Why I Chose Cleopatra Mathis’s “Book of Dog” for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club


I don’t really even care for dogs, but reading Book of Dog I care, very deeply, for three dogs and a pack of coyotes. I care about a spider and a day old mouse. I care about an over-wintering beetle, a drowning chipmunk and a dissolving marriage. I care about an old heron and the trials of this heroine’s life. I care because Cleopatra Mathis makes me care. She writes with such deft control and concentrated urgency that I cannot help but care about the world she renders.

Through Book of Dog, I see the world as Mathis sees it, and I smell it and feel it, too. This book makes me feel. It makes me hurt. And, in a crucial completion of a job well done, Book of Dog helps me understand the sources of these feelings. In her refined and direct poems, Mathis describes several forms of grief (grief due to the dissolution of a relationship, grief due to dislocation, grief due to the death of someone much loved). She is never wordy. Instead, her poems allow the world to speak for itself and, in that way, we learn everything we need to know. Baroque and potentially sentimental meditations are “replaced by the plain language of the dogs,/ who in a few syllables have everything to say” (“Answer”). There is solace in this path to understanding, a different kind of peace.

When asked what the poet’s job is in the world, I have said poets are the articulators of empathy. The poet understands another’s feelings. The poet clarifies her own feelings as she relates them to the world. This is not easy work. There is a divide between the self and the other that must be addressed with care. In her poems, Mathis bridges that distance in the same way a spider’s web might bridge a divide with “the few crossed lines/ threaded by the sun, lit so lightly/ as if to be ignored” (“Holding On”). This is a difficult task, the spinning and revealing of webs, but Mathis makes it seem effortless. Not because her poems are not carefully crafted, but because they are so carefully crafted as to appear natural. Through her direct and simple language, Mathis masters one of the most difficult challenges of empathy. She enters other bodies without appropriating their individual spirit. No one being’s importance is shoved aside in favor of another’s. The dog’s ambitions are articulated simultaneously with the human speaker’s. I understand both, believe both, and care about neither more than the other.

I am enthralled with the delicate way Mathis handles the world in these poems. I can see how deeply she cares for it. As you read Book of Dog, you will too.

Camille T. Dungy is the author of the essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History (W. W. Norton, 2017), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and four collections of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascade (Wesleyan UP, 2017). She edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (UGA, 2009), co-edited the From the Fishouse poetry anthology (Persea, 2009), and served as assistant editor on Gathering Ground: Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade (University of Michigan Press, 2006). She is the poetry editor for Orion magazine. Dungy's work has appeared in Best American Poetry, 100 Best African American Poems, Best American Essays, Best American Travel Essays, the Pushcart Anthology and more than 30 other anthologies, plus dozens of print and online venues including Poetry, American Poetry Review, VQR, Literary Hub, Paris Review, and Poets.org. Her honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Book Award, a Colorado Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, two NAACP Image Award Nominations, and fellowships from the NEA in both poetry and prose. She lives in Colorado with her husband and daughter (and down the street from her parents, who followed her this time around). Dungy is a University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University. More from this author →