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/

The Book of Joy: A Reaction Paper

I sat in the passenger seat of my husband’s pickup truck, riding along the country roads in the Northern Neck on a Saturday morning, my two little dogs asleep between us on the bench seat, their scruffy hair blowing in the air conditioning. It was a hot, sunny day in late June, and we were heading to a small beach on the shore of the Potomac River, where it opens wide to the Chesapeake Bay. Outside my car window, I watched the fields, green with corn, and the wildflowers, alive with butterflies, flourish under the summer sun. It was summer break. I was beachbound. 

And I was crying. 

Despite my situation seeming so pleasant–even idyllic, I felt pretty miserable. My inner experience was completely incongruent with my outer experience. I felt so stressed and anxious about the upcoming school year and all I would have to learn and change and do to prepare, much less be effective (not to mention safe), in the face of a global pandemic, that I was struggling to enjoy the present moment. My worries and uncertainties about the future were stealing any present peace I might have hoped to enjoy.

Joy Littles on the beach BQS
Nacho (left) and Soda (right), AKA The Littles, lounging on the beach later that day.

Around the same time as the situation described above, I began participating in a book group begun at my school. The group, which focused on the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, could not have been better timed for me, both professionally and personally–especially since my professional life and my personal life often seem to bleed into each other.

On page 88 of the book, we read that “…so much is determined by our own perception.” My perception of the pandemic and how it would affect me at work and at home come August was an extremely negative one–one that did not serve me or the people around me. It was a perception that brought about fear, insecurity, self-doubt, and stress. Some of what I have read in this book has helped me think about reshaping my perspective to see the current situation and next school year as a challenge instead of an obstacle, as an opportunity for professional and personal growth instead of a hindrance to peace. Part

Joy cover
The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams

of what makes this perspective shift possible is an idea expressed on pages 196 and 197. Douglas Abrams writes, “When we confront a challenge, we often react to the situation with fear and anger.” He might as well have replaced “we” with “you,” so accurately does this sentence describe my initial reaction to challenges, which I tend to see as frustrating inconveniences at best, insurmountable obstacles at worst. On the next page, Abrams advises, “…what we think is reality is only part of the picture” and “our limited perspective is not the truth.” The book goes on to talk about taking a broader perspective–about realizing that we are not alone, and that all of our roles (AKA Teacher During A Pandemic) are temporary. Thinking about my present situation in a longer view, “in the larger frame of [my] life” (198), enables me to see that in the future, it will be just one strange year of a years-long career, a little blip in the otherwise mostly smooth (I hope!) experience. Thinking about my present situation in a wider view, I am able to see that even now, in the throes of it, people around me are innovating and collaborating like never before. They have all learned to “…respond instead of react” (181), a lesson I am trying to take to heart for myself.

In the vein of learning, another idea that comforted me was the concept that we are all learning–that our lives consist of innumerable lessons, each tailored to our own needs. At one point in the book, we learn that Abrams’s father suffered a terrible injury as a result of a fall. When Abrams’s brother told their father he was sorry he was going through such a rough time, his father’s response was: “‘It’s all part of my curriculum’” (157). I love this idea. “It’s all part of my curriculum” can serve as a reminder that we are all getting the lessons we need. In my case, these are likely lessons in flexibility and grace (not to mention instructional technology…).

A few days ago, I was lamenting to my husband about the fact that I don’t believe I will be as effective a teacher next year as I hope I have been in years past–that I don’t know how to use the technology and even if I figure it out, I won’t know how to use it well. That I don’t have the first lesson plan done. That I don’t even know where to start. That I feel woefully unprepared on a number of levels. On page 211, the Archbishop says, “…even if you are not the best one, you may be the one who is needed or the one who is there.” I don’t think I am going to be the best anything next year, least of all teacher, but I am going to be the one who is there, in the classroom, and for next year, that might have to be enough.  

I sat in the passenger seat of my husband’s pickup truck, watching employees scurry around a parking lot at a Chick-Fil-A, tirelessly delivering to-go chicken to cars parked in numbered spaces throughout the lot. It was a warm, humid evening in early July, and we were heading to my parents for dinner with my sister and her family. Outside my car window, I watched as what must have been a dozen masked people ran around in black pants and red polo shirts. They had not worked like this before–wearing masks in the heat, serving food through car windows, hoofing drink carriers from the drive-through

Joy Littles on the deck
One of my greatest sources of joy comes from doing my best to give The Littles a good life. Here, they look over their side yard and driveway from the outdoor couch on  our deck.

window to the far end of the parking lot. But here they were, uncomplaining, productive, and efficient, serving the needs of their customers. Reading this book enabled me to draw a parallel between what I was watching from my passenger seat, and the work I myself need to do for next school year. If these Chick-Fil-A employees could work this hard and this well under these conditions–then couldn’t I do it, too? Granted, we waited 30 minutes for our meal–but everyone I saw was working so hard, the wait hardly seemed important. What was important, though, was realizing I wasn’t alone. I’m not alone. None of us are. Since the shutdown in March, essential workers all over the world have had to adapt how they operate–including my own husband, who works at a bank. I can’t promise I won’t find myself crying again before school starts in September, or several times throughout the school year as I struggle to adjust to the demands of the unknown, but now I can remind myself that we are all in this together. That other people are struggling, too. That it is okay not to be the best one. And that it’s all just “part of my curriculum.”  

Book Review: Yellowstone Has Teeth, by Marjane Ambler

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My husband, sister, brother-in-law, several friends, and I were fortunate enough to spend an entire day in Yellowstone in February.

I picked up Marjane Ambler‘s memoir Yellowstone Has Teeth at the Yellowstone National Park Store in the Bozeman Airport in Bozeman, Montana, back in February when my husband and I made the trip out west with my sister, her husband, and a few friends. Though my aim was to read it before our day-long winter tour of Yellowstone, I kept so busy hiking, snowshoeing, site-seeing, and socializing, that I didn’t begin the book until my husband and I were back home in Virginia. In at least one way, it worked out for the best: Reading this book after my return home allowed me to seemingly extend the trip. Each time I opened its pages, I found myself transported back to the wintry clime of Yellowstone in the snow.

One mark of a really good book is that upon finishing it, you feel a sort of sorrow. Some irrational part of your being hoped you’d be able to go on reading the book indefinitely, despite the dwindling pages behind your bookmark. This was the way I felt when I finished Yellowstone Has Teeth. Luckily, I have a whole cache of books waiting for me to read them, but that was my only consolation. I felt a nagging sadness when I closed the book for the final time. But this was not just because the book was behind me; it was also because (spoiler alert!), as I was finishing the book, Ambler was finishing the cherished chapter of her life that was living in the park. Ending the book this way of course made logical sense, but it was also artful and purposeful. Reading about the end of her time in Yellowstone as I approached the end of my time reading the book resulted in an emotional impact that could not have been achieved had she ended it some other way. Our feelings ran parallel: She was loathe for that chapter of her life to end, and while I commiserated with that sentiment, I also experienced my own grief about ending the book.

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At the base of a mountain and on the banks of the Madison River, bison use their noses to shove snow out of the way in an attempt to reach the grass underneath.

If the book’s ending made an impact, its pages did as well. The book explores many intriguing and important issues, including man’s relationship to the natural world, women’s changing role in a male-dominated profession, rugged individualism and independence versus the need for community and interdependence, and man’s futile attempts to control nature, to name a few.

Ambler also does a superb job of illustrating the juxtaposition between the “civilized world,” and life in the park, in statements such as this one: “I read the animal tracks in the snow instead of a newspaper to discover the news of the day” (30). A page later, she describes the way her husband, Terry, would listen to the traffic report in Los Angeles as he drove his groomer down the snow-covered and deserted park roadways. As he heard the radio announcer advise LA motorists to find an alternate route because “‘An accident has stopped all westbound traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway,'” her husband “smiled at the contrast on his roadway. His headlights illumined only bison tracks breaking the surface of the newly fallen snow” (31).

The book explores many intriguing and important issues, including man’s relationship to the natural world, women’s changing role in a male-dominated profession, rugged individualism and independence versus the need for community and interdependence, and man’s futile attempts to control nature, to name a few.

In addition, Ambler’s imagery sticks with you. When writing about the historic fires of 1988, she describes the sky in the following way: “…huge cumulous clouds…boiled over Two Ocean Plateau, the clouds stained red from the fires below, like cauliflower boiled in blood” (148).

In short, I am so glad Ambler sat down and wrote this book. It provided so much food for thought, and so many insights. I can only imagine what a gift it must be to so well–so intimately–know a place so well-known and infamous. Ambler helped me imagine it a little bit better. Now, there are so many people to whom I want to recommend this book. This week, it will be in the mail on its way to Rocky Mountain National Park, where I hope one of my best friend’s best friends, a female ranger in the park, will enjoy it.