poignantly shorter lives, function as placeholders for our reflections. They make time concrete rather than abstract, serving as “centers around which memory coheres.” It is likely that Beau and Arden will continue to serve this function not only for Doty, but for readers of this engaging and highly recommended book.