Holding the living
We have this dog now. His name is Basil and he is the most perfect being ever to lick his own butt. Having a dog has made me more attentive to the texture of the ground: what smells and sensations might be there, what is so exciting that he leaps and spins at the opportunity to explore it. I can only aspire to be that enthusiastic about walking out into the world every day. The dog has surprised me constantly with how forcefully I can love a creature whose consciousness I’ll never comprehend.
In Laurie Anderson’s movie “Heart of a Dog,” she talks about leaving New York to be alone with her rat terrier Lolabelle on the California coast after September 11th. I can understand why a dog would be the ideal companion after such an enormous trauma: life slows and simplifies when you share a dog’s priorities.
While the dog has been a joy every day, I’ve also thought about the full scope of our life together, and how I’ll almost certainly outlive him. These thoughts remind me of the title poem from Mark Doty’s book Atlantis, which opens with a recurring dream of the narrator’s dog being hit by a car. The pain of the dream is a kind of preparation for the pain of losing a partner who’s dying of AIDS:
We don’t have a future,
we have a dog.
Who is he?
Soul without speech,
sheer, tireless faith,
he is that-which-goes-forward,
black muzzle, black paws
scouting what’s ahead;
he is where we’ll be hit first,
he’s the part of us
that’s going to get it.
Love without a future: the dog, in his joyous going-forward, his tireless faith, is “going to get it,” a phrase that takes on a surprising depth of darkness in this context. Each of the poem’s six sections contains something, or someone, being held: the dog, the lover, a sick bird. All you can do is hold on, try to stay close to the thing you love while you can be together.
In its third section, the poem reckons with friends and lovers who have died, or are dying, naming them and saying “gone.” Just as a dog’s consciousness is mysterious, the process of losing a body is unexplainable: “What is the body?” the poem asks, ending this section with “lucky we don’t have to know / what something is in order to hold it.” This small mercy, this luck, is heartening to me. And I’ve long loved the word “held”: it feels comforting and solid, reminding me of being rooted to the earth. There’s a song I love called “Held,” too, about surrendering yourself to being cared for.
At the end of “Atlantis,” the narrator and his dying companion, Wally, adopt a second dog. Although Wally is paralyzed, can no longer walk or feed himself, he can pet the new animal, who stills for a moment in his “restless splendor.” I get very emotional about the ending of this poem, the dying man deliberately and carefully working to lay his hand on the golden dog. There’s a sense that Wally is freed of his body in this gesture, that his consciousness follows the dog into “the new.”
I recommend reading all of “Atlantis” and then petting a dog for some reassurance after you’re walloped with grief. It’s a beautiful, complex, tough poem for an incredibly hard experience. It’s a fitting elegy for the people and dogs involved.