Dog Songs are American poet Mary Oliver’s (1935 – 2019) poetic reminiscences. Oliver who ensured her employment contract included room for dog; Oliver who rebuilt worn fences and replaced chewed ropes; Oliver who compared love for a dog to music.
Dog Songs begins simply: a choice, a selection – a single moment out of which we move forward anew, accompanied.
How It Begins
A puppy is a puppy is a puppy.He’s probably in a basket with a bunchof other puppies.Then he’s a little older and he’s nothingbut a bundle of longing.He doesn’t even understand it.
Then someone picks him up and says,“I want this one.”
Love for an animal is music for the soul. Songs are melodies that capture the dancing, vibrant, binding love that animals pull from us and give to us.
Bear was a poet and invented new language.
The Storm (Bear)
Now through the white orchard my little dogromps, breaking the new snowwith wild feet.Running here running there, excited,hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spinsuntil the white snow is written uponin large, exuberant letters,a long sentence, expressingthe pleasures of the body in this world.
I could not have said it bettermyself.
Sammy would slip in and out of containment as it suited him, traipsing along like a child. “It turned out Sammy could not only chew through ropes,” writes a humored Oliver, “He could also climb fences. So his roaming continued…”
Percy was silly and noble. He ate the Bhagavad Gita and became the wisest of dogs. Percy needed love in the wakeful hours of the night and was “wild with the okayness” of being formidably cuddled and loved by human hands.
And sensitive Luke who adored flowers, keeping them close and near.
I had a dogwho loved flowers.Briskly she wentthrough the fields,
yet pausedfor the honeysuckleor the rose,her dark head
and her wet nosetouchingthe faceof every one…
Dog Songs is about communication and communion forgotten by our adult mouths and ears. Joy written in the snow, wise words devoured, love expressed by tickling fingers.
I have seen Ben place his nose meticulously into the shallow dampness of a deer’s hoofprint and shut his eyes as if listening. But it is smell he is listening to. The wild, high music of smell, that we know so little about.
We own dogs as far as we beg them not to run away, a supplication they might listen to or not “depending on a million things.”
If You Are Holding This Book
You may not agree, you may not care, butif you are holding this book you should knowthat of all the sights I love in this world – and there are plenty – very near the top of the list is this one: dogs without leashes.
Dogs are our closest companions, our most beloved friends. But paradoxically it is the wildness of dog, the apartness of them – the coming free from their leash and the running away – that captures Oliver’s heart.
But I want to extol not the sweetness nor the placidity of the dog, but the wilderness out of which he cannot step entirely, and from which we benefit. For the wilderness is our first home too, and in our wild ride into modernity with all its concerns and problems we need also all the good attachments to that origin that we can keep or restore. Dog is one of the messengers of the rich and still magical first world. The dog would remind us of the pleasures of the body with its graceful physicality, and the acuity and rapture of the senses, and the beauty of forest and ocean and rain and our own breath. There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him.
“I sit down to be with him,” wrote novelist Doris Lessing of one of her beloved cats, “It means slowing myself down, getting rid of the fret and urgency…we try to transcend what separates us.”
Like Lessing, Oliver listens, reads, hears across language and species, transports herself to the “still magical first world.” The run, the smelling, the absolute pleasure at getting lost and being found. It is constant music if we care to hear it. A music of memory, of nature, of childhood?
I chose a print by Tim Southall for this entry, Tim is a British printmaker who has mastered a variety of techniques – silkscreens, monotypes, etchings – to convey story in the space. There is an otherness in his work, some “faraway nearby,” to borrow a term from Rebecca Solnit. A perfect visual to Oliver’s “still magical first world.”
Accompany Dog Songs with the new science on how pet owning makes us human, Steinbeck’s late in life journey in the company of his dog Charley (“He cannot read, cannot drive a car but in his own field he has no peer”), Charlie Mackesy’s illustrations of love and friendship, and Gerald Durrell’s wonderful stories of the collected pets he invited into his heart as a child.
There is a common, calm refrain that to reach an animal we must “get rid of fret” as Lessing so remarkably put it. Animals find us in wakeful nights, they accompany us towards our dreams, they restore our safety. And in return ask to be occasionally freed and always loved.