Dog Years by Mark Doty

Love for a wordless creatures, once it takes hold, is an enchantment… This is why I shouldn’t be writing anything to do with the two dogs who have been such presences for sixteen years of my life. How on earth could I stand at the requisite distance to say anything that might matter?

How indeed?

I love Doty, as you know, and this book is an excellent example of some of the qualities of his work that I love best. He is thoughtful, meandering, wise, self-deprecating, shows his thinking transparently on the page, and has the most precise and loving eye for beauty; he turns most every observation of the world into ekphrasis somehow, by which I mean that he turns the same active, joyful, inquisitive observation to the Massachusetts shoreline or a NYC sidewalk that he turns to a museum-quality painting.

This review is a trigger warning of sorts. I love Doty, and I love this book, and I’m glad I read it, but it was also painful as hell. Dog Years is about beloved pet dogs who die (as they do), and it’s about 9/11, and it’s about death and loss. It is also absolutely relevant that I read this during the pandemic of the spring of 2020, and everything feels a bit more raw these days, the angst a bit closer to the surface than usual; and I have in no way recovered from my dear Ritchey dying more than a year and a half ago now, and my dear Hops is not even 12 yet but he shows his age. This book was beautiful and transcendent and really hard on me. I mean it as a compliment – this book comes with a warning because it’s so well done.

Because, you know, a book about a beloved pet dog dying could easily be (and they usually are) insipid, overly sentimental, a cheap shot. And I think telling the story of 9/11 (or Katrina, I think about that one a lot too) is awfully hard to do in a way that’s not going to sound like anybody could have told it. (This is true of the pandemic of 2020, too. Who will tell that story well? Will it be Doty? I’d buy that book. See also Paul Lisicky’s excellent recent release, Later. A little awkward: Paul Lisicky appears in Dog Years as Doty’s husband, which is no longer the case.) In other words, Doty has undertaken an ambitious book, which aims to do a couple of things at once that look nearly impossible to do well, even individually. But of course he’s knocked it out of the park. (It is a sign of my faith in him that I undertook to read a book about dogs dying. Whew.)

The dogs in question are Arden, a black long-haired retriever, and Beau, a golden retriever(ish). They are very specific beasts, individuals, as dogs are. Arden belonged to Mark Doty and his partner, Wally, in Provincetown, Mass., where Wally sickened and eventually died of AIDS, but not before Mark brought home Beau to join the family as well. “My friends think I’ve lost my mind: You’re taking care of a man who can’t get out of bed and you’re adopting a golden retriever? They do have a point, but there’s a certain dimension of experience at which the addition of any other potential stress simply doesn’t matter anymore.” (That is a golden retriever puppy, I would add.) Widowed, Mark (and Arden and Beau) will eventually form a new family with Paul, and it is in this shape that they make their way to the end of both dogs’ lives, eventually, after much travel and moving around – including living in New York City in September of 2011… I have seen Doty handle grief and loss before (although I’ve not yet read Heaven’s Coast, so there is still that), most recently of course with What Is the Grass, where death forms one of the five sources of Whitman’s genius. And Doty’s, I’d say. The way that these strands are intertwined is lovely and perfect.

When the towers fall, the enormity of all that loss and death and threat to the world is too much to conceive. “With the world in such a state, isn’t it arrogance or blind self-absorption to write about your dogs?” But Doty knows that “we use the singular to approach the numberless,” and this echoes one of the lines I most obsess over in Still Life With Oysters and Lemon, about “the strangeness and singularity of things…” (There is again an echo of the thread in Still Life that is about reflection, in all its senses: “We know ourselves by how we’re known, our measure taken by the gaze of the outsider looking in.”) The singular losses of Arden and Beau offer Doty a way to write about 9/11 and about topics larger than them. The unique to communicate the universal, and the personal to illuminate the public.

For me, what is perhaps the crux of this book came early. “To attach, to attach passionately to the individual, which is always doomed to vanish–does that make one wise, or make one a fool?” This is a more personal review than usual, but here we are. This is something I’ve been wrestling with, the enormity of loving again after the pain of loss, and I can’t quite believe that either way, the yes or the no, is the right thing. But I always feel I’m in good hands with this writer. Maybe I’ll figure something out if I keep reading.

Of course you known as well that I love Doty’s detailed lists of things, his descriptions (ahem) and the simple fact of his attention turned to all the humble things… the soup Arden smells on that sidewalk. “Of Franco’s retail experiment, there remained for several years an odd little lamp beside his old shop door marked with a thirtiesish design that would have held no meaning if you didn’t know what it had illuminated–but now that’s gone, too.” Things and meaning and the spaces they held, left behind.

Oh! I nearly forgot to mention structure, which absolutely needs mentioning here. Longer, numbered (untitled) chapters do the work of memoir, of memory, not entirely chronological but at least following life in some form; some of them take the form more of essay than of strict narrative, like in chapter three, when he lists and details seven “aspects to our delight” in dogs. Between these are spliced shorter pieces headed Entr’acte (an interval between two acts of a play or opera; a piece of music or a dance performed during an entr’acte), titled and not numbered. These generally take the present tense, and range as widely in content and theme as the rest of the book… and wouldn’t you know, my MFA thesis took the same structure, longer memoiristic essays with short lyric pieces in between… There is also a good bit of Emily Dickinson in this book, and I think my new approach to poetry is just to let Mark Doty tell me about it.

This is a writer I return to for guidance, and this book is an exemplar of what I appreciate about him, but (if you love a dog) it may hurt you, too.

Rambling review brought to you by the pandemic and my difficulty focusing, and the pain that this beautiful book brought me.


Rating: 9 obstreperous things.

What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life by Mark Doty

What Is the Grass is literary criticism and explication, memoir and meditation, and the kind of fine, evocative, thoughtful prose that Mark Doty does best.


It was part of Walt Whitman’s extraordinary innovation with Leaves of Grass to close time and space, to bring his observations and a sense of intimacy to each reader who finds him. It feels perfectly natural that acclaimed poet and memoirist Mark Doty (Dog Years; Still Life with Oysters and Lemon; Deep Lane) chooses to receive, interpret and muse upon these transmissions with What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life.

Doty, like Whitman, is gifted with words, a lover of beauty and of men, a New Yorker. He feels haunted by the elder poet, sees and smells him in the museum of Whitman’s home, again encounters his ghost “above the shoulders of a bedmate on a winter afternoon early in the twenty-first century, in an apartment tower in Hell’s Kitchen.” What Is the Grass is a close reading of Whitman’s great work, but also of American poetry, same-sex love, the exuberance of the physical body, myriad cultural shifts and Doty’s own life.

As is his habit, Doty’s mind on the page wanders widely. Considering a “weird period piece of art porn,” he realizes that “even in the imagined paradise of limitless eros, there must be room for death.” Indeed, death is the fifth of five sources Doty identifies for Whitman’s genius, by which he organizes this book. First, “an experience… of transforming character, loosening the doors from their jambs,” some life-changing moment or moments in Whitman’s life. The second source, “The Unwriteable,” is vigorously, jubilantly celebrated queer sexuality; here and throughout, Doty considers his loves and lovers, relationships and travels.

Next the very city, the “great stream and pulse of life” that is Manhattan, and then language itself, the lovely trips and surprises and sensuous effects and all the multitudinous details to be found in the Crystal Palace exhibition, “at which examples of practically everything human endeavor had created up to 1853 were on display.” Add to this slang and regionalisms, and “these words splash onto the page in Whitman’s first edition, as if a dam holding back a flood of new speech had been dynamited, all at once, by the force of a single poem.”

The fifth source of Whitmanian genius is death, “that strong and delicious word,” which Doty as well must wrestle with. “I’ve seen a man I loved die, and it seemed to me a pure liberation.” But “time avails not, distance avails not,” as Whitman and Doty each repeat, and the latter helps navigate the former. Readers should be prepared to dig out a copy of Leaves of Grass (or find one: “there is a copy of the Leaves in every used bookstore, everywhere in the nation, count on it”) upon reading this book, which makes an indispensable companion and guide. Arriving finally at “the poet’s greatest glory, and the exegete’s inescapable defeat,” in the end, Doty reminds us that Whitman’s “words accomplish what words cannot,” and exits quietly.


This review originally ran in the March 20, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 lines I’d consider tattooing on my body.

The Magical Language of Others by E. J. Koh

Letters from mother to daughter shed glimmering light on reunions, reconciliation, immigration, heritage and familial love.

Poet and translator E.J. Koh grew up in California’s Bay Area, the daughter of Korean immigrants. Her parents moved back to Korea when she was 15, leaving her to live with her angry, taciturn 19-year-old brother. By the time her parents returned to the United States, Koh was off to graduate school in New York City. During those years of separation, a flurry of letters from mother to daughter sketched a yearning over distance.

The Magical Language of Others revolves around these letters, translated from occasionally English-spattered Korean. Koh read them as arrived, but it wasn’t until much later, in their rediscovery, that she came to understand what they offered. In a small box she has kept for years, Koh finds exactly 49 letters: “In Buddhist tradition, forty-nine is the number of days a soul wanders the earth for answers before the afterlife.”

As Koh studies Korean and Japanese, and eventually adds a graduate degree in Korean translation to her graduate poetry studies, she works as well to translate the love, longing and abandonment of generations of women. Her paternal grandmother’s memories of Jeju Island are first idyllic and then filled with trauma from the massacre in 1948. Koh’s privileged but heartbroken maternal grandmother, after several suicide attempts, left her cheating husband in Daejeon and took an apartment in Seoul. She loved it there, but eventually relented and moved back home to a family that begged for her return. “Coming to one home, she had abandoned another.”

Meanwhile, in Koh’s own lifetime, she deals with young adulthood with her antagonistic brother. She makes frequent trips to see their parents in Korea, where she shops and visits the bathhouse with her mother, formally studies languages and informally studies people. “He waved not a hand but a blank page, and I knew it was gestures like this one that meant nothing.” Such luminous prose is evidence of an unusual mind.

This slim book is a memoir–of the years Koh spent quasi-orphaned in California; her visits to Korea; finally sharing a continent and eventually a home with her parents again in adulthood. It is also a study of generations of women before her. Koh considers how people make poetry out of imperfect lives, and how they interpret and generate love. In startling, lyrical, imaginative prose, Koh wrestles with the meanings of devotion and duty, and with the challenges of language and translation. Her final lines are as heartbreakingly beautiful as the entire book deserves. The Magical Language of Others is a masterpiece, a love letter to mothers and daughters everywhere.


This review originally ran in the November 25, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 parentheses.

Appalachia North by Matthew Ferrence, in Still: The Journal

Following my earlier review, I am so deeply pleased to shared with you today this review in the Fall 2019 issue of Still: The Journal.

Matthew Ferrence’s Appalachia North is both memoir and outward-looking examination of place: what it means to be from somewhere, how our relationship to home can change, and the complicated and too-often negative role Appalachia plays in the national imagination, and in its own.

Ferrence was forty when he received a life-changing diagnosis…

Please click over to read the full review. Look for my interview with Matt on Friday. And many thanks again to the Editors at Still for considering and accepting my work.

guest review: A Song for the River by Philip Connors, from Pops

Just a few lines, but good ones I think, from Pops about Philip Connors’s latest, which I originally reviewed here.

This week I finished reading this one. All the things you said, and probably more, as you also said. Really difficult reading sometimes (no, I have not read All the Wrong Places).

For me, it was very much an offering of lessons in seeking to fully embrace, process and find peace with loss – of so many different kinds. It’s a careful balance, between complete denial (mainstream versions of distraction) and over-thinking things into dark chasms of the soul. We both know people at the extremes and the wide expanse in between. Connors is indeed courageous to seek this balance ‘publicly’ – and well-equipped to give voice to the messy, insecure & fraught process. I am in awe.

Me, too, and always. I’m glad to hear you found the same. Phil, keep writing.

Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA by Amaryllis Fox

This memoir of a talented young woman’s CIA career is that rare combination: enthralling and gorgeously written.

Amaryllis Fox served in the Central Intelligence Agency for eight years when she was in her 20s, and that experience is the impetus for her memoir, Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the CIA. But its contents are both broader and deeper, beginning with uncertainties encountered in childhood: when a grade school friend is killed by a terrorist’s bomb, Fox’s father offers her an education in current events, to understand what took her friend away. An insightful, curious child, the young Fox makes early observations about her parents’ hidden or inner lives.

These trends persist from high school to college: before starting at Oxford, Fox poses as an acquaintance’s wife, slipping into Burma to record and sneak out a historic interview with an imprisoned democratic leader. Early in her Georgetown master’s program in conflict and terrorism, this high-achieving, daring young woman with international interests attracts the interest of the CIA (not the first intelligence agency to approach her, but the first to appeal). Fox continues to impress in her training within the agency, often winning coveted, extra-dangerous spots ahead of standard career trajectories. She recounts the challenges, from her analyst work through her field work in 16 countries, with absorbing anecdotes.

Although she’s always had an interest in people, motivations and relationships–it’s what makes her so good, a “velvet hammer,” as one senior case officer calls her–Fox shows an increasing concern for the acts she puts on, the roles she must play. A CIA agent pretending to be an arms dealer pretending to be an art dealer, she wonders “which part of me is she and which part of me is me. Would I be able to make the same impact if I lived life in my true skin?” It is in part this worry about identity that finally leads her out of the agency–that, and the birth of her daughter, in her second marriage since entering her dangerous line of work.

One expects a CIA memoir to be thrilling; this one is positively riveting. But in addition, Fox’s writing is surprisingly lovely, lines often ringing like poetry. “It’s a strange place to find a man who aspires to deal in death, what with the music drifting from the park as the day goes to gloaming and the laughter issuing from pretty, wine-stained mouths along the riverbank.” “My waking self passes me one more note that night…. One of those memories so deeply packed away that I have to unfold its sepia edges gently, in case they turn to dust in my hands.”

Life Undercover is an astonishing book. Readers interested in the high adventure of tradecraft will certainly be satisfied, but Fox offers as well nuanced and sensitive perspectives on international politics, and humanizing views of nuclear arms dealers and terrorists. Her subtle, lyric prose elevates this memoir beyond its action-packed subject matter, highlighting instead its true focus: the breadth and beauty of humanity.


This review originally ran in the September 6, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 carbombs.

Firebird by Mark Doty

It has taken me far too long to branch out in the world of Doty, having read Still Life With Oysters and Lemon at least six times by now. Well, I’ve got three more of his memoirs on my shelf and will rectify this. I may even venture into his poetry. Who knows.

Firebird is the second of his three memoirs (which list excludes Still Life), and focuses on his childhood: in an nutshell, a gay kid’s coming-of-age in a turbulent and troubled family that moved around a lot. From Tennessee to Tucson, Florida to California and back again, Mark’s family followed his father’s profession as an Army engineer. His mother eventually slides into alcoholism. His older sister leaves home in her teens to escape her own difficulties with their parents; she will wind up a single mother of three and later go to prison. Mark, after a traumatic haircut against his will, attempts suicide and confesses for the first time, to a nurse at the hospital, that he is gay. These are the troubled-family highlights, but Firebird does not rely on its sensational headlines for effect. It’s as much about art and beauty, the way these can overhaul pain and save his life, as it is about any particular painful story.

Doty excels at calling forth the beauty of the desert around Tucson, which his mother so loves, a Georgia O’Keefe landscape of color and contrast; her art–his mother’s–which brought her to life, and the entrance into a world of art that she gave him.
I was pleased to see so many echoes between this book and Still Life. I love the way Doty questions, turns back on himself: “Does he mean… Or no–does he meant it this way… But there are two lenses… Is that the point?” And his focus on “the resonant object,” which I absolutely recognize. The book’s prelude, “Perspective Box,” feels pulled directly out of that other book I have so loved. Firebird is as full of things as I could want; it fits right into what I love about his art.

I can’t wait to read more.


Rating: 8 complicated, studded walls.
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