Dog Years, by Mark Doty

Hounds of heaven
Click to follow

Unless we start to domesticate sea turtles, it is likely that our relationship with pets will involve loss. As Mark Doty reminds us, "The death of a pet is, after all, the first death that most of us know." In this book, he writes of his love for the two dogs he has owned as an adult and his grief at their deaths, venturing into territory where, for fear of falling into sentimentality or courting derision, few writers dare to go.

Doty is one of contemporary literature's great chroniclers of loss. Already a renowned poet in America, he first came to the attention of many British readers with Heaven's Coast, his heartrending memoir of the death of his partner, Wally, from Aids. Figuring prominently in that account are Arden, their chocolate retriever, and Beau, a younger golden retriever who, to the horror of friends, Doty brought home during Wally's last days. After Wally's death, Doty remade his life with a new partner, and the continuing presence of Arden and Beau.

Now, after the death of both dogs, he examines his relationship with them while aware of the twin dangers of such a project: first, that it will seem trivial in the face of world-shattering events; second, that even fellow dog-lovers will lose patience, since "listening to stories about other peoples' pets is perilous, like listening to the recitation of dreams".

Apart from the odd instance of special pleading, as when he claims, after taking Beau to the vet, that "Beau is the most popular dog in the clinic", Doty neatly skirts both dangers. He does so by his skill in conjuring up the nature of each dog and his poet's eye for salient detail. One incident must stand for many when, in a moment of black comedy after Doty and Wally's mother hike across the marshes to scatter Wally's ashes, she "threw into the water a single long-stemmed rose, and Beau kept deciding to fetch it back – over and over again, shivering, the pale skin under his strawberry blond growing blue in the cold".

Doty sets himself the harder task of exploring the notion of character in animals. He grants that canine emotions are very different from human ones but insists that they exist. As a poet, he is fascinated by the role of language (and the lack of it) in relationships with dogs. While he never resorts to anthropomorphism himself, he quotes with approval Tolstoy's attribution of human thought processes to Levin's hunting dog in Anna Karenina.

For all its power, Dog Years fails to stir the heart like Heaven's Coast. It is not just that, to most readers, the death of a pet, however beloved, is of less moment than that of a partner, but that Doty is writing with less urgency. The first book gave the impression of being written on tear-soaked pages; here, the paper remains dry. Nevertheless, this is a warm, wise and engaging memoir. In the pantheon of literary pooches, JR Ackerley's Tulip and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Flush now contend with Doty's Arden and Beau.

Michael Arditti's 'Easter' has been reissued by Arcadia