Review: Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

Dog Songs

Beloved by her readers, special to the poet’s own heart, Mary Oliver’s dog poems offer a special window into her world. Dog Songs collects some of the most cherished poems together with new works, offering a portrait of Oliver’s relationship to the companions that have accompanied her daily walks, warmed her home, and inspired her work. To be illustrated with images of the dogs themselves, the subjects will come to colorful life here.
These are poems of love and laughter, heartbreak and grief. In these pages we visit with old friends, including Oliver’s well-loved Percy, and meet still others. Throughout, the many dogs of Oliver’s life emerge as fellow travelers, but also as guides, spirits capable of opening our eyes to the lessons of the moment and the joys of nature and connection. — [X]

I was first introduced to Mary Oliver’s poetry through Simini Blocker’s fantastic illustration of a line from “Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches?”:


After seeing Simini’s illustration, and reading that one line by Mary Oliver, every time I itched for a book of poetry, I thought of Mary Oliver. Except my thought process was all, “Yes, Mary Oliver. But first, Rumi. And Khalil Gibran. And some Sylvia Plath. And then–”  Fast-forward to early this month, browsing Pulp Fiction’s fantasy section and my friend drops this gem in my hands. She really didn’t need to say anything. I bought it immediately. The rest is history.

So, in the interest of fairness (i.e. if you feel your love for cats must preclude a love for dogs), check out Janet’s post here about Mary Oliver’s non-dog related poetry, or go here. If you don’t care that I am so enamoured by this– the first book of poems I’ve read by Oliver– then pull up a chair, scratch your dog’s ears (if you’re lucky enough to have a dog friend), and stay.

You may not agree, you may not care, but

if you are holding this book you should know

that of all the sights I love in this world–

and there are plenty–very near the top of

the list is this one: dogs without leashes.

— “If You are Holding this Book”

Dog Songs by Mary Oliver is, of course, about the dogs she knew and the dogs who were her friends and companions but it is also about so much more. It is the closest that I, personally, came to understanding the word “unconditionally” and it is the closest that any poet, pet-owner, or indeed parent, has ever come to explaining something so complex. (I’m sorry I can’t pick out a single poem to give you evidence of the fact, I must point you to the whole book.) Also, each poem is a kind of reminder like, “Hello, did you know this fuzzy being holds unbelievable– maybe inexhaustible– amounts of love and joy, disproportionate to the size of his/her body? Did you?” I mean, really Oliver, why do you just kick me in the shins if you want to see me cry?

… 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 up into

my face. As though I were just as wonderful

as the perfect moon.

— “The Sweetness of Dogs”

Oliver’s poems are also about exploring the wider world through the dog’s eyes and it’s really remarkable how well she is able to capture the enthusiasm that each dog (and there are many mentioned in this book) brings to the world each day.

You’re like a little wild thing

that was never sent to school.

Sit, I say, and you jump up.

Come, I say, and you go galloping down the sand …

It is summer.

How many summers does a little dog have?

Run, run, Percy.

This is our school.

— “School”

That said, we also get to see the dogs through Oliver’s own eyes, of course– alongside some truly lovely sketches, just like the illustration on the cover. By the end of the book, you are only mildly surprised by the fact that each dog has its own personality (of course they do, how could you forget) and Oliver’s writing ensures that we never forget:

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, sad, sad.”

And pitifully he wrung his paws.

I cancelled the trip.

— “Conversation”

I started off saying that the book is about dogs but so much more … except maybe I didn’t mean that. Dog Songs has me convinced that if you can see a dog, truly see a dog, you’re already seeing so much more. So really, this book is what it says on the cover. If you choose to pick this book up, just be careful not to read it in public: unsurprisingly, Oliver is good at playing with her readers’ emotions. Or maybe her dogs are just that good.