With a tone of fond thoughtfulness, Mary Oliver crafts poems depicting the many lives and loves of both canine and man. “Dog Songs” details everything there is to be discussed about our furry friends; from the intricacies of our relationships with them, to the way they navigate the world from birth to passing.
This sweet and simple book endears itself to the reader by telling charming mini-stories of dogs exploring fields, sneaking into their owners beds, and ‘speaking’ frankly with anyone who will hear them. Oliver’s poetry sounds very maternal and straightforward, acting as a parallel to the equally sincere (for the most part) dogs she has displays such love for.
As if that is not enough to satisfy, illustrator John Burgoyne separates the poetry loosely with beautifully realistic pen and ink sketches of dogs. The images offer readers a way to settle into the poems while further sweetening the quaint stories Oliver tells.
There is a delicate balance of honest emotions, good and bad, that are both expressed throughout by the poet and created as the reader explores each piece. Humorous lines are delivered quite regularly and linger in your thoughts for a while, bracketing the brief moments of sorrow and longing that Oliver displays with a delightful and familiar sort of happiness.
In “School,” the narrator lightheartedly remarks that “the nearest dead fish” is used to “perfume” her dog Percy’s “sweet neck.” Other poems offer portrayals of Oliver’s personal life with and relation to her darling companions, Percy and Ricky, including a poignant piece about dealing with the loss of the former:
THE FIRST TIME PERCY CAME BACK
The first time Percy came back
he was not sailing on a cloud.
He was loping along the sand as though
he had come a great way.
“Percy,” I cried out, and reached to him—
those white curls—
but he was unreachable. As music
is present yet you can’t touch it.
“Yes, it’s all different,” he said.
“You’re going to be very surprised.”
But I wasn’t thinking of that. I only
wanted to hold him. “Listen,” he said.
“I miss that too.
And now you’ll be telling stories
of my coming back
and they won’t be false, and they won’t be true, but they’ll be real.”
And then, as he used to, he said, “Let’s go!”
And we walked down the beach together.
Pet owners will find many recognizable moments amidst the memories of Benjamin, Luke, and Bear. Some guileless advice is even offered for anyone thinking of getting a dog for himself or herself: “Be prepared. A dog is adorable and noble./A dog is a true and loving friend. A dog/is also a hedonist.” Those without pets of their own are still quite likely to crack a smile at the imagery of pups traipsing around on the beach and bothering their exasperated owners or nod along in agreement when Oliver allows herself to succumb to her dogs’ pleading much like a parent does when their child whines for snacks at the store.
To end her tender book, Oliver offers an essay—equipped with a few extra bits of poetry—examining what makes a dog a dog and, by extension, what makes a dog an ideal companion to spend your time with. She praises dogs for how they elicit the reactions they do in humans, both good and bad, and how they seem to permeate spaces so much greater than their physical forms, filling their surroundings with their unique personalities and irrefutable canine-ness.
Reviewed by: Marina Rancourt