Poem: “The Retrieval System”

A gorgeous poem about how we are able to see the people we love in animals.

Source: Shirley Bittner

The Retrieval System
By Maxine Kumin

It begins with my dog, now dead, who all his long life
carried about in his head the brown eyes of my father,
keen, loving, accepting, sorrowful, whatever;
they were Daddy’s all right, handed on, except
for their phosphorescent gleam tunneling the night
which I have to concede was a separate gift.

Uncannily when I’m alone these features
come up to link my lost people
with the patient domestic beasts of my life. For example,
the wethered goat who runs free in pasture and stable
with his flecked, agate eyes and his minus-sign pupils
blats in the tiny voice of my former piano teacher

whose bones beat time in my dreams and whose terrible breath
soured “Country Gardens,” “Humoresque,” and unplayable Bach.
My elderly aunts, wearing the heads of willful
intelligent ponies, stand at the fence begging apples.
The sister who died at three has my cat’s faint chin,
my cat’s inscrutable squint, and cried catlike in pain.

I remember the funeral. The Lord is my shepherd,
we said. I don’t want to brood. Fact: It is people who fade,
it is animals that retrieve them. A boy
I loved once keeps coming back as my yearling colt,
cocksure at the gallop, racing his shadow
for the hell of it. He runs merely to be.
A boy who was lost in the war thirty years ago
and buried at sea.

Here, it’s forty degrees and raining. The weatherman
who looks like my resident owl, the one who goes out and in
by the open haymow, appears on the TV screen.
With his heart-shaped face, he is also my late dentist’s double,
donnish, bifocaled, kind. Going a little gray,
advising this wisdom tooth will have to come out someday,
meanwhile filling it as a favor. Another save.
It outlasted him. The forecast is nothing but trouble.
It will snow fiercely enough to fill all these open graves.

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Review: Dog Is My Co-Pilot

Dog Is My Co-Pilot.

As I’ve said before, I’m not one who likes to read sappy stories about dogs. This is why I don’t watch dog movies. The dogs are always exceedingly and supernaturally noble and then they always get killed in the end. So over that.

I like stories about real life–which is why this collection of essays about living with dogs was perfect for me. Dog Is My Co-Pilot is a curated series of memoir-like writings by respected authors, pulled together by the editors of The Bark magazine.

Many of the stories were very funny. Many of the stories were very sad. Almost all of them (with a few exceptions, namely Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ story and Jon Katz’s and the super-dramatic New Age guy) were great. The essays successfully avoided the sappiness that so often permeates dog-human narratives.

Some of my favorites: I loved the essays by the wonderful poets Maxine Kumin and Mark Doty. My husband is a poet and has always encouraged me to read more poetry. You can imagine my delight when I learned that such well-respected poets like Kumin and Doty were also avid dog lovers. Kumin’s essay “Mutts” is a sweet and reflective essay on the dogs that have passed in and out of her life, particularly on her New England farm. “Accident,” by Doty, is a heartbreaking story about loss and grief, connected to both his dog and his partner.

Another essay that was very moving to me was “Sit. Stay. Heal.” by Lee Forgotson, written in the aftermath of 9/11. Forgotson was living in New York at the time, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, and wrote this essay describing her fear and depression in the months following the terrorist attacks. She was holed up alone in her apartment with her dog, waiting for her husband, a broadcast news anchor, to come home. The essay ends with this heart-rending moment: Forgotson, her husband, and their dog go out to eat. The dog is tied to a table and wanders off slightly to sniff a young man at a nearby table. When Forgotson looks back in a moment, the man is on his knees with his arms around her dog, weeping. It’s a touching and beautiful story of that gift animals can give us that no people can.

Regardless of your thoughts on over-emotionality, this is a collection of essays that is sure to make you feel the whole range of emotions that we feel with dogs: Joy, elation, frustration, rage, sympathy, grace, and redemption. Just to name a few. I recommend this collection very highly and I’m thankful I was able to find a copy myself.

Poem: “Custodian”

A gorgeous poem about the ritual between a spotted old dog and his carefully tended frogs.

Click for source.

Custodian
By Maxine Kumin

Every spring when the ice goes out
black commas come scribbling across the shallows.
Soon they sprout forelegs.
Slowly they absorb their tails
and by mid-June, full-voiced, they announce themselves.

Enter our spotted dog.
Every summer, tense with the scent of them,
tail arced like a pointer’s but wagging
in anticipation, he stalks his frogs
two hundred yards clockwise around
the perimeter of this mucky pond,
then counterclockwise, an old pensioner
happy in his work.

Once every ten or so pounces
he succeeds, carries his captive north
in his soft mouth, uncorks him on the grass,
and then sits, head cocked, watching the slightly
dazed amphibian hop back to sanctuary.

Over the years the pond’s inhabitants
seem to have grown accustomed
to this ritual of capture and release.
They ride untroubled in the wet pocket
of the dog’s mouth, disembark in the meadow
like hitchhikers, and strike out again for home.

I have seen others of his species kill
and swallow their catch and then be seized
with violent retchings. I have seen children
corner polliwogs in the sun-flecked hollow
by the green rock and lovingly squeeze
the life out of them in their small fists.
I have seen the great blue heron swoop in
time after wing-slapping time to carry
frogs back to the fledglings in the rookery.

Nothing is to be said here
of need or desire. No moral arises
nor is this, probably, purgatory.
We have this old dog,
custodian of an ancient race of frogs,
doing what he knows how to do
and we too, taking and letting go,
that same story.