Cleopatra Mathis’s marvelous Book of Dog (Sarabande Books, 2012) really is a book of dog poems. The book has three parts: “Canis” [wild dogs], concerns the painful end of a marriage; the second, most interesting title section, itself a series of numbered poems, explores animal and dog consciousness; and “Essential Tremor,” the third, refers to both “this life in a wild wind” and to a neurological disorder that causes rhythmic shaking. Mathis told her audience at a reading I attended in August 2014 that she has this condition. She reassured us that she was not going to fall over, though she sometimes looked as though she might.
Apart from this pubic admission, Mathis, who is on the faculty of Dartmouth College, rarely dwells on her disability in the poems, except, perhaps to say in “Day-Old Mice”:
I was not practical, I see that now.
It is the able who must
attend the end of pain, guard
the way out of this life.
The reference to “the able” here seals her place as a poet of elegant restraint and courtesy. Though in life she may have much to lament, Mathis is not here a poet of complaint or lamentation. The poem “Over” uses silence in describing the ending of a marriage, as a composer scores rests in his music.
The slogging on he called it,
a phrase that brings the mud in with it.
But if I limped around in one swollen, cracked shoes,
he had the other, and finally he let it fall,
like a thick book held high then slamming
flat again the floor. The dogs jumped
out of their languid sleep—[. . .]
[. . .]
But no alarm in their regard, just a dazed moment
before they closed their eyes again. No barking,
in fact, no noise at all.
With a twist on the saw about the “other shoe” dropping, the shoes here stand in for the poet’s failure at being “able”, and the partner’s failure at being sympathetic or caring. If something is literally dropped it might be the ugly, italicized phrase “slogging on”. Shouted out, is implied. Mathis’s principal figurative device is metonymy, through the experiences of her dogs: We are meant to see here that she does not “bark” or shout or answer back when she is told the worst.
Mathis sustains this brilliant device throughout, sometimes using a spider or bug, instead of dogs, to stand in for something that is different only in degree, i.e., human experience. It accomplishes two things. First, seeing aging, disability, and death from a dog’s vantage, even a well-loved dog, puts everything in perspective. But second, it asks the reader, who is probably able-bodied, to experience the world as a being less able-bodied must; it asks that you experience a strange, different world from your customary one. Throughout, Mathis stays lightly close to the surface of this strange, albeit wider, reality, counting on our own sympathies and our experiences of life’s terrors to echo and resonate as we read.
Dog Poems at the Center of the Book
In the Canis section, her partner renounces their bond and turns from her need. This relationship is mirrored in the second “Book of Dog” section, but the mirroring is obverse, for the poet’s acceptance of her dogs’ needs and wants is wholehearted, as theirs is of hers. In the Canis section, she wills her partner to stay: “We’d come so far,” and flies her “music of need and want / into the ever-reaching sky”. Here is a comparable scene of call and response, with a different outcome, from the “Book of Dog” section:
But as long as your body sits on the chair,
he’s not worried
where you are and when you look up
from that far place, he returns
my I lick your hand—the sign
you give back in the glory
song of the one word:
his name in your mouth.
Mathis’s poems about animals have a strangeness that expands our consciousness of what it is to be human. Of the spider, she writes, “how she keeps alive/ is not luminous, but strict and necessary, / this moving sideways into the dark.” The best poems are straightforward narratives, spare, clean and moving. Each dog is rendered as a unique individual, as the third poem in the series shows:
In the book of dog, a few syllables contain the world,
and you own them. You dole out car, home, sit,
stay—for the sweet yelp, the whine.
But at cookie, the wet mouth seizes,
the low growl transforming Give it to me
Into oh how I love you. The pure
love we assign when the dog gets
what it wants. And when t doesn’t,
that famously humble and contrived
looking the other way, studying the air—
the mote in the air—
the not wanting for anything, not saying
Oh you dear one with the meat, the bone, the biscuit,
come back, give it to me.
The “seizes” here, in the sense of “jams”, but also anticipating what the dog would or will do in regard to the cookie given, half a chance, superbly captures the dog’s gesture and the moment. But there is sadness and melancholy, too, when her old white-furred dog, part Alaskan, part-wolf, dies and is cremated: “how can this be: white dog, white box / and the crossing in flames. / You are deaf with the roar, you a burned boat / bearing a stone box bearing / ashes still hot in your hands; /and you carry it with you, unbroken seal.
By providing a brilliant figure for the frail in human experience, and thus transcending the events of her own life, Mathis in these poems has given this reader much pleasure and freshened my consciousness of my own life, as I age and grow more infirm.