As Hard-Edged and Challenging as a Bone: Ken Foster on Eileen Myles’ AFTERGLOW (A DOG MEMOIR)
**Editor’s note: RM220 presents Eileen Myles at 8 p.m. on Thursday, November 16, at Saturn Bar (3067 St. Claude Avenue).**
“You’ll get another dog,” strangers would tell me after the death of my dog Brando four years ago. “I already have three more,” I explained and then dealt with the puzzled faces of these dog-less people, who were unable to understand my grief and apparently considered replacing a dog akin to replacing a favorite old car that just wasn’t running any more. I still think of Brando every day, and at night, before we doze off, I hug Douglas, one of a houseful of dogs now, and tell him, “You know you aren’t allowed to die, right?” It’s an unfair expectation, but Doug was chosen by Brando, and Brando was beloved by my now-deceased parents, and it feels as if once he is gone, I’ll have lost the last remaining connection to everything in my past.
Douglas, being a dog, never responds to my question.
Dogs, and our relationships with them, exist in a place beyond words, which may be why they make such incredible partners with writers—and why we struggle so much when they are gone.
What was it they knew but were unable to tell us? What did we know that we were unable to share with them? And, perhaps most selfishly, we wonder if they ever understood how much we loved them.
It’s through this unknowing that some truly great work is borne: the poems of Mary Oliver, J.R. Ackerley’s memoirs, the essays of Roger Grenier, and now Eileen Myles with the strange (because how could it be anything else) and haunting memoir, afterglow (a dog story). Myles lived with their pit bull Rosie for sixteen years, and afterglow takes the form of a memoir in reverse and often inverted. “Is this ghostwriting,” Myles wonders, and the line takes on multiple meanings. The present is full of ghosts, and much of the book imagines the world and the past from Rosie’s point of view, which includes claiming credit for all of her owner’s significant creative output in the years they were together. Yes, they are one of those legendary couples: one taking centerstage in the limelight while the other works thanklessly behind the scenes.
Dogs, Myles says, have a mythic, godlike power of vision, and this I can personally, independently verify is true. We’re not just talking about their keen sense of the physical—they can see beyond the physical world itself. They can know our souls, if we have them. Myles senses this in Rosie in the same way it was present in Myles’ father: that they could actually see Myles, and when someone, either a human or a dog, can actually see you, it becomes harder to pretend you don’t know who you are yourself.
“I took such good care of her when she was dying,” Myles tells us. “I relished it. She made me go slow.” Myles recounts their rituals, their walks, the sense of wonder at knowing every inch of Rosie and how she thought and where she liked to pee and what she liked to smell. Myles calls it transcription. We want to memorize these things, but no matter how we might try, eventually they leave us. Myles recalls the childhood dog, Taffy, who lasted only a night before their mother sent her to the pound. “I would have learned so much from him…I would have been a prophet at 12 instead of 60.”
Loss permeates afterglow, which isn’t unexpected. Loss is central to our understanding of a dog’s life, perhaps because theirs are so tragically short, which makes it possible for us to see the entire length of their story within our narrow human vision. There is their beginning, right there in front of us; and there, suddenly, is their end. Between the two points is the line they walked and the places they showed us along the way with them. The miracle is that a dog’s lifeline somehow manages to extend beyond their years on both ends. They can inform and clarify our sense of our own past without them, as well as the life we lead after they have abandoned us on the trail. And guilt: guilt about the choices made, and the freedom we all may feel after we’ve been abandoned.
But this isn’t just a dog book. It’s an Eileen Myles book, or at the very list, an Eileen and Rosie Myles co-production. These two don’t believe in being sentimental, though they may believe in sentiment. This book is as hard-edged and challenging as a bone. And as hard to let go of, if you or your soul belong to a dog. And like a dog it is also deeply itself, mysterious and ultimately incapable of being fully described in anyone else’s words.
Ken Foster is the author of a memoir, The Dogs Who Found Me, which was a national bestseller. His collection of short stories, The Kind I’m Likely to Get, was a New York Times Notable Book. He is also the author of Dogs I Have Met, a collection of essays, and the editor of two anthologies, The KGB Bar Reader and Dog Culture. His current project is City of Dogs, a collaboration with photographer Traer Scott that will be published by Avery/Penguin next year.