Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dog Years by Mark Doty

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Publisher: Harper Collins Publisher (2007)
ISBN-10: 0739490001
ISBN-13: 978-0739490006

Although I was well aware of this author's work, knew the name and the general bio, I had yet to ever actually dip into either the prose or poetry of Mark Doty. Being a dog owner, I decided to begin (and end, depending on what I would find here) with Dog Years. I understood soon enough on opening the book that this will most certainly not be the end of my new literary acquaintance. Doty is a master.

When one sees a book cover of a pretty, snowy street with two dogs on a stroll, the expectation might be for something sentimental, even maudlin. With a back blurb hinting at a story dealing with death, hmm, how easy it would be to sink into that muck. But Doty not only walks over this potential trap, he dances over it.

This memoir that captures an ending of a human life, the beginning of a new life for both humans and dogs, then the ending of dog lives, is exquisite in its light and intelligent, elegant touch. Rather than whining away into a cry of despair over a lover's death, Doty manages beautifully to convey the void, the suffering, even the despair without even once taking a nose-dive. In great part, he does so by keeping his focus on the dogs in his life. We see the human heart via the dog's heart. We see the love of relationship, the unfolding of intimacy, the balm of utter loyalty, the abyss of despair, and all the gradations between, by the interactions between man and dog, dog and man.

Between the chapters that move the story forward, Doty has interspersed short reflections he calls "entr'acte." These are a surfacing of the human voice in wondering, in meditation. For example, in reflection on the concept of time and loneliness, Doty writes in one of these short respites: "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 ... Not trying to look outside of time (if such is even possible to us), but farther into it, pushing our faces up toward vanishing, to that vaporous line between here and not. Power that animates and erases: hello and yes, good-bye and no. To look right into the blank behind the eyes of the skull. To let yourself get used to that wind that blows there."

We've all thought about this countless times. Only Doty could have put it into these words.

So unfolds Doty's story of losing his long-time partner to HIV, the comfort the couple's black retriever, Arden, brings in this passage. A new dog coming into the household, Beau, a golden, is the vehicle for moving forward. The dogs bring comfort, understanding, companionship. They share the weight of sorrow and grief. They offer a silent strength when Doty despairs to the point of gazing too long into the abyss, considering the jump. The dogs also become an added bond between Doty and eventual new partner, writer Paul Lisicky, and in the changing routines of the dogs, we see also the changed routine a new love can bring.

Be sure this is not all sadness and woe. Doty's humor is often evident, but never overpowering. We taste it best in his recounting of the new couple's travels in a car with both dogs, and cats, too, cross-country to their new home in Provincetown, Cape Cod. (Doty marvels at the madness of such a journey, yet the delight it brings in remembering it.) We see the town and its cast of colorful characters more through the eyes (and noses) of the dogs than the owners, but in essence that becomes the point ... men and dogs are so intertwined, their lives so interdependent, that it is all one and the same. Finally, as time will require its pay, we read of the death of one dog, then the next. This, too, has no howl at the moon about it, no whine or self-pity or even dog-pity. All is dignity. All is a meditation. All is the spice of life: relationship.

"A good end, we tell ourselves, a fine end ..." And it is. But most certainly leading to the reading of more of Doty's work.

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