Thursday, September 30, 2010

Doggy Downer

Colin Pope wants us to regard our pets differently , in his poem "Doggy Heaven".The intent is less satiric than ironic, I think, and it's irony that that's too easily arrived at. It's the equivalent of someone putting on their cleanest dirty shirt and thinking that they've truly dressed their best.Despite a plenitude of qualifiers that attempt to make the details resonant in dimensions broader than the thrilling conclusion poet Colin Pope has in store ("empty storefronts","All the rows of 10-penny teeth /gleaming in the forever sunshine, /latching onto slow and ghostly bumpers",) the sweetened descriptions of everything things are unconvincing as the sort of poetry that catches you by surprise. The issue is that Pope didn't frame his argument as indirectly as he needed to: for all the quaintly outlined affections of man for his dog given here, you know you're being set up for a punchline. Expectation of a surprise ruins the surprise itself, with the last bit being an anticlimactic bit of noise , a dissenting against the original conceit--life is better with dogs-- that's more irritated contrarianism than it is a revelation of an otherwise obscured truth.




That given the gift of love and companionship
we soldier through our lives feeling heroic

turning back to see them following, and then
outside the pearly gates, nothing
but an unanchored line of people

that goes on forever. –
Colin Pope seems to enjoy the work of Billy Collins and here, at least, tries to for the compressed , phrase-making lyric that makes the former Poet Laureate's alternately memorable and predictable. Collins, though, has a superior sense of balance between the lightly described particulars in his poems, the everything things he mentions, and the erudition that frequently emerges; he has the gift of making it seem that his tone is conversational, and the easing from household chores to eastern philosophy is a natural habit of mind. Pope's poem is brief, but it still borders on being a lecture on what is false in our emotional lives; 'Doggie Heaven" is, perhaps, a general indictment just this side of seeming bitter.


The delicate and problematic issue of humans and their pets, particularly the issue of how we project our unresolved issues upon them, is better addressed by poet Thomas Lux, in this poem:



SO YOU PUT THE DOG TO SLEEP


Thomas Lux



"I have no dog, but must be
Somewhere there's one belongs to me."
--John Kendrick Bangs



You love your dog and carve his steaks
(marbled, tender, aged) in the shape of hearts.
You let him on your lap at will


and call him by a lover's name:Liebschen,
pooch-o-mine, lamby, honey tart,
and you fill your voice with tenderness, woo.

He loves you too, that's his only job,
it's how he pays his room and board.
Behind his devotion, though, his dopey looks,

he might be a beast who wants your house,
your wife; who in fact loathes you, his lord.
His jaws snapping while you sleep means dreams

of eating your face: nose, lips, eyebrows, ears...
But soon your dog gets old, his legs
go bad, he's nearly blind, you puree his meat
and feed him with a spoon. It's hard to say
who hates whom more. He will not beg.
So you put the dog to sleep, Bad dog.



There is much to discuss here, but I think it suffices to say that Lux lets the details he arranges bring you the twisted irony of the last couple of lines. He gives you a definite a character in the second person and sticks with him, a handy way to engage our curiosity, and presents a swift, pithy history of the owner's affections with his pet and, in doing so, subtly reveals our culture's collective problem with aging and it's refusal to realistically confront the issue of death. Unexpectedly, from seeming nowhere, we find that Lux is really talking about Blaming the Victim. This is the kind of poem Pope may have wanted to write