Although poet Mark Doty’s memoir Dog Years was published over a decade ago, it is timeless in its generous goodwill toward canine subjects, and timely for artists and thinkers who are considering animals under the umbrella of Animal Studies, an interdisciplinary academic field that is now coming into its own. (See last year’s New York Times article, which describes this “emergent scholarly community.”)
Doty is not an ethologist (someone who studies animal behavior), nor has he declared himself an Animal Studies scholar. He is first and foremost, in Dog Years, a participant in relationships with his dying partner Wally, two dogs (and two cats, who go practically unmentioned in the book). Reading Doty’s interpretations of canine moods and desires, I was struck by the seeming acuity of his vision, and was convinced of accuracy of his assessments. As those of us involved in the scientific study of animal behavior know, the rigorously direct language of science does not permit us to declare that dogs “intend” to do that which we assume they are doing. We can observe a behavior and describe it, but must surround our language with a cushion of metaphor. For example, the prudent scientist will say that a dog behaves as if she is trying to get another dog’s attention in order to facilitate play, though in the scientist’s heart the assertion is more certain.
Dog Years reminded me that to enter into a relationship with an animal (and indeed, a person), means that, for the duration of the relationship, you and the other will be involved in the dance of interpreting each other’s behaviors (and spoken language) to work toward shared goals. In this way, relationships bloom. Dogs’ speechlessness, Doty points out, makes them especially compelling interlocutors:
Maybe dogs remind us of that verge [of being able to speak], that passage from speechlessness; we have each done it individually, as tiny children; at some moment no individual can recollect, we apprehended a word, attached a sound to an object. … When we look at a dog who seems nearly pregnant with unsayable [that is, in our human language] meaning, we look back at some place distantly but faintly familiar.
For Doty, “saying” means speaking or writing in a language comprehensible by, and perhaps natural to, humans. In his ethonography of the Koyukon of Alaska, Make Prayers to the Raven, anthropologist Richard Nelson describes the language of dogs in the Distant Time: “In that ancient society the dogs could talk with humans, but Raven knew that if this continued people would become too fond of them. “When someone lost a dog it would be just like losing a person.” So Raven took speech away from them.”
Dogs also have their own subtle lexicons of gaze and gesture, position and vocalization, which they use among themselves (“their” language), and also when communicating with us. (For useful and appealing instruction in “Doggie Language,” see Lili Chen’s delightful poster, which may be of use to the dog owners reading). There is also the kingdom of smell, which remains ghostly and nearly unfathomable to humans. Poets work with many tools, both sensory and immaterial, but the most obvious is human language. So much of what the best poets do is shape the unsayable into something that can be said. This requires both a willingness to participate in the world and observe it, and the desire to imagine the world and its many inhabitants with clarity and tact—in short, to empathize with the world and its creatures.
My preliminary work on a study of dog vocalization, and my own weird and funny forays into howling together with my dog, remind me that dog vocal communication is complex, subtle, and bendable. Dogs, who consistently meet us more than halfway in the give and take of communication, have learned a small pamphlet’s worth of our words too: their name, walk, dinner, etc. Perhaps the next step for poets writing about animals is to turn the technical rigors of this art form, conceptualized as “prosody,” toward animal vocalization and the knowledge produced by the scientific study of bioacoustics. This past January, Cornell opened its Macauly Library online, making widely available the sounds of numerous nonhumans. Listen to a short recording of wolves howling again and again: its communicative particularity (its wolfishness?) recedes, and its gently sloping rise and fall become a music as entrancing as any human sound. When teaching the art and craft of Inuit Throat Singing, Tanya Tagaq says that people “have to spend one year trying to sound like their dog first…growling.” If you are curious about throat singing, you can hear some of the sounds Tagaq discuses in this brief performance of “Dog and Wolf.”
Returning to Dog Years, I want to share an aside Doty makes, later in the book. It stuck with me:
Those who don’t believe in animal character or intelligence will probably have turned from these pages long ago, and with them safely out of earshot, I can relax into a confident assertion that a dog’s eyes may brim with intelligence, preference, temperament, eagerness, forms of memory, assertions of desire. Anyway, if language is metaphor, a system of signs tacked none too firmly to the real, then our words point only imprecisely toward our own feelings anyway, and may as well point just as inexactly toward those of dogs.
It is in this spirit that I hope those of us who are trying to represent animals with human language proceed. This does not mean that we should mistake imprecision for outright sloppiness and the easy denigration of animal subjects into metaphors for all that is lacking or shameful in humans. An acknowledgement of limits, both in our ability to understand animal subjects and—an even more crucial reminder from Doty to those who are determined to see only the limited in the animal—our fellow humans will keep us humble and curious. As ethologists, we face similar challenges. Noted primatologist Franz de Waal outlines some of the issues facing, and exciting developments in, our field in this recent Wall Street Journal piece. Whether as poet or scientist or devoted human companion of a dog, cat or other creature, the choice to remain open to encounters with animals, and attuned to possibility instead of lack, will undoubtedly enrich our interactions with our fellow nonhumans, as it does with our fellow humans.
In the coming months I will be posting more about the representation of nonhumans with language, and the intersections of art and science, on this blog. For those who are interested, I hope you will stay tuned.