In Dog We Trust

Afterglow (a dog memoir) BY Eileen Myles. Grove Press. Hardcover, 224 pages. $24.

The cover of Afterglow (a dog memoir)

In the first chapter of Eileen Myles’s Afterglow (a dog memoir), we learn that the author’s pit bull Rosie, whom Myles chose in 1990 from a street litter and cared for until her death sixteen years later, was not always pleased with her owner. Leaving the apartment for the dog run, Myles finds a letter from a “dog lawyer,” who is seeking to file a lawsuit against Myles for crimes committed against Rosie. A reader might ask: Is this letter real, a neighbor’s prank, a figment of Myles’s fertile imagination? But these are the kinds of distinctions that Myles’s shape-shifting narrative obliterates almost immediately. Incorporating a variety of styles—poems, lectures, even a chapter in the form of a talk show in which Rosie is interviewed by a puppet—the memoir approaches a number of ideas (about death, god, gender, humanity) from several increasingly layered perspectives. Rosie narrates a good deal of the book herself, pushing Myles aside to offer her own version of the story, and in her own voice. She complains about being bred (“raped,” really) and later spayed. She describes the other dogs at the park shit-talking Myles, making fun of the nickname—Jethro—that Rosie has given her. Then, out of canine loyalty, she defends her owner. Myles, the dog admits, made an effort to walk her and take her on nature outings—although only when it wouldn’t interrupt the poet’s career.

Afterglow portrays a complex and often hilarious relationship between two animals, characterized by love and a deep interrogation of power, creativity, and point of view. “I wrote virtually every poem by Eileen Myles from 1990 to 2006 and she wrote nothing nothing in the intervening months, no years,” Rosie notes in one of her droll critiques, attuned to vanity and projection. “Humans are always looking for . . . the obvious. Very low, very base, very banal kinds of puppetry. They can’t imagine their own animation ending. . . . They decide their children will be their future puppets. They build institutions and write books to carry on their names.”

Of all the human foibles examined in the book, it is our inability to live in a moment—for the moment—that is most profoundly explored. Some writers portray the experience of raising a child as an opportunity to live a second childhood, at least vicariously. For Myles, it’s a dog that becomes the surrogate, or perhaps the midwife, for a sort of vicarious enlightenment. Myles had an epiphany while caring for Rosie at the end of the dog’s life: “One evening I was feeling a little extra naked after describing the ritual of mopping her piss and I thought that’s it. She’s god. And I felt so calm. I’ve found god now. . . . She’s dying & I’m watching her. I’m not thinking about it.”

Yet is there such a thing as vicarious enlightenment? How close can we get to the immaculate dissolution that we crave—empty of thought, living directly rather than analyzing—or as Myles calls it, “the sea”? In Afterglow, Myles describes a lifetime of vain attempts to reach it. Myles is a human being and so can never escape the conscious mind and ego altogether. Over the years, they (Myles’s chosen pronoun) drink alcoholically in an attempt to swallow that “sea”; they write poems about lovers who have left them; they fear that no one recognizes their genius; they run for president. At one point, Myles ruminates on Henry David Thoreau, standing in the lighthouse, and how he couldn’t just be there, but had to write about it.

Like Thoreau, Myles is always slightly removed from experience by the thoughts about that experience (at one point, the author describes the daily ritual of walking Rosie while simultaneously recording the walk on video). Myles has a writer’s mind—always processing and dissecting the experience of caretaking their dog, rather than simply having the experience. Unlike humans, dogs don’t do this (or so we think). And so there is a space between us and our dogs—and perhaps between us and god—that remains, in some ways, unbridgeable. Myles evokes this separation while conveying the longing and the attempts to bridge it. As Myles says to Rosie, or rather to an idea of Rosie: “Honestly I never really knew how much you cared about me. . . . I suppose I could’ve imagined you loved me then but I only knew I loved you because I saw you in my way and I was listening.”

Stylistically, Afterglow is truly an experimental text. Beginning with Rosie’s final days and death, and then moving backward and forward in time, Myles juxtaposes various literary forms, including a screenplay, a monologue, a short-lined poem, a dialogue, a letter, stream-of-consciousness text, and more formal essays. The collaged, intermingled effect reflects the idea that life is nonlinear and inconclusive—despite our human desire to make it meaningful by giving it a precise shape. Rather than attempt to impose rigid order and logic on the diverse collection of experiences, Myles chooses a paratactic approach, one that wanders and changes course with compelling agility. You might call it a dog’s-eye view.

Throughout the book, Myles accentuates and diminishes the distance between the multiplying voices and styles. Afterglow becomes an ever-deepening investigation into the nature of human-being-ness, self-knowledge, and knowing things outside of yourself. At one point, Rosie tells the author, warding off possible passive-aggressive behavior in the future: “Good I’m glad you’re speaking up. I don’t want you to feel silenced by this chapter and I certainly don’t want you sliding stuff in later on because you felt silenced.” A book that’s wise to miscommunication but hungry to overcome it, Afterglow celebrates that rare authorial ability to get out of one’s own way and show us a singular and limber mind roaming free.

Melissa Broder is the author of the poetry collection Last Sext (Tin House Books, 2016), the essay collection So Sad Today (Grand Central, 2016), and the forthcoming novel The Pisces (Hogarth, 2018).