August 10, 1953– Mark Doty is one of my favorite American poets. Elegant, unflinching, melancholy, his words haunt me. I appreciate the duality of the references to the rural and the urbane in his work. In one poem he describes the plant life of a vacant city lot. As a gay man I have always sought out a life in an urban center while still being enchanted by a cabin at the beach. I get that vibe from Doty’s work. I have attempted to take my city lot and make a place for nature, my tiny attempt at living in both worlds. Doty:
“I’ve always been a poet who wrote about urban life because I love the layers and surprises and the jangly complexities of cities. I feel at home in cities, being a gay man. It’s a place of permission and possibility. In 1990, I moved to Provincetown. I also love this landscape of salt marshes, beaches and dunes, but I had to write about it in a different way. In the marsh, there is no narrative. All that happens is that a bird flies by, the tide comes in and goes out.”
Doty’s poetry collections have transported me. But, it is a work of prose that has moved me the most. I read his lovely book, Dog Years: A Memoir (2009), in just two sittings, ironically, taking a break only to walk my dogs. The book is Doty’s meditation on life, loss and the way that grief squeezes into life and never lets go, Doty tells of the life he shared with his two dogs as he experiences the decline and death of his longtime partner Wally from HIV, and how the canines move and affect a new relationship with a new love and future spouse.
How many ways have all my dogs had a profound effect on how I have dealt with the heights and valleys of my own life and my 37 year relationship with a certain man? The Husband and I have had a dog, usually two, for nearly all our time together. At one point, I think we stayed a couple because of the dogs. The Husband and I have lived with, loved and buried four dogs. Our rescued terriers, Junior and Lulu are dogs five and six.
In Dog Years, Doty tells of his improbable decision to adopt a dog as a companion for his dying partner. Beau was a large golden retriever, possibly abused and in need of love and companionship. Beau is made part of the Doty family, paired with Arden, their other retriever. Beau responds well to his new life, and bounces back in spirit and body. The two dogs become Doty’s best friends. They bring comfort and a reason to keep going during the worst of days. The retrievers’ moxie, loyalty, and affection give him hope when all else fails.
Dog Years is moving and intimate, with profound insight into the life we share with animals and the lessons they teach us. Doty gives a touching look at the vulnerability of dogs, how they rely on us, and the positive outlook they bring, and their gift of unconditional love. Dog Years is not sentimental though. It is mournfully and movingly affecting. We all will have to deal with loss at some point. This book might help you just a little bit.
“To be human is probably to be conscious of time in a way that dogs are free of, but I love to, at least for a little while, slip that harness & let myself go into the edgeless world of animal time! That’s probably an aspect of the relationship between lyric poets and people we term “insane”, we both lose our identities on a regular basis.”
The very handsome Doty’s writing has been honored by the National Book Critics Circle Award, PEN Award, LA Times Book Prize, and Lambda Literary Award. He is the only American to win the T.S. Eliot Prize. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment For The Arts, and the Merrill Foundation.
Doty is divorced from writer Paul Lisicky. They were together for 15 years. He now lives with Alexander Hadel in NYC and East Hampton. He has a volume of poems, Deep Lane, that was published last fall.
The place in The Hamptons is not a mansion, but a bungalow. Doty writes that he was attracted to the dense trees surrounding the house and the garden:
“Although it was not one I would have planted myself. I was drawn to it, and it is difficult to talk about this in anything other than a new-agey way, I felt an energy in the soil that I could use. So I put my writing studio outside and was very in touch with that natural world and its cycles and mysteries.”
Deep Lane gets its title from a “bucolic little road nearby”, and it is about gardening, but it was also about a friend who had killed herself. Doty writes that he felt his life was spiraling out of control as he started to write it:
“Since a child I had learned to be a tower of strength. When my mother was passed out drunk, or there was violence in my family, I wouldn’t go down with it. But my mother died at 56 of cirrhosis, and you start to wonder how much time you have left. It was also increasingly clear that a long relationship was not sustainable. And I began to understand that I was in no way done with the grief I had been carrying around from the early 90s when an awful lot of people I knew died. I think there are a number of reasons why you hold things at bay for that long, but now I was letting go.”
Alongside suicide, grief, breakups and family tensions, there is also a poem about drug use in Deep Lane:
“Tied my arm with a piece of stretchy plastic / Maybe a leather belt or a necktie, I don’t remember / He said, You’ll probably cough, that’s normal”
“The gay male community is a sexual culture, for someone turning a corner in life to ask if they can still get that boost of self-confidence and pleasure from finding other people attractive, and them finding me attractive. Drugs become a way of enhancing and prolonging that, shutting the door on whatever else is going on in your head and turning towards the ecstatic in a rather ferocious way. I love the ecstatic – just look back over my books. But I know this is a very dangerous way of going about it.”
Doty and I are the same age, along with a love of men and dogs, we are both bloggers. Believe me, I don’t mean to imply that we are in the same company. Now I must sign off. Lulu and Junior are waiting for their morning walk.