I started Early— Took my Dog —is the opening line of a poem by Emily Dickinson, a line that I have mentally cut out with scissors, leaving behind And visited the Sea— and the rest of it, salt-sprayed, doom tinged, beautiful, but something completely different from what this first line alone has come to mean to me. Last week I discussed Laurel Braitman’s Animal Madness, a book that examines the emotional similarities and bonds of animal and human-animal relationships; in this regard, Braitman’s book dovetails perfectly with what I consider the best poetry about animals, dogs in particular. Dogs because of their obvious, deep history of human companionship, and dogs because so many writers I know, myself included, have one. Since many writers do the majority of their work at home, poems are often born into a space intimately shared, and therefore affected by, the presence of our animal companions. I started Early— Took my Dog — has become emblematic of the kind of mornings I fight for—dim sky, coffee, a pile of books at my desk, and my dog sprawled on the floor beside (as she is, even now). I’m always aware of Coda’s presence in the room. And this, I would argue, is the danger. So many times dogs in poems seem to be there because we can’t resist their dearness, a dearness only to ourselves, present. I have come to realize that despite the polite smiles, nobody usually wants to hear about your dog, just as nobody usually wants to hear about your dream, and yet, we can’t help it, refusing to acknowledge that what to us, feels like, is an intangibly meaningful, vast relationship, is not all that interesting to someone outside of it. Dogs are too often easy material for poems, “cute,” but not cute, dead air where meaning would be. Of course, there are exceptions. I can hardly think of Homer’s Argos for instance, without melting. The old, majestic dog lying in the dung heap, holding out for his companion all those years! But when he knew he heard / Odysseus’ voice nearby, he did his best / to wag his tail…. Really, it’s all I can.
That said, I want to focus on one contemporary poet who writes dogs beautifully into her poems. In Karen Green’s Bough Down, an extraordinary publication by Siglio Press, dogs are only part of the story, but their presence is crucial. In this portrait of loss, specifically the loss of the writer’s husband who took his own life, the poet’s two dogs pace with her among the messiness of after, so they are enmeshed together in collective confusion and grief. “The brown one still won’t sleep with me,” Green laments, “even though I lift his velvet ear and tell him, He’s not coming back.” Species regardless, she reminds us, all beings suffer the loss of their fellows. Somehow this side by side of animal suffering sings the fact of life’s brevity out of hiding; we remember that what we can’t do for each other sometimes includes comfort, and always, in the final moment, extend.
Throughout Bough Down, the dogs’ presence is both reassuring and, when the dogs can’t be the comfort we expect, lonely. In the loneliness, and as the poet and her animal companions struggle to navigate life’s worst, moments arise sometimes absurd: “Applied brie with a knife to both knees through the holes in my jeans and let the dogs lick it off, as a joke, kind of,” Green writes. This moment suggests almost a mockery of existence, in one’s struggle to try and make things matter, when nothing seems to. The dogs move in and out of these scenes, and, while they appear only occasionally, their energy is palpable on every page, like a quiet eyeing from the margins, like they are waiting—Argos?—to see what will happen, or if their owner will return. Then in the most harrowing poems, halfway through the book, Green delves into the moments surrounding her husband’s death, making the pivotal decision to write from the dogs’ perspective:
“Let’s circle to show him how much we love the word walk. Don’t get mad. Is he crying? Say the word. Something smells wrong in the yard; it smells like revenge. His voice is gentle but the fur on my back is up.”
The acutely sensorial animal struggles to read the energy of what’s about to happen, innocent, hopeful and hopeless to stop it, all. His voice is gentle but the fur on my back is up haunts, with a voice igniting affection and terror at once. The dogs continue to speak toward a feeling of impossible that is agonizing: “Do something with opposable thumbs,” they will the poet, returning home on the brink of discovery, “Undo something. But no. Our water bowl stays empty all night….” “Opposable thumbs” is key, symbolic of even human limits, what they cannot “do,” nor “undo,” magnified. This is also regardless of species. Sometimes, we are reminded, no matter how deft the hand, or tuned the ear, keen the eye, and so on, the field is leveled to merely a lot of hearts. Here stricken, and remaining.
Many times in these reflections, I have stopped, uncertain. I’m reminded of a bird’s nest made entirely of goat hair, overwhelmingly real and so fragile a structure I was afraid to touch it—but for a moment, I held it in my hands. And then, I put it back, on the mantle. Similarly, in speaking about these poems, I find I want to touch them barely, which is the best way I believe I can honor them. Of the worst of memories, Green writes, “One dog backed away, one ran up to kiss the face we loved.” We also shocks. For the reader, even from the outside, we suggests to feel privately but share painfully. It’s through that pain shared that this book makes me want to love more, which is the best that I can say about any work.