Poet Cleopatra Mathis’ ‘Book of Dog’: An empathetic observation of animals
Editor’s note: The 12th annual Brattleboro Literary Festival runs Oct. 3-6. Consult the festival’s web site, at www.brattleboroliteraryfestival.org for information on authors, reading times and venues.
The review below is part of a series of reviews of books by authors who will be attending the 2013 Brattleboro Literary Festival.
"Book of Dog"
By Cleopatra Mathis
When I began to read Cleopatra Mathis’ "Book of Dog," I felt immediately connected to the poems. Not because dogs and other nonhumans I’m familiar with are frequently the subject, but because I knew that the speaker in the poems was figuring out something through empathetic observation of animals.
In quick succession we come upon a drowned moth, a smothered plover and a dead fox whose stink strikes the poet as, "profound as human speech,/although by then we were not speaking."
Ah, there it is. Estrangement motivates these poems. In one poem we read, "between them/a hole had been dug, immense,/all their words thrown in there, /irretrievable." In another poem, the speaker’s knotted life is likened to the labyrinth of the human inner ear, and ends with "somewhere in there should have been a marriage."
What can temper the dreadful emptiness that follows the end of a marriage? In the 13 untitled poems in the second section of the book, dog behaviors seem to fill that void -- dogs’ seemingly infinite forgiveness, their everlasting guilt, "that famously humble and contrived/looking the other way, studying the air," and the occasional reversion to wildness when we’re "not seeing/the work of transformation/and disguise." The speaker in these poems finds a measure of reassurance in "the plain language of the dogs,/who in a few syllables have everything to say."
In Part III, called "Essential Tremor," set among Cape Cod dunes, appear poems about the innate urge to endure. Undomesticated animals that live in and around the poet’s shack are central figures.
There’s the spider that will not give up though her web, "a home/built with her very self" is deliberately dismantled. The patient bug who stays all winter and who "on the first warm day, he’ll know/-- just like that, some screen will open." And of the bat: "Out of my silence, a flap,/ then back in it: where did you go, little rag,/ shape of black purpose?"
The sting of a hurtful breakup lingers to the end of this collection. Still, there is resolution in the later poems. Perhaps there’s a lesson in the ant devouring a dead mouse, "Look at him--eating his way/through whatever is necessary."Perhaps there is something to be learned from a barnacle in seaweed: "clinging is what it knows to do."
I like to think that in a closing poem, "Revenant," I hear a hint of recovery. A leash-slipped dog, "chasing whatever’s there into the ever-collapsing/scrub oak, split trunks, passages, holes/underground," ignores efforts to call her back, "all her fifteen pounds frantic to dig," does, in the end, come up out of the sand, "quizzical at my panic, and in her dark eyes/everything is readable: what now, what now?"
Like the escaped digger, the speaker in these poems seems ready for something new to happen.
"Book of Dog" is Cleopatra Mathis’ seventh book of poems. Her work has earned prestigious awards, including National Endowment for the Arts grants, the Jane Kenyon Award, the Robert Frost Award, and New Hampshire State Council on the Arts fellowship. Mathis is Frederick Sessions Beebe ‘35 Professor in the Art of Writing and founder of the writing program at Dartmouth College.
Mathis will be reading at the Brattleboro Literary Festival, with Patricia Fargnoli at 12:30 p.m., on Sunday, Oct. 6.
Hinsdale author Charles Butterfield’s latest book is "In the Shadow of Cedars."
For Love of Books is a column written by readers of notable books which may be found in local libraries and bookstores. "Guidelines for Reviewers" may be requested from Brooks Memorial Library at 802-254-5290 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Connect to the library’s new web catalog at brookslibraryvt.org.
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