Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

I’ve spent most of my life uninterested in dogs. My mind and heart were too busy with other things to take much notice of them. I did however, value children’s interests and so gave much room to a variety of pets in our children’s lives. I also made it extremely clear that these pets would have no room in my inner circle of life. They remained on the peripheral, living in my house, but connected to me only like the friend of a friend.

But I’ve experienced a gigantic change of pace in my life in the last few years. I’ve received a gift I lost in high school and haven’t seen since: time.

I have time to read. I have time to think, write, and observe. And so, I’ve spent some time with these “animal people” who I was too busy to notice until now.

They are curious and sweet and funny and attentive. These dogs are people-watchers and seekers of sunshine. I like them. They have kind eyes. They make me realize I miss seeing people with kind eyes.

I have a few people in my life who are dog-lovers and I think I’m learning from them, and from dogs. I think the gift of time is making my heart softer. And I think a new-found respect for dogs makes me a better lover of people.

Poet Mary Oliver’s book Dog Songs is clever, insightful and basically a bunch of love poems regarding dogs. Mary Oliver is a craftsman of words. Even if you’re not into poetry, give these a try. Mary’s intelligent conversations with her dogs makes you smile and wish you could ask Ricky a few questions yourself.

“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.”
― Mary OliverDog Songs

“You’re like a little wild thing
that was never sent to school.”
― Mary OliverDog Songs

“Here’s a story, and you don’t have to visit many
houses to find it. One person is talking,
the other one is not really listening.
Someone can look like they are but they’re
actually thinking about something they
want to say, or their minds are just
wandering. Or they’re looking at that
little box people hold in their hands these
days. And people get discouraged, so they
quit trying. And the very quiet people,
you may have noticed, are often the sad
― Mary OliverDog Songs

The Traveler
Ricky, your ancestors are from Cuba,
Says Ricky, “So I’m told.”
But you were born in Florida?
“I was a baby, how would I know?
     But that’s what I’m told.”
And you’ve lived in Massachusetts and
     other states and also Mexico and
     now Florida again, and heaven knows
     what other places you may travel to.
     Are you an American, or what?
He shrugged his shoulders casually and
     smiled. “Je suis un chien du monde*,”
     he said.

*I am a dog in the world.

The Wicked Smile
“Please, please, I think I haven’t eaten for days.”
What? Ricky, you had a huge supper.
“I did? My stomach doesn’t remember.
Oh, I think I’m fading away. Please
make me breakfast and I’ll tell you
something you don’t know.”
He ate rapidly.
Okay, I said. What were you going to
tell me?
He smiled the wicked smile. “Before we
came over, Anne already game me my breakfast,”
he said.
Be prepared. A dog is adorable and noble.
A dog is a true and loving friend. A dog
is also a hedonist.

Show Time
And here come the dogs. Brushed, trimmed,
“What on earth have they done to them!”
said Ricky. “They’re half shaved. And
wearing pillows on their heads. And
where are their tails?’
It’s the rules, I said.
“And look at those women trying to run.
They sure don’t look like you.”
Thank you, I said.
“I’m getting a headache looking at this.
I have to bark!” And he began.
It does no good to bark at the television,
I said. I’ve tried it too. So he stopped.
“If I ever meet one of these dogs I’m going
to invite him to come here, where he can
be a proper dog.”
Okay, I said. But remember, you can’t fix
everything in the world for everybody.
“However,” said Ricky, “you can’t do
anything at all unless you begin. Haven’t
I heard you say that once or twice, or
maybe a hundred times?”

“But I want to extol not the sweetness nor the placidity of the dog, but the wilderness out of which he cannot step entirely, and from which we benefit. For wilderness is our first home too, and in our wild ride into modernity with all its concerns and problems we need also all the good attachments to that origin that we can keep or restore. Dog is one of the messengers of that rich and still magical first world. The dog would remind us of the pleasures of the body with its graceful physicality, and the acuity and rapture of the senses, and the beauty of forest and ocean and rain and our own breath. There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him.

The other dog—the one that all its life walks leashed and obedient down the sidewalk—is what a chair is to a tree. It is a possession only, the ornament of a human life. Such dogs can remind us of nothing large or noble or mysterious or lost. They cannot make us sweeter or more kind.

Only unleashed dogs can do that. They are a kind of poetry themselves when they are devoted not only to us but to the wet night, to the moon and the rabbit-smell in the grass and their own bodies leaping forward.”
― Mary OliverDog Songs


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