A new Mary Oliver collection is an anticipated event in my life. Mary Oliver’s poems were read at our wedding, and I read them often and quote from them often. She is my favorite poet, a wonderful writer and a powerful spiritual force to me. So a Mary Oliver book on dogs – Dog Songs – seemed something of a no-brainer, I didn’t even think about whether or not I would love it, I just sat down to read it last night with a cup of tea at the end of the night.
And to my very real surprise, I did not love it.
I struggled with it, almost from the beginning. It wasn’t until I was halfway through that I realized I wasn’t connecting to hardly any of it, that Oliver’s feeling about dogs are so very different from my own, her view of them quite narrow, far out there for me. Her writing and emotions about dogs are so very different than her many great works which are filled with a joyous and clear-headed view of my life. Their songs are simple-minded and shallow to me.
Oliver’s writing has always been unpopular with many of the literati – too spiritual, too uplifting, too popular. She has walked away from the dark and anguished and gloomy conventions of contemporary poetry, and bless her for that. But I have always found her an inspiration, I have so embraced her notions of putting one’s lips to the world and just living. And she and I have one thing in common – we believe part of the artist’s challenge is to explain the color and light of the world to a cynical and battered world choking on bad words and angry deeds.
In this book, Oliver recalls dogs she has known, loved and lost, through statements, poems, essays and observations, she writes about laughter, grief and the higher meaning of canines in our lives.
You can’t love everything every writer does, as I well know, and my unease with the book doesn’t make it a bad book or a book anyone else should avoid. I was shocked to dislike the book, but there is no way around being honest.
Oliver sets the tone from the beginning. People are preoccupied with money, she writes. Steadfastness, “it seems, is more about dogs than us, one of the reasons we love them so much. She sets an almost defiant tone at the beginning when she writes “you may not agree, you may not care, but if you are holding this book you should know that of all the sights I love in this world – and there are plenty – very near the top of the list is this one: dogs without leashes.”
My dogs life their lives without leashes, too, and I love it as much as she does, but I do not attribute their steadfastness to nobility – they are simple creatures, they seek food, attention and shelter and their steadfastness comes at least as much from simple ignorance as it does from purity of spirit. I hate to think of what my dogs would do if they had access to power tools or what havoc the barn cats might wreak if they got hold of assault rifles. Animals are almost always steadfast, they are not emotionally or intellectually capable of reacting to the complexity of human life. Theirs is pretty simple, after all, they don’t have to talk, earn a living, get health care. They don’t know they will die, a blessed relief of consciousness.
And of course they do not change. They cannot change. I love them for it, but it does not make them better or more advanced than me.
Be prepared, Oliver writes in The Wicked Smile, “A dog is adorable and noble, a dog is a true and loving friend. A dog is also a hedonist.” In Her Grave, Oliver writes “A dog can never tell you what she knows from the smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know almost nothing.” I know a lot of things my dogs do not know, and they smell a lot of things I cannot smell. I consider it a draw, we each have things we can teach the other. Hedonism, like steadfastness, is a human thing, not a dog thing. Dogs survive and adapt, that is their genius. And they need to do a lot less than we do.
I have always loved Oliver’s ability to take moments and connect them to nature and the meaning of life and in Ropes, she tells a wonderful story of a dogcatcher who ticketed and seized dogs without leashes and a replacement dogcatcher who missed the old days and would just bring wanderers home. Maybe, she writes, this is what life was like in this dear town years ago, “and how a lot of us miss it. Or maybe it’s about the wonderful things that may happen if you break the ropes that are holding you.” Or maybe it’s because there are so many more dogs now than before, so few of them are trained, so many are acquired foolishly or as moral totems, and so many of them bite people and attack other dogs that this kind life with dogs in crowded spaces is sadly no longer possible.
I think my discomfort with the book stems from the view of dogs as creatures that transcend both the animal and human world. They are pure, almost sacred objects, free of any guile or turmoil or nastiness, they are more than equal to the humans they live with, they are superior in almost every way, beyond reproach, objects not just of companionship, but of worship.
I see every day the deepening romanticizing and emotionalizing of animals, it is a great cultural Tsunami that will only get bigger and deeper. It is, to me, not in the interests of dogs to see them as celestial objects of adoration, it obscures their true and wonderful nature. They are not, in my mind, apart from us, they are mirrors and reflections of us, and we of them. Like us, they are from perfect, they are capable of great cruelty, confusion and they are utterly dependent creatures in the world we are creating for them.
More than once Dog Songs crossed the line between loving animals and turning them into sappy love babies, that is a part of what they are, but not all of what they are. My dogs are not saintly beings sailing through life in a loving gauze, they are much more complex and interesting than that. Neither of us are more pure or superior than the other, we are all moving together through the messy, stinky, uneven business of life.
Somehow, I think that writers and artists and poets are obliged to think more deeply of them, for me they function as gloriously imperfect partners, us and them stumbling through life together, trying to get it right, bonded by love and history and self-preservation and connection. I have no doubt if dogs could talk, they would see us as the wonderful, unpredictable and profoundly flawed creatures that they are. I try and return the favor. Truth is the foundation of true love.
In Little Dog’s Rhapsody In The Night, her signature poem in Dog Songs, Oliver captures the intimacy that often occurs between people and their dogs. “..when I’m awake, or awake enough, he turns upside down, his four paws in the air and his eyes dark and fervent. “Tell me you love me,” he says. “Tell me again.”
“Could there be a sweeter arrangement?,” Oliver writes, “Over and over he gets to ask. I get to tell.”
We are all prisoners of our own experience – mine is no better than yours – but I used to spent my cold winter nights with a dog at the foot of my bed, and it was a sweet arrangement. But is there a sweeter one? Yes, there is, and I have found it, it is a loving human being wrapped around me in the most beautiful and powerful intimacy, the kind of intimacy that human beings alone among all the animals and creatures of the world can find. I never want to diminish the power of loving a dog, I never want it to come at the expensive of loving and valuing human connection.
I will keep on reading Mary Oliver, of course, she is a treasure, and I suppose it is wonderful in it’s own way to break the ropes that are holding you, even to see that I don’t need to love everything single thing she does to live her and her great works. People tell me all the time they love some of my books and not the others and it is good to experience this on the other hand. I can’t wait for her next book.
For all this unease, I would recommend Dog Songs, we each sing and hear our own songs, and so many of you reading this will hear hers much more loudly than mine. A wonderful thing about being free and thinking freely.