Book Review: Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

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By Rachel Hertzberg, Staff Writer

Millennials are said to have a great aptitude for ironic detachment: we are unable to have face-to-face conversations, we are disgusted by genuine displays of emotion, and we communicate only in memes and sarcasm. I think of our generation’s tendency toward cynicism as a coping mechanism in the face of an increasingly hopeless world. We joke about despair because the reality is difficult to acknowledge head-on. Irony can act as a protective buffer that allows us to laugh at our circumstances. But with it comes the risk of filtering out the experiences that make life worthwhile: happiness, joy, even heartfelt sorrow.

Mary Oliver’s 2013 book of poems, Dog Songs, does not accept this cultural ennui. Oliver has always been an ardent and unashamed admirer of wonder, uninterested in being detached or aloof. Primarily a nature poet, she now turns to chronicling the creature who walks the tightrope between wild and domestic, the dog. This collection of poems studies the many dogs Oliver has loved over her life, even occasionally speaking in their voices. At times, these poems were too sentimental for me, almost embarrassing in their wholehearted love for canine-kind. The unbridled sweetness in the first few poems struck me as cloying, even Hallmark-y. For example, in the opening poem, “How It Begins,” a puppy is described as “a bundle of longing.” In “Conversations,” Oliver imagines her dog Bear speaking to her, saying “I know I’m supposed to keep my eye / on you” while on a walk. If a reader can accept this flirtation with the saccharine—and I think it helps to have read Oliver’s other poetry and be familiar with her worldview—then that reader can access the underlying richness and tragedy of Oliver’s observations.

In her previous collections, Oliver’s poetry mostly centers around the natural world; it is a call to appreciate life in all its forms, to feel connected to nature, and to remember that humans are only one part of a vast ecosystem. She sometimes exasperates me, as she seems to propose the complete abandonment of society—of all human concerns, in fact—in favor of sitting still in nature all day. Not exactly practical, or even desirable, for most of us. Dog Songs, however, is set in the human realm, in the domestic places where humans and dogs meet: in the kitchen, the bedroom, the public beach. It is intimate, quiet, and, above all, joyful.

Oliver elevates small moments to searing interrogations of the fragile agreement between humans and nature. In “Holding on to Benjamin,” Oliver considers her discomfort with her dog’s desire to hunt raccoons. Despite her commitment to pacifism, she must acknowledge that the dog’s instinct is to kill. Throughout this collection, as in her previous collections, Oliver, envious of animals who can exist unthinkingly, struggles with her human predilection toward self-examination. While the human agonizes over the ethical implications of her actions, the dog simply acts. In the poem “Percy, Waiting for Ricky,” Oliver admires her dog’s ability to live in the moment, “not / thinking, not weighing anything, just running forward.” Her strongest poems deal with these instances of joy, of running, of a human and dog delighting in each other’s company and trust.

In one of the longest and most heartbreaking poems, “Her Grave,” Oliver addresses the death of her dog Luke. After several stanzas enumerating Luke’s virtues and describing the solemnity of the burial, Oliver interrupts her own elegy to ask of the reader, “Does the hummingbird think he himself invented his / crimson throat? / He is wiser than that, I think.” As the hummingbird does not try to claim ownership or authorship of its brief and brilliant beauty, humans cannot claim to “own” their dogs. Nature must remain wild. As Oliver sees it, dogs are generous to their human friends, but can never be said to have been entirely tamed. This lies at the crux of her love for dogs.

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