“Book of Dog” by Cleopatra Mathis

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The domesticated dog, evolved 15,000 years ago from gray wolves, is not a reliquary of slavish dependence in Book of Dog, Cleopatra Mathis’ seventh collection, nor is it a token of the bourgeois middle-class’s presumed benignity. It is as necessary to world ecology as the mice, ants, and moths that populate the collection, and possessed of a “plain language” that challenges not only the echo chamber of rhetoric, but the very conceit (the restaging of the spatio-temporal order) of the lyric poem.

The narrative arc of Book of Dog is the loss of an unnamed dog, and with that grief, a refusal of lament: in “Canis” the speaker, “in a rush// of understanding the exact suffering fit of it [the coyotes’ ‘merciless lament’]” shuts the window’s “half-inch crack” and “just like that// in the dead center of a moan, the coyotes/ stopped their noise; what I mean to say is/ the wind stopped making that heartbroken sound.”

The refusal to hear is imbricated with the refusal to see, between the collection’s ghosted couple as well as the speaker and the dog: in “When She Spoke, He Closed His Eyes” this denial of sense (and the other’s plangent need for recognition) results in the transfiguration of female subject into absented site:

…she tried to disappear, obliged
by his own disappearing, becoming
who she wasn’t. Not there was not
who she was…
But how would that work
when he needed her to be there
in order to make her gone…

The primordial guilt of being (“To live in this place, you have to kill things”) leaves only the motionless (the “faultless” bug who will not “bite, breed, eat, or shit”) exempt: the ethical injunction of Book of Dog, then, is to feed and daily subdue the arrogant beast of burden (“Every morning, this taming which is not a taming—“) while recognizing that the disciplinary power the speaker wields over the defiant dog is only just insofar that it recalls her own resistance to control. The speaker’s return from self-alienation occurs through her identification with not her supererogatory “higher self,” but the domesticated dog:

See, she says, gathering him in the sling of her arms,/ her own animal self wild with no’s.

In the loaded interstice between the diurnal trudge (“like a one-man army dragging through the dead of white”) through winter’s frozen carapace to the “dense green and gold seasons” of spring is a terminus of waiting, which the speaker treats as a time for laboring with the earth (“I will use my hands/ to dig out the scatter of thrown-out seed”), however futile or mechanized (“And when that icy knot of a creature/ falls on my porch,/ I will bring a hairdryer . . . and cover/ the bird with a diffused, kind air.”)

Tasked with the Odyssean struggle to “make it back” from the insupportable fiction of linear history’s “haphazard chain,” the reward for maintaining “faith in the vanishing” is not certainty, but a willed reunion with nature and interdependence with, and via, the dog’s subterranean cry:

Reason has nowhere to take me—
So I startle, caught
when I hear a muffled barking somewhere below.
Buried, I realize, in the ground.
I stumble toward that fractured trail of sound
to the mouth of some fissure, and she comes
out of the earth, caked with dirt, panting…

“Explanation” (contrary to associative logic”),in “Their Chamber” is figured as a Mobius strip, in whose seamless “reversing and twisting” the speaker loses herself doubly, as exterior appearance (“the wormy down-under/raised-vein look of her skin”) and occupied interior (“while inside/running through her, the ribbon of his words”). Despite the speaker’s refusal of solace and, at times, perception, in “Transformation,” the Mobius strip (masculinist representation of reality) by which the female speaker was split is “knit” back together in the “sealed white bundle” of a spider’s web, the metaphor of a network triumphing over that of recursive linearity:

…what it had made—that gleaming knot—
kept safe until spring, the sac
billowing open, all that new life
surging forth.

The gravitational materiality of Book of Dog (“your body wrestling you to the bottom”) creates no out for the lyric imagination’s tendency to take flight, steal fire, and rhapsodize. The stilled pool of mud in which reader and speaker lie dormant (what Martin Glaz Serop calls “postproductive witness literature”) signals a stage in the lyric’s metamorphosis that yields pride of place not to the newest conceptualism, but the animal-as-pedagogue, through sonic or “merely” poetic language (message without a code): “being without need or purpose . . . just as the little terrier, brimful of nerve and trembling,/ alone, perched there, sentinel on the deck’s edge,/ has been trying all along to teach.”

The author of four poetry collections, including Bel Canto (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2022) and Hallelujah Time (Véhicule Press, 2021), and a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift, well as coeditor of Marbles on the Floor: How to Assemble a Book of Poems (University of Akron Press, 2023), Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Atlantic, American Poetry Review, and The Believer. More from this author →