Arden and Beau

Portia was the one that broke my heart. She had long golden-red hair, huge brown eyes, an easy smile and ears far too big for her delicate features. But her real assets were a sense of humor and the patience to match my moodiness. And even as I was breaking my bankbook to keep her alive and delivering her weekly for chemo sessions that left her sick and listless, she loved me.

She was a collie-golden retriever mix rescued from a shelter. But before judging the wisdom of a struggling graduate student who would max out credit cards and spend student-loan money to treat a dog’s cancer, best to read and appreciate Mark Doty’s narrative of the dogs he loved—and that loved him—Arden and Beau.

Dog Years: A Memoir, is prize-winning poet Doty’s third entry into autobiographical prose. It retreads some of the ground covered in Heaven’s Coast, his moving tale of the death of his partner, Wally, from AIDS. Arden and Beau had much to contribute to that part of his life story, as well, but Dog Years focuses on how Doty came to be a dog person, and the changes in his life—particularly his willingness to continue to live and love in the face of unimaginable loss—that a pair of retrievers brought him.

(Full disclosure: Doty and I knew each other almost three decades ago in Iowa, back when he was straight and I was thin. In those days, he was strictly a cat person.)

Dog Years deals early on with those people who don’t understand the relationship between a dog and a person. Doty notes—as many animal lovers have long held—that those who say they don’t understand how we devote energy and resources to companion animals that could be spent on other humans are often the same people who devote little or no energy to anyone other than themselves.

But he quickly turns to what it is about the love of a dog that makes us want to be better people, for our dogs always assume that we are better people than we might be at any given moment. When, in the depth of grief and despair after Wally’s death, Doty walks Arden and Beau on the beach, he writes, “It isn’t that one wants to live for the sake of a dog, exactly, but that dogs show you why you might want to.”

And they do. His tales of life with Arden and Beau are, by turns, comic, heartwarming, sentimental (in the very best way) and ultimately heartbreaking.

For it is the nature of dogs to live much shorter lives than we humans do. More than anything else, our companion animals teach us our own mortality. If we’re both fortunate and willing, they teach us to appreciate it. Doty uses all his skills as a poet to present for us the blessed gift animals have of remaining fully present in the world—one that all too many of us mere humans lack.

More than anything else, Doty (who often has been described as a poet of loss) is pointing out to us that grief of any kind is the tangible—and often physical—reminder of our capacity to love. If his greatest gift as a poet is the ability to describe the world fully in a single moment (and I would argue that it is), then Doty surely owes a great deal of that gift to the dogs who demonstrated that way of seeing for him.

Dog Years is, then, his gift to Arden and Beau—but, being dogs, they’d want us to have it, too.