Book Review: Dog Songs, by Mary Oliver

The first time I saw Mary Oliver’s book of poems, Dog Songs, it was sitting on a short stack of books on my mother-in-law’s coffee table in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I wondered how it was possible I didn’t know such a book–one seemingly written for me, if I took it at its cover–existed without my knowing about it. I thumbed through it, but between walks on the sound, visits to Seagreen Gallery, naps, and various other weekend endeavors, I kept too busy to give it a good reading.

I left with the intention of buying my own copy to explore.

That was in January or February.

In March, the pandemic made its entrance into mainstream American experience, and we didn’t return to the Outer Banks to visit my mother-in-law until July. I read a few of the collection’s poems, but the TV was on and the family room conversation was interesting, and I couldn’t properly focus.

I left with the intention of buying my own copy to explore.

“There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him…Only unleashed dogs can do that.” — Mary Oliver

In August, I sat cross-legged on the floor, my knees under my mother-in-law’s coffee table. Dog Songs still sat on top of the short stack, where I’d left it the month before. The family room was quiet. Nacho and Soda were gnawing on antlers near my feet. I picked up the book and read it, almost in its entirety. Compelled to write in it, I got on Amazon right away–and finally bought my own copy to explore.

It arrived on my front porch three days later. Between now and then, I have dog-eared most of the pages in the book (which seems appropriate for a book named Dog Songs), and written notes, memories, ideas, and inspirations on just as many.

This morning, while my husband ate his pancakes, he nodded at the book where it sat beside my elbow on the kitchen table.

“Look at all the pages you’ve dog-eared in Dog Songs,” he said. “You must’ve really loved that book.”

And I did. In addition to making me feel like Mary Oliver and I are kindred spirits in terms of how we perceive and relate to dogs, her book made me think, laugh, cry, and remember. Here is someone who feels about dogs the same way I do.

Top: My dog-eared copy of Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir; Middle: My dog-eared copy of Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs; Bottom: my current journal

On a more literary level, I was deeply impressed with the book’s depth, and the deceptive simplicity with which it digs. Oliver’s poem, “For I Will Consider My Dog Percy,” which appears on page 69 of the book, provides a perfect example. She describes Percy as “a mixture of gravity and waggery” (71)–and so is the book itself, filled with poems of sorrow, philosophy, joy, grief, pleasure. Poems like “The Wicked Smile” and “A Bad Day” bring humor to the collection, while others, such as “Dog Talk,” are more sobering.

Through her poems, Oliver seems to express the disconnect that sometimes exists between our human expectations of dogs, and a dog’s true nature. The poem that begins the book is aptly called “How It Begins” (though, of course, “it” is not just the book). This poem begins with the assertion that “A puppy is a puppy is a puppy” (1). Many subsequent poems in the book seem to echo the message that a dog is a dog is a dog, no matter our efforts to change him, whether through breeding or training. “Her Grave” advises readers, “A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house,/but you/do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the/trees or the laws which pertain to them” (25). In “Dog Talk,” she reminds readers, “Dog promises and then forgets, blame him not. He understands what is wanted; and tries, and tries again, and is good for a long time, and then forgets” (115).

But then one day after I have left this world of particulars, you will look at the face of a little, brown dog and her brother, and you will know– I didn’t take up all the room in your heart; I just made it bigger. –from “This is Love Eternal”

In her poem “A Bad Day,” Oliver imagines a conversation with her dog Ricky, during which he says, “‘Honestly, what do you expect? Like/you, I’m not perfect, I’m only human'” (93). The book as a whole seems to remind us that dogs–and people–should be left free to live according to their own nature, embracing their imperfectness. Her poem “School” describes a dog many people might label a “bad dog” or a “dumb dog.” The first several lines of the poem describe the speaker’s inability to get the dog to listen or obey. It defies, ignores, or misunderstands every command it is issued, “like a little wild thing/that was never sent to school” (49). The last four lines of the poem, however, reveal that this “dumb” dog is perhaps wiser than the speaker. “It is summer,” the speaker says as the epiphany breaks. “How many summers does a little dog have?/Run, run, Percy. This is our school” (49). In “Dog Talk,” Oliver asserts that a dog “that all its life walks leashed and obedient down the sidewalk–is what a chair is to a tree. It is a possession only, the ornament of a human life,” but “There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him…Only unleashed dogs can do that” (119).

As the dozens of dog-eared pages in my book can testify, many of the poems in Dog Songs speak to me, but the one that touched me the most deeply–the one that makes me cry and smile and ache and sigh– is “The First Time Percy Came Back,” on page 77. This poem echoes my own experience with Jack, and all the times he has come back–one as recent as yesterday, when Matty, the Littles, and I found a sock on the trail to Fossil Beach in Westmoreland State Park.

Finally, a note on the layout of the book: The left page of every spread is blank. My first instinct was to dismiss this choice as a waste of paper–imagine all the trees that could have been spared had the backs of pages been utilized for text. But as I read, I found myself penning my own poems onto those empty pages, pressed between Oliver’s verse. Those blank backs-of-pages weren’t a waste of paper at all; they were there waiting for me to fill them with my own inspiration from Oliver’s work. And I have, and will likely continue to for a long, long time.

Below are some works-in-progress that resulted from my reading of Dog Songs, which, I am sure you realize by now, I recommend (and to be honest, I could go on and on about the symbolism of the unleashed dog, the metaphors Oliver uses to convey the lessons dogs have taught her and the lessons they can teach humanity, the theme that dogs connect us to our origins–but this is a blog post, not a book–so I’ll just let you read the book for yourself).

The Adoption

One day,
you were hungry and alone--
only you did not 
know what hunger
was,
or what aloneness
was--
only that you
needed.

Until

one day--!

And you never
went hungry again,
nor were you alone.


This is Love Eternal

No matter how many years we share,
it will not seem like enough.

And no matter how aware you are that some day will be our last day,
you will not be ready.

You will not be ready

to say goodbye
when I am ready to go.

And yet this does not stop us from starting.

And this is love eternal, though time is limited.

But it was never about how you would feel losing me--
only about you what you could give me.

I know that.

You will feel like you let me down
and wonder why you didn't do better;
you will feel like there's a hole in your heart,
an emptiness in your day.

It is an end you know will bring sorrow,
but it is unselfish and glorious and beautiful,
and no sorrow is deep enough to 
steal this love.

For this is love eternal, though time is limited.

And sometimes you will look at me
and, thinking it impossible, you will wonder
how you will ever love
another dog
this much or
this way 
again.

But then
one day
after I have
left this world of particulars,
you will look at
the face of a little, 
brown dog
and her brother,
and you will know--
I didn't take up all the room in your heart;
I just made it bigger.


Roommates with God

My husband said
living with Jack
was like
being
roommates with God.

And in the way
that God is
unconditional, ever-present
love--
that is true.

Sumo Says Goodbye

There’s not a clear cell signal here, but there’s a clear view of the milky way.

And here it is that Saturday morning, we laid Sumo to rest beside Smokey and Baxter, under trees, where crickets chirp all day long in the perpetual twilight of the shade.

He died Friday afternoon, outside in front of the house on Goddin Street.

That very day I’d been thinking Sumo probably had several more years left, just plugging along like he had been.

On Wednesday, Matty’s birthday, we saw him for the last time. He’d become so low-maintenance, he was almost a non-entity. He would greet us and was then happy just to sleep on the floor in the room where everyone was, sometimes staying there long after we’d switched locations, maybe not knowing we’d moved, maybe his near-blindness and near-deafness hiding our departure from him.

And now he has departed from us, as quietly and invisibly as we had from him a hundred times before, not saying goodbye, not wanting to stir him from his slumber.

And now we are as surprised at his departure–taken so as not to disturb us–as he, waking up to find himself alone, must’ve been at ours a hundred times before.

© Amanda Sue Creasey

https://amandasuecreasey.com/

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