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His or Her Master's Voice

June 2015

We love our pets. Writers love their pets, and they often write about them. I see more and more books about dogs and cats, and that includes poetry.

I recently went to a reading with Billy Collins who has a good number of dog poems. In two of those, he  introduces us to dogs "whom have taken the command 'speak' quite literally."

One of those which has the dog contemplating his relationship to his owner, is titled "A Dog on His Master" - a title that makes me recall an old advertising slogan from the RCA Victor company used for early phonographs.

In Dog Years: A Memoir, poet Mark Doty decides to adopt a dog as a companion for his dying partner. Beau is a large, malnourished golden retriever in need of love. He joins Arden, their black retriever. These two companions accompany them on the sad journey and teach lessons about love and loss.

I loved Doty's poem (or is it Beau's poem?) "Golden Retrievals" the first time I heard him read it. Like many of Collins' poems it hits you as light and funny, especially in his reading of it. But, also like Collin's poems, there is something more serious going on in the poem.

The dog starts off with his joy in his dog world, rejecting the people world of:

Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention
seconds at a time. Catch? I don’t think so.

He is far more interested in:

Bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who’s—oh
joy—actually scared. Sniff the wind, then

I’m off again: muck, pond, ditch, residue
of any thrillingly dead thing.

But his poor owner:

Either you’re sunk in the past, half our walk,
thinking of what you never can bring back,

or else you’re off in some fog concerning
—tomorrow, is that what you call it?

The dog knows that his work here is part Zen master and part physicist trying:

to unsnare time’s warp (and woof!), retrieving,
my haze-headed friend, you.


Mark Doty's “Golden Retrievals” (from Sweet Machine: Poems) is this month's model poem for our writing prompt. And who would have guessed that Beau was a formalist, writing a kind of sonnet.

Your assignment this month is a poem that comes from the mind, heart or mouth of a pet or animal. Let your dog or cat at the keyboard or have them channel the poem to you in that sixth or seventh sense that we know they possess. It's the voice of the master, if you accept that the pet controls the "owner."s

I also recommend that you give a look and listen (below) to Billy Collins reading "A Dog on His Master" and one of my favorites, "The Revenant." The revenant (one who has returned, especially from the dead) dog speaking the latter poem is not in love with his master - the person who put him "to sleep" - in fact, "I never liked you - not one bit."

Garth Stein credits "The Revenant" for being the inspiration for his novel The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel, written in the voice of a dog.

Like Beau, Collins' former pet also loves those outdoor smells encountered on walks, "but only because it meant I was about / to smell things you had never touched."

This dog's only somewhat kind remark is to confirm something about the afterlife that the poet had hopefully assumed: "that everyone here can read and write, the dogs in poetry, the cats and the others in prose."

bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow

Mark Doty's website is markdoty.org   He blogs at markdoty.blogspot.com

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


OLD DOG MOURNING

Master thinks I have a headache.
But it comes from deeper, the riot of a dog’s
pulse that makes me run down faster
than he does with his measured human step.
I can’t skim the passes at a flying trot
anymore, scouting the route for danger, far
ahead of him. I groan to get my joints together
in the morning. And not just physical.
Master doesn’t credit me with thinking.
I listen to the news, whatever wind delivers.
I’m parched from sniffing dry sky
when it refuses to rain; the chart of losses
a dog keeps wordless. Disgusted bowls
of kibble left untouched untasted
because a puppy no longer shoves his nose in
beside mine. Must new life always steal
from the old? I scratch at the door to go out,
to graze on bare soil like sheep
who’ve gone to slaughter.
I test the wind for scent of that puppy
who lost patience with this life, gone now
beyond the lands of drought.

Taylor Graham




CAT BIRD

If I was to write,
as you are now,
it would beshort
forms from the East.
s Haiku without counting.
My thoughts are brief.
Connections there but not
there. Something you chase
and then it vanishes.

Singing to the birds
is a kind of poetry.
Behind this glass,
no mockingbird echoes
my songs, but perhaps
some are listening.
I would be interested
to meet this catbird
that you mentioned.
I would like to hear
its blended song
of ground and air.
I would like to meet
with it unexpectedly
one morning. Surprised
that I am only a cat.
Disappointment if it is
only a bird

Pamela Milne



ANIMAL FARM INC.

Plucked and fleeced, we’re taken
By our captors past the shed
To where the field’s jagged edge
Opens beyond the latticed wire.
No longer worth our keep, we’re
Being slaughtered to provide the
Last cent’s worth of profit to the
Corporation whose relentless
Fiduciary responsibility it is to
Squeeze all life out of us for the
Benefit of nameless shareholders.
Not being human, it doesn’t matter.

Herded down a curving path, we’re
Led past tall grass redolent of
Summer’s end. A whiff of freedom
Sends me tumbling back to days
In the open field, running, bounding
With the others to the bleat of elders
Standing guard, heads held high,
Horns at the ready for coyotes or
The occasional wolf slipping past
The tree line. The herd was warm in
Winter, hearts beating next to hearts,
Breathing the musky smell of life.

The humans were easy on us then.
Father and son herding us to
Pasture in the upper meadows every
Spring to gorge on sweet grass after
Shearing; there were fewer of us in the
Herd then, all related, sons and cousins,
Kith and kin, lambs and elders in
Fields forever pulsing with the
Seasons’ colors, sounds, and smells.
Even fall’s rutting, the clash of horns,
Exhilarant chase and tupping of ewes
Brought its own frenzied excitement.

But Farmer Brown was killed one day,
Struck dead by a freak bolt from heaven,
And the farm was sold to pay the bank.
So we were sold and merged with
Others of our kind; at first we were
Frightened: there were so many there
We could not see the horizon. We
Were always penned, fed, pushed
And shoved, knocking against one
Another, sheared and mated, trampling
Each other’s shit amid the continuous
Bawling of the smothered and dying.

And now the end. We’re driven down
An ever narrowing path till one-by-one
We walk in single file toward the sudden
Barn. The smell of death is here, the
Bleating of a brother in his last throes;
Alive as he’s raised and gutted, bleeding
To a red pond sucked down under his
Open belly, I count twelve beats until
He stops his snarled breath. Shaking,
Dragged inexorably forward, my brother
Just ahead is stunned by a bolt like the one
That killed Farmer Brown. And now it’s me.

Robert Carroll Miller



HEN WITH A VENDETTA

You snap my wishbone while you wish for a lover.

You were an assassin with a flick-knife
that day on the farm by the tractor.

I contemplate the crimes - yours and mine.

I used to scratch at the soil in search of seeds
insects and lizards, small snakes and young mice.

Had I lived I would have had a vendetta against you.
Had I lived they would have had a vendetta against me.

Lewis Oakwood



LEO CAT

I am ready to step into
the next of my nine lives.

Why do you look at me that way
with your two sad eyes?

Buddha nature is everpresent
at all times, in all beings

even you should
know that.

Bobbie Townsend



HOUSE BROKEN

Wherever I walk,
I mark what is mine.
From the brick pillar at the retention pond,
To the palms at Chapin Station,
Every low-class mutt that follows me knows
Whose tuft of flowers he’s sniffing.

But after all these years, my master still can’t get the hang of it.
It’s as if it would kill him to once leave his scent on a fence or a rose.
It’s so frustrating to see how little he thinks of himself,
As he comes out of that little room with the cold, smooth floor,
Grinning that stupid look of satisfaction,
That I can only droop my head for the lead.

Ron Yazinski



DAY OF THE DOG

Just one more empty dog day
afternoon.
here alone in my quiet house
with nothing to do until you
return.
All these doltish activities:
play with dumb dog toys?
Oh shust, it's no fun without
you to tease and play the fool.
Bark at the postman, spew terror
into him? Aw hell, he’s not
a bit bothered with me stuck
this side of the door.
The cats, even the squirrels who
wander by no longer fear
my growls. They mock me!
I collapse into sleep, with dreams
of ripping tabby apart.
And when you come home, what
do you do as I yip and yap, jump and
slobber?
You scold me to get down, tell me
“Relax.”
Relax! Don’t you know my drab world
has just come alive, my heart is racing,
life is suddenly so great?
Better enjoy me. I won’t be here
forever, and you don’t even know
all I do for you. And all I mean to
you.

R. Bremner