The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver is arguably one of the most beloved living poets in the English language. She is certainly, according to the New York Times, “America’s best-selling poet,” and the reasons for that are numerable. Renowned for her love of nature, Ms. Oliver writes exquisite, lyrical poems that not only capture the beauty of, say, a rushing waterfall or a blade of grass or a flock of wild geese; her poems also transform those moments of witness into something magical, even spiritual. Oliver’s poems, in other words, remind the reader of how much there is to love in this world.
Nowhere is this love more evident than in Oliver’s latest collection, Dog Songs, which includes new material as well as some of her most famous poems about her many beloved dogs. We meet Bear, who, running through the snow, writes “in large, exuberant letters/a long sentence/expressing the pleasures of the body in this world.” And Luke, a former junkyard dog who came to love flowers: “Briskly she went through the fields,/ yet paused/for the honeysuckle/or the rose/her dark head/and her wet nose/ touching/the face/ of every one.” And Benjamin, a formerly abused dog who was afraid of many things. To comfort the dog, Oliver “fondles his long hound ears” and tells him, “Don’t worry. I also know the way/the old life haunts the new.” We also meet Sammy, infamous in Oliver’s hometown for roaming, and Ricky, a rescue from Cuba with lots of attitude.
And of course we meet Percy, a rescue whom Oliver immortalized in her celebrated “Percy” poems (in 2008, 2,500 people gave Oliver a standing ovation when she read some of these poems). Oliver, who described Percy as “a mixture of gravity and waggery,” often wrote from his point of view.
This excerpt from the Percy poem “The Sweetness of Dogs” made me cry:
… Thus, we sit, myself
There isn’t room in this review to quote every remarkable poem. All I can do is encourage you to buy this book and savor it. Who else but Mary Oliver can bring dogs to life with such tender, touching imagery? These poems will make you smile, laugh, cry and nod your head in delighted agreement.
This exquisite collection closes with an essay entitled “The Summer Beach.” Here, Oliver summarizes the many reasons to love dogs. “The dog would remind us of the pleasures of the body with its graceful physicality, of the acuity and rapture of the senses, and the beauty of the forest and ocean and rain and our own breath. There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him … Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased.”
Oliver—who, I should add, is a fan of The Bark and has been published here many times—concludes with: “What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be without dogs?”
I would add: What would the world be like without Mary Oliver’s poetry?
If You Are Holding This Book
Photograph: Rachel Giese Brown