Review: Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

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Mary Oliver’s poetry dependably lingers on the topics that quicken her heart, which is to say the blessings of the natural world: flowers and field mice, the magic of a bird flying over breaking waves, morning light (and sunsets as well). But the subject she seems to come most alive writing about is certainly dogs. In Dog Songs she compiles thirty-six writings of various styles – poems of differing natures, and one essay – which extol the many beloved virtues of the dogs she’s known and loved. Her writings cross between poignant and joyful, paying homage in full to the history of dogs and to the unique way they have of changing our lives. Alongside her poems are illustrations by John Burgoyne depicting the subjects of her Songs; a collection of pictures rendered in a style that elegantly echoes Oliver's writing in its surface simplicity and deeper vastness. From the first poem to the last, Dog Songs rings of Oliver’s very singular magic with poetry and capturing the nature of dogs. One of my favorites was the sad yet hopeful poem Luke’s Junkyard Song which includes the lines, “Listen, a junkyard puppy / Learns quickly how to dream. / Listen, whatever you see and love- / That’s where you are.” Of loss, she handles the sadness of the subject with a lot of truth, something particularly evident in poems like Her Grave. Here Oliver alternates her musings on the past – and on the goodness of dogs in general – with her present, a visit to a beloved dog’s grave. Between showing us the scene of the grave she offers such delightful asides as: “A dog can never tell you what she knows from the / smells of the world, but you know, watching her, / that you know / almost nothing.”

In a way that’s entirely characteristic of her poetic approach to everything in life Oliver goes beyond the now, calling on the prehistoric history of how and who we are. Her application of that insight on the subject of dogs brings her to touch on their ultimate wildness, their connection to wolves and the rough-hewn freedom that has been handed down to them throughout their evolution. It makes for a particularly wonderful bit of imagery, perfectly captured in Dog Talk when “Wolf faces appear in dreams”. I think it’s here that Oliver reaches some of her most passionate writing, when she’s paying tribute, in her way, to the most basic nature of dogs and connecting the past wildness to the present compassion, ultimately achieving the illustration of perfect love as she sees it (on four legs, giving kisses, and probably indulging in some grand mischief).

Dog Songs had been on my reading list – and very highly anticipated – since it was published last year, and despite my high expectations it still didn’t disappoint. I don’t think Mary Oliver knows how to disappoint, and she certainly isn’t going to try when she gets onto this particular subject. With all of her trademark natural beauty, the poems in Dog Songs are a must-have collection for dog lovers with a poetic inclination.


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PoetryCasee MarieMary Oliver