Mary Oliver

Dog Songs

“What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?”

Dog Songs are American poet Mary Oliver‘s (September 10, 1935 – January 17, 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 bunch
of other puppies.
Then he’s a little older and he’s nothing
but a bundle of longing.
He doesn’t even understand it.

Then someone picks him up and says,
“I want this one.”1

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.

Oliver writes of dogs that she has known.

Bear was a poet and invented new language.

The Storm (Bear)

Now through the white orchard my little dog
romps, breaking the new snow
with wild feet.
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.

I could not have said it better

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 dog
who loved flowers.
Briskly she went
through the fields,

yet paused
for the honeysuckle
or the rose,
her dark head

and her wet nose
the face
of every one…

From “Luke”

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.

As in all of her poetry, Oliver patiently shows us how to slow, to observe, to withdraw and to speak the language of the senses.

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, but
if you are holding this book you should know
that 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?

"Hounds" by Tim Southall. Featured in Mary Oliver's "Dog Songs" in the Examined Life Library.
“Strolling Hounds,” etching by printmaker Tim Southall. Can you hear them baying from their long barrelled chests and fluted necks?

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.”

She would come back, dripping thick water, from the green bog.
She would fall at my feet, she would draw the black skin from her gums, in a hideous and wonderful smile –
and I would rub my hands over her pricked ears and her cunning elbows,
and I would hug the barrel of her body, amazed at the unassuming perfect arch of her neck.

It took four of us to carry her into the woods.
We did not think of music,
but anyway, it began to rain

From “Her Grave”

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 and as an adult.

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 they ask to be occasionally freed, and always loved.

Mary Oliver illustration. © The Examined Life