Dog Songs: Mary Oliver on What Dogs Teach Us About the Meaning of Our Human Lives
By Maria Popova
Mary Oliver is not only one of the sagest and most beloved poets of our time, a recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, but is also among literary history’s greatest pet-lovers. Dog Songs (public library) collects her most soul-stirring poems and short prose celebrating that special human-canine relationship and what it reveals about the meaning of our own lives — a beautiful manifestation of Oliver’s singular sieve for extracting from the particularities of the poetic subject the philosophical universalities of the human condition to illuminate what it means to live a good life, a full life, a life of purpose and presence.
Inhale, for instance, this:
I had a dog
who loved flowers.
Briskly she went
through the fields,
for the honeysuckle
or the rose,
her dark head
and her wet nose
of every one
with its petals
with its fragrance
into the air
where the bees,
heavy with pollen,
not in the serious,
that we choose
this blossom or that blossom—
the way we praise or don’t praise—
the way we love
or don’t love—
but the way
we long to be—
in the heaven of earth—
that wild, that loving.
Amidst the poetic, there are also the necessary, playfully practical reminders of how dogs illustrate the limitations of our own sensory awareness:
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.
Then there are the fictional — or are they? — conversations with Oliver’s dog Ricky, which brim with love and wisdom. In one, titled “Show Time,” they watch a dog show on TV and wince at the unfortunate, borderline abusive grooming the contestants have had to endure. Ricky exclaims:
“If I ever meet one of these dogs I’m going
to invite him to come here, where he can
be a proper dog.”
Okay, I said. But remember, you can’t fix
everything in the world for everybody.
“However,” said Ricky, “you can’t do
anything at all unless you begin. Haven’t
I heard you say that once or twice, or
maybe a hundred times?”
In another poem, Oliver affectionately acknowledges that innocent canine gift for employing a dog’s intellect for his own self-gratification, as when he dupes both you the other household human into feeding him breakfast:
Be prepared. A dog is adorable and noble. A dog is a true and loving friend. A dog is also a hedonist.
In a short prose piece, Oliver considers the wretched elephant in every dog-lover’s room:
Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old — or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give.
One of her most poignant meditations strokes the heart of why dogs are so much more than the ornament Virginia Woolf’s nephew reduced them to. It comes in the collection’s concluding essay, emanating the loving-kindness of Buddhism and condensing that in the prism of the dog:
Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?
LITTLE DOG’S RHAPSODY IN THE NIGHT
He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And 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? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell.
But even more powerful is the other direction of that affirmative affection — the wholehearted devotion of dogs, who love us unconditionally and in the process teach us to love; in letting us see ourselves through their eyes, they help us believe what they see, believe that we are worthy of love, that we are love.
THE SWEETNESS OF DOGS
What do you say, Percy? I am thinking
of sitting out on the sand to watch
the moon rise. It’s full tonight.
So we go
and the moon rises, so beautiful it
makes me shudder, makes me think about
time and space, makes me take
measure of myself: one iota
pondering heaven. Thus we sit, myself
thinking how grateful I am for the moon’s
perfect beauty and also, oh! how rich
it is to love the world. Percy, meanwhile,
leans against me and gazes up
into my face. As though I were just as wonderful
as the perfect moon.
Ultimately, the closing verses of the poem “Percy Wakes Me” speak for the entire collection:
This is a poem about Percy.
This is a poem about more than Percy.
Think about it.
And oh how much more is Dog Songs about. Complement it with The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, one of the best art books of 2012, John Homans’s impossibly moving What’s a Dog For?, and this illustrated adaptation of Bob Dylan’s classic If Dogs Run Free.
Published November 12, 2013