Books

book review

A memoir of a dog, poignant, smart, and whimsical

Chris Felver

If you’ve read Eileen Myles before, you know that her new book, “Afterglow: A Dog Memoir,” is surely not going to be “Marley & Me” or “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” You’ll laugh, and you’ll cry, yes, but you’ll also think hard, as you work to pull together the many disparate, cosmic, and charming notions Myles sets forth.

In other words, this poet-novelist isn’t taking a bath in sentimentality about the loss of Rosie, the pit bull whom she rescued as a pup in the East Village of New York in 1990. Instead, with her quicksilver intellect and her whimsy fully engaged, Myles explores the parallels between “Dog” and “God,” whether Rosie, who died in 2006, is her father reincarnated, the existential strangeness of receiving a cement paw print of your dead dog, and how Rosie may have envisioned her. “Afterglow’’ is a challenging read that spirals up into big and little thoughts all inspired by her beloved companion, bringing in seemingly unrelated topics along the way such as the “self-war” of Kurt Cobain, libraries, gender identity, Abu Ghraib, George W. Bush’s farts, and, at some length, sea foam.

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The book is structured as a series of essays, each somehow linked to the bond between dog and owner, many written in unconventional memoir formats, including science fiction, poetry, and interview. My favorite chapter, “Goodnight, Sweet Queen,” is an annotated list of Rosie-related things that Myles plans to toss in the aftermath of Rosie’s passing, including a plastic cone, dog painkillers, and a dog raincoat that still smells like her. The objects trigger memories, such as a blue food bowl that reminds her of throwing tomato sauce over Rosie’s food: “[B]ecause your face was white the orange sauce would stain your maw and you looked stupid plus beautiful. Sauce is makeup around these parts.” Throughout the book, Myles’ punctuation plays by its own rules, forcing us to sound out her sentences as we read them.

Another favorite chapter is “The Puppets’ Talk Show,” the imagined interview between Rosie and Myles’s childhood toy puppet, Oscar. During the chat, we learn that the immodest Rosie, as she says, “wrote virtually every poem by Eileen Myles from 1990 to 2006.” We also learn that Rosie’s name for Myles is “Jethro.” The more we find out about Rosie, or Myles’s projections of Rosie, the more we can see she wasn’t merely the stereotypical panting, loyal friend; she was more interesting than that. When Rosie recalls Myles’ “whining and huffing” and wondering “Why can’t anyone see I’m a genius,” the author’s self-irony is perfectly clear.

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Humor is embedded in all of these chapters, not least of all the one named “The Rape of Rosie.” It’s an uncomfortable story about the time Myles tried to breed 2-year-old Rosie with a dog named Buster in her New York apartment. “It was sex that was impossible to ignore, yet bureaucratic somehow,” she writes. The scene, followed by Rosie’s nonstop gas, is indelible. Likewise the scene in “The Order of Drinking (3-D)’’ of Rosie disappearing at a meeting of what Myles calls “the club,” Alcoholics Anonymous. Myles is in the audience pondering just how brilliant her response to the speaker will be — “Surely I will be lauded and since I am true poet my language nature will inevitably vibrate on a higher subtler plane” — when she realizes the missing Rosie may well have pooped somewhere in the room.

At moments, Myles does share her memories and grief, and those instances are all the more powerful for their infrequency. Here’s her take on what so many dog people simply refer to as the “unconditional love” of a dog owner, as she addresses Rosie’s spirit: “You liked snow, and rain and air and sun and the beach. You loved these things and I brought you to them and you smiled. 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. And you simply were. I loved you for that. For being who else was in my life no matter what.”

Myles writes that she doesn’t want to stop talking to Rosie, that she has written the book, she says, “to keep talking to her.” Luckily for us, we can eavesdrop on that long, wry, far-flung, and wonderfully loving conversation.

AFTERGLOW:

A Dog Memoir

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By Eileen Myles

Grove, 207 pp., illustrated, $24

The Globe’s television critic, Matthew Gilbert, author “Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park,’’ can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com.
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