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Letters About Literature National Winners 2012

National Winner, Level 1: Darius Atefat-Peckham, Huntington, WV

Dear Mark Doty,

I'm a sucker for dogs. Specifically, for Golden Retrievers. Specifically, for Golden Retrievers on the cover of books – like yours, Dog Years. While shopping with my dad for books one day, I passed by a table with Dog Years displayed in the middle. Unfortunately, I had forgotten my wallet (my dad's frequent complaint), and had to beg him to buy me your book.

"Please, Dad," I said, "it's by…Mark Doty." Honestly, I didn't know who you were then. I just loved the picture on the front because it looks like the dog – your dog, Beau, I'd discover – is pleading with shoppers to by the book, with his big brown eyes and perked-up ears.

But it would take more than begging to convince Dad this time. I knew he'd remind me that I had five books at home I hadn't read yet. (I'm a stucker for books, too.)

"Mark Doty the poet?" Dad asked, grabbing the book from my hands.

All it took, apparently, was your name.

You see, my dad is a poet, too, and so was my mom, before she died in a car accident eight years ago this February. My six-year-old brother also died in this very same car accident, leaving me and my dad to face a world without them. I was only three at the time, and didn't understand what was happening. When I asked, everyone told me Mama and Cyrus went on a long journey and I wouldn't see them for awhile. It was a difficult time for my dad and me. I missed the attention I usually got from my older brother, so at meetings with my dad's boarding school students, I often tried to steal the boys' attention, dancing and breaking things accidentally around them.

One night Dad surprised me. He knew of a litter of Golden Retrievers that the school's theatre director was selling. Dad told me that he'd thought about it, and I could have one. Sure enough, one week later, fuzzy and chubby Jack-Jack entered our family. He quickly ate dad's favorite Tony Lama cowboy boots; he left "presents" on the kitchen floor; and he rolled in dead squirrels and birds rotting behind our apartment. So I giggled when your Beau smothers himself in cow poop, and your other dog, Arden, rolls in whale blubber that looks to you like a mattress that's washed on shore. What is it about smelling horrendous that thrills dogs? you ask. My thoughts exactly.

You raise other questions that are harder to answer. What is death, anyway? What do living things feel in those final moments? And most of all, what do we do with all this sadness, every time someone we love dies? Most people wouldn't consider this a book kids could understand, or should read. But I wish that adults understood that mushy answers don't feel true, and they don't comfort us. Sometimes they make me feel even sadder.

Now Jack-Jack is almost seven (and still fuzzy and chubby), and I can't begin to tell you what he means to me. Maybe I don't have to – I think you already know. As you explain in Dog Years, Beau came into your life just as your partner, Wally, was dying. For both of you, Beau was a golden ray of light, a very special animal who teaches you a lot about life and death, and who helps you through it. You remind us that dogs have their own feelings. They have spirits just as big as ours. Even though they don't have the ability for speech, that doesn't mean they aren't capable of "speaking" directly to our hearts. As you write, Maybe we should be glad, finally, that the word can't go where the heart can, not completely. It's freeing, to think there's always an aspect of us outside the grasp of speech, the common stuff of language. Maybe that's why I was never more comforted that when Jack-Jack was by my side, licking the tears from my cheeks when I fell, or just felt sad. I didn't have to explain. I could just be with him, and he'd wag is tail, or lick my hand, or just look at me with that tiny glint in his eye – some spark of thought. Of love.

Books have been my great friends, too. I took yours with me to bed every night to read with my new mom, "Rachie." Jack-Jack was always by the floor, listening to your words about Wally, Beau, and Arden. Sometimes Rachie and I lay beside him on the floor (despite his breath), petting him as we read. Who would've thought that just a single book could bond us like that and remind us of what we have, even as we've lost so much?

That day in the bookstore, I was just looking for a god story about a dog like mine. The only one who sings along whenever I practice the recorder. The one who always greets me at the door with a playful growl. I don't know what I'll do the day when he won't be there waiting. But I know I'll have your book to guide me through it. In many ways, it already has, and I thank you.

Darius Atefat-Peckham