Dog Tales

This post originally appeared in my column in the Financial Chronicle, November 29, 2013, Weekend Edition

Picture Credits:  Rachel Giese Brown
Picture Credits: Rachel Giese Brown

Anyone who loves dogs will vouch most ardently that they are indebted to their pets. When we brought home our puppy a few years ago, she saved each one of us. To think that one non- human can change the lives of all in our family without words, without obligation, without responsibility, but through consistent presence and unflinching devotion.

So when I found that Pulitzer Prize winning poet and American icon, Mary Oliver, had published a book of poems, Dog Songs, last month, I was excited. Exquisite poetry and a little prose about our best friends; a combination I could not resist. When the book arrived, I treated it with utmost reverence. Reading a poem, putting it down, picking it up again because I wanted to find out what secrets it unlocked. That is what it was, a little book with a magical key.

Good poetry makes you smile, nod and wonder. Great poetry makes you weep. Sometimes with joy. Many times unlocking some of the sorrow you have kept carefully at bay.

A private person by nature

In her own words, the reclusive poet, who has spent most of her life immersed in the natural world, says, “Writing poems for me, but not necessarily for others, is a way of offering praise to the world.” Lauded as “far and away, the country’s best selling poet”, Oliver’s work is easily accessible through its simple and profound wisdom that is gently threaded with exquisite language. Like the earthy and unshakeable ground that she constantly treads, her genius lies in her ability to act as the perfect interpreter. Always unpretentious, she helps us navigate the realm without losing sight of the truth of tolerance and co-existence.

The song of the dog

It is obvious from her latest offering that the poet speaks from experience. Through the lens of a life that has been enriched by the many dogs she has raised and rescued, she makes it clear that it might have started that way, but they in turn have rescued her right back. The book contains 35 hymns and one essay that carry the reader from puppy breath to growth, from exploration to expiration, extolling the significance of these halfway creatures belonging to two worlds. Half wild, half tame.

“Dogs without leashes”

I am fortunate to live in a neighbourhood that looks feels like a nature park. The houses are hidden, the driveways are meandering and the wildlife mingles without reproach. Most homes have dogs. Most of the time, the dogs are unleashed.

The theme of dogs without leashes runs through the book like a gentle river. Who cannot understand the symbolism of an unfettered life? How many times have you taken your dog outdoors, letting them loose only to revel in their joyous release, the constant stop and sniff, stop and sniff and the circular race. Who has not wished that for themselves? The poet brings us back to our need for control and our need to domesticate and remove the wildness that is so essential for our creativity. In her essay about Sammy, the dog who kept breaking the ropes to run away in search of adventure, she writes, “Maybe it’s about the wonderful things that may happen if you break the ropes that are holding you.”

“For he was of the tribe of Wolf”

This observation around the possessive noun that holds good not just for our pets but each other as well, is a timely reminder. How can one life own another life? No matter the relationship, no one can be truly at ease under a regime of possession.

“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.”

“As though I were just as wonderful as the perfect moon.”

We grow up being told to become better at every step of the way. Become a better child, student, parent, partner, and employee and on it goes. Not so with your dog. When your dog sees you, there is complete acceptance through eyes that view you as perfection. To your dog, you are the most wonderful, beautiful, interesting person in the world. You don’t age, you are not too fat, you are not too poor, and you are not too stupid.

“And it is exceedingly short, his galloping life”

There are profound and moving eulogies to the ones who left. The poet writes, “We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give.”

With the passing of these beloved pets, something truly good, solid and consistent about our world disappears. Our dogs remind us every day that despite our frailties, despite our uncertainties, despite the human predilection for some form of self-destruction, they can be counted on to stay the same. They try to keep us sane.

Dog Songs, by Mary Oliver, October 2013
Dog Songs, by Mary Oliver, October 2013

On Mary Oliver and the Journey

Courtesy Trey Ratcliff at

It’s Saturday and I have places to be,  lists to make, dishes in the sink, lunch to fix and yet here I am writing again.  Listening to music and reading Mary Oliver’s  poetry. 

Oliver’s poetry is grounding and you can see why.  She gets her inspiration from nature, solitude and intense self examination and there is an affirmative tone that takes you into the hopeful heart of transformation  She has been compared to Emily Dickinson as both women seem to be able to articulate with great simplicity the complex essence that lives within.

I pause at The Journey and I can tell that she is speaking to me. This evocative poem that completely holds me in thrall as I can picture her amidst all the “mend me, fix me” cries,  and yet she is pulled and compelled to follow that drumming in her head and the badgering in her heart.

 The Journey 

 One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.
~ Mary Oliver ~