Anyone who has ever loved a dog will be smitten with Mary Oliver’s “Dog Songs.” Anyone who has never been around dogs to experience the pleasure of their company might not realize what they are missing, and that would deeply disappoint Oliver. In this collection of poetry and prose the American prize winning author lets dogs speak for themselves.
The dog songs represent conversations, observations and emotional ties of canines through their life cycles, from puppyhood to their final days. We learn all about scent-seeking, rollicking in mud, licking (or kissing) Oliver’s face, running in tall grass and darting in-between trees from Bear, Percy, Ben, Thumper, Emily, Emma, Luke, Milo, Keesha and many other brave beasts.
It’s as if her dogs become teachers, and Oliver, the pupil.
Her poem, “How It Begins,” describes why people find themselves so attracted to babies, in this case, puppies, with those big brown eyes and milk-stained muzzles:
“A puppy is a puppy is a puppy.
He’s probably in a basket with a bunch of other puppies.
Then he’s a little older and he’s nothing but a bundle of longing.
He doesn’t even understand it.
Then someone picks him up and says, “I want this one.”
Oliver wants the reader to feel her personal devotion to her dogs. Some are lost ones that now have a home where they can be their natural selves, no leashes of control pulling them back. Oliver’s dogs are free to keep pace by her side, move slightly ahead of her, linger behind to sniff a mound of manure or watch the sun rise or set on a sandy beach. Her dogs, all dogs, are meant to be wild.
To Oliver, there is nothing on earth that is worse for a dog than obedience. A tamed dog is a sorrowful creature. And an owner who attempts to show off his or her well-trained dog soon forgets that a dog deserves to be a dog. Humans, the author writes, hold on tight to their religion and politics. At times, they turn against their religious or political leaders, only to support them later on. People worry about money. At first they don’t need it, then they do.
Dogs do not let religion, money or politics get under their skin, as the author explains in a couple of verses from “How It Is With Us, And How It Is With Them”:
“...then we are in need and maybe we turn back.
We turn to making money, then we turn to the moral life…
We meet wonderful people, but lose them in our busyness.
We’re, as the saying goes, all over the place.
Steadfastness, it seems, is more about dogs than about us.
One of the reasons we love them so much.”
Having dogs, having any animal in our lives, can be joyful, yet there comes a time when we do not want to think about our friend’s arthritis and old age. Compassionate souls like Oliver do not want dogs to suffer.
Dying and death of loved ones, as hard as they are for us and others to bear, do not necessarily symbolize a total loss of life. Oliver includes an essay and several poems about the passing of her furry friends.
It would take someone with a cold, cold heart to not feel any emotion at such a painful loss.
However, through Oliver’s writings she has the courage to remember, to take time to visualize in her mind the love and pride she felt toward all her dogs. In this way, as heartbreaking as it seems, she still continues to keep in touch.
Oliver has written of what she loves best. Many of her poems, such as “Percy Speaks While I Am Doing Taxes,” “The Wicked Smile” and “How A Lot Of Us Become Friends,” are just great fun. Others are not as humorous.
Each one has a story, a dog song, to tell. I especially admired John Burgoyne’s illustrations of some of Oliver’s dogs.
They reminded me of my younger days when Tippy, our border collie, and Sheba, ‘the gray ghost’ Weimaraner, were part of our family. I think Oliver would have liked them, too.
Carol A. Wright is a former Manhattan resident who currently works as a freelance writer.