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 author of Smith Blue; Suck on the Marrow; and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. She is also editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, co-editor of From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems that Sing, Rhyme, Resound, Syncopate, Alliterate, and Just Plain Sound Great, and assistant editor of Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade. Dungy has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, Cave Canem, the Dana Award, and Bread Loaf, is the winner of the 2011 American Book Award, a two-time recipient of the Northern California Book Award, and silver medal winner in the 2011 California Book Award. A two-time NAACP Image Award nominee, she has been shortlisted for the 2011 Foreword Magazine Book of the Year Award, the 2011 Balcones Poetry Prize, the PEN Center USA 2007 Literary Award, and the Library of Virginia 2007 Literary Award. Dungy is currently a professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University. Her poems and essays have been published widely in anthologies and print and online journals. http://www.camilledungy.com/ More from this author →