Last Christmas, or maybe the Christmas before that, I gave a copy of Dog Songs by Mary Oliver to a friend of mine who devotes her life to dog rescue in the upper Midwest. I’d read a review of it somewhere and knew it would be perfect, and I remember picking it up in the bookstore and glancing at a poem here and there and feeling moved, but I never bothered reading it for myself.
I devoured the entire collection in one evening. I cried, I laughed. It was perfect.
The brief poems range from the observational to philosophical experience of sharing life with a dogs. I marked nearly every page. I couldn’t help myself.
Running here running there, excited, / hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spins / until the white snow is written upon / in large, exuberant letters, / a long sentence, expressing / the pleasures of the body in this world. / Oh, I could not have said it better / myself. (The Storm (Bear))
I tried to explain the pleasure of this book to a fellow friend and dog-owner during our walk yesterday, but she wasn’t biting. I doubt she’ll ever read it. Perhaps the failure of poetry is that, for most of us, it seems so difficult to access that we refuse to be moved by it until the connection to our lives is obvious and immediate. In dogs, the leap is easy. Hell, most dog food commercials can move me to tears, too. But I don’t care.
… 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. (The Sweetness of Dogs)
While I was reading, I couldn’t help thinking of my own Pax, who has accompanied me through some of the big, big changes in my life, and always with enthusiasm. It seems diminutive to try to explain on the fly what that dog has meant to me, so I won’t. But I love her, and she matters, and she’s made my life better, and in some ways, perhaps, saved me life.
Ricky, can you explain how it is that / Anne and I can talk to you, as we did / with Percy too, and we all understand / each other? Is it a kind of miracle? / “It’s no miracle,” said Ricky. “It’s ‘ actually simple. When you or Anne talk, / I listen. When I talk you listen . . . / and the very quiet people, / you may have noticed, / are often the sad / people.” (Ricky Talks About Talking)
That poem was a lightning strike so unexpected that I set down the book and buried my face in the pillow. I had a little cry for the first time in months. As soon as I finished the book, I crawled right into Pax’s dusty dog bed in the dark, lay down beside her and rubbed, with vigor, the accordion of her rib cage. She groaned with pleasure. The simplicity of that joy was so pure that I cried again, grateful for that perfect ease.
The next morning after Jon left, I called Pax upstairs and into the house. She limped up, unfazed. Her hips are bad. She’s thirteen next month and wasting away. When I first found her, she weighed 38 pounds, which is not much for a dog of her size and breed. At the vet earlier this week, she weighed 30. We can find nothing wrong with her. She eats and eats, but nothing sticks. She does not appear sick. But she gets smaller and smaller. I watch her eat and think of the Dia de los Muertos skeletons, who are given all the impossible, mortal food that their bodies can no longer hold until, finally, the living eat for them.
I lifted her into bed and she sighed with happiness. We slept until 10 a.m., a luxury I haven’t taken since college. I woke before she did, felt her paws shifting gently with dreams. She lay sprawled diagonally across the bed, exactly the way Jon does. She uses far more space than a body so small should require. But it doesn’t bother me. Isn’t that funny? When Jon does that, I feel slighted and annoyed. For Pax, not at all.
I watched her until I could no longer bear it, then stroked her velvety gray ears until she opened her eyes and panted, happy to see me. See? How on earth could you say, “Scoot over,” to creature who looks at you like that the moment they wake up? Real estate is a small price for everything a dog gives.
“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. (Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night)