Reviewed by Andrea Grill
World-renowned, Pulitzer-prize winning American poet, Mary Oliver, has just published a wonderful new book of poems called Dog Songs, consisting of 35 poems and one short essay. Dog Songs is a blissful homage to the dogs who have lovingly padded through her life, and who have served as Oliver’s inadvertent gurus. In sometimes mischievous and sometimes solemn ways, the dogs have taught Oliver lessons about love, death, parenting, and the awesome powers of the natural world. Elegantly simple in language and narrative, Dog Songs is a gift for all of us, regardless of age.
There are 17 new poems in Dog Songs, and 19 of the pieces have appeared earlier in prior Oliver poetry books. All her dog poems now share one literary home, and all the dogs in her poems are Oliver’s “people”. There’s Ricky (as in “Ricky Ricardo”), Percy, Benjamin, Bazougey, Sammy, Lucy, Henry, and Luke (curiously named since Luke is a female dog), and Bear (the dog with whom 78 year-old Oliver currently lives).
Ricky comes again to us in “A Bad Day”, when he admitted that he had to give Oliver’s couch “a little distress” because she was a bit neglectful of his needs:
Ricky, why are you barking and trying
to rip up the couch? Can’t you settle
down? It’s been a long day?
“It sure has. First you forgot to take
me out. Then you went to the market,
and heaven knows where else. And my
dinner was late. And our walk was
short. And now you’re supposed to
be on the floor playing with me but
no, you’re doing something else. So I
thought I’d given this couch a little
The distressed couch in “A Bad Day” represents the all-too-familiar and slightly exasperating “dialogue” that many of us have with our animal companions. Who among us hasn’t come home to a surprisingly messed-up piece of furniture through which our dog (or cat) has chewed and clawed, as way to send a message?
In “Percy”, we are introduced to Percy, named after poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Percy is an especially joyful dog whose certitude causes him to eat a holy book and become enlightened.
Our new dog, named for the beloved poet,
ate a book which unfortunately we had
Fortunately it was the Bhagavad Gita,
of which many copies are available.
Every day now, as Percy grows
into the beauty of life, we touch
his wild, curly head and say,
“Oh, wisest of little dogs.”
In “Percy”, Oliver is laughing with her audience about the magic realism we ascribe to our misbehaving children (and the lenience we afford them), regardless of species. As “parents” we do this because they are our “children”. So in another poem, “Conversations”, we resonate with the deep, loving (and somewhat neurotic) bond that Oliver has with her dog, Bear. After talking it over with Bear –a little dog who knows how to subtly “play” Oliver (though Oliver is not without retort)-- Oliver feels so guilty about leaving Bear at a kennel to go away on a trip that she cancels it.
Said Bear, “I know I’m supposed to keep my eye
on you, but it’s difficult the way you
lag behind and keep talking to people.”
Well, how can you be keeping your eye on me
when you’re half a mile ahead?
“True,” said Bear. “But I’m thinking of you
all the time.”
I had to go away for a few days so I called
the kennel and made an appointment. I guess
Bear overheard the conversation.
. . .
“Love and company,” said Bear, “are the adornments
that change everything. I know they’ll be
nice to me, but I’ll be sad, said, sad.”
And pitifully he wrung his paws.
I cancelled the trip.
And there’s Ricky again in “You Never Know Where a Conversation is Going to Go”. In this poem, Ricky is neither a guilt-inducer nor a naughty furniture vandal nor a book vandal. He is the somewhat anxious creature with the big heart who gives non-human voice to existential angst about change, and gets reassurance from Oliver. She advises him that appreciating life and this planet are forms of prayer, and it doesn’t matter if you’re dog or human or some other animal:
You Never Know Where a Conversation is Going to Go
Said Ricky to me one day, “Why is it you
don’t have a tail?”
Well, I just don’t. Maybe once upon time
I had one, but not anymore.
“What happened? Did you have an accident?”
No, no. Things change. Sometimes. Over
“You mean, maybe sometime I won’t get a walk,
I won’t get dinner? I won’t get hugs? That’s
scary, plain scary.”
No, no, it takes a really long time. In
fact, some things change, over time, and
“Well, how do I know what’s what?”
Day by day, Ricky. You find out.
Has anything changed that troubles you?
“Actually, nothing. I like everything a lot,
Well, see? Just keep on liking things.
“I don’t know anything about that.”
Yes you do. Every time you wake up and
love your life and the world, you’re
praying, my dear boy. I’m sure of it.
Here, Oliver’s expansive definition of prayer harkens back to an Oliver poem called “Praying” that appeared in her 2006 book of poems, “Thirst”. In “Praying”, Oliver instructs us how to pray and makes clear that praying need not be some grandiose ritual or special liturgy.
Holiness and adoration of the natural world have been two interwoven themes coursing through Oliver’s more than 35 years of published poetry. Throughout the most recent Dog Songs, Oliver shows reverence and adoration for her dogs and the natural world. In “The Sweetness of Dogs” Oliver exposes her reverence and adoration not only for Percy and the natural world but for the cosmos -- the moon, time and space, and heaven -- while at the same time she allows Percy to adore and revere her.
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 into
my face. As though I were just as wonderful
as the perfect moon.
In keeping with the dog-centric and upside-down saying, “Dog is my co-pilot” (rather than “God is my co-pilot”), Oliver’s new book of poems, Dog Songs, could have aptly been called “God Songs”, as it is a beautiful and simple celebration of creation. Divinity shines through all of Oliver’s dogs. And whether you’re a dog person or not, I am confident that you’ll love this book as much as I do and return to Dog Songs again and again.