I like reading poems that go where angels fear to tread. One such category would be dog poems. As a subject in poetry, dogs and cats are on the “hit list.” You know what that means. Proceed at your own risk. Or, as the sign in the Wizard of Oz says, “I’d go back if I were you.”
But me, I’m a dog guy. I am as disinterested in cats as they are in me. But there’s an asterisk after “dog guy,” too. In this day and age, pets are so high on the pedestal that they often surpass humans.
For instance, you see more and more people bringing their pets into stores, causing me to shake my head and say, “Why was that dog not left at home?” They allow dogs on furniture, causing me to ask, “Why was this dog never trained to stay on the floor?” They allow dogs into their beds under the covers, causing me to say, “Um. Gross.”
So, yeah. I’m a dog guy, but an old-school dog guy. To me a dog is a dog and should be both respected and treated as such. He or she is not a surrogate son or daughter worthy of birthday parties with guests or full-fledged funerals and burials or prominent places in lasts wills and testaments. Why? Because he or she is a dog.
That said, dogs can still teach us a thing or two about human nature. The late Tony Hoagland took a shot at it himself in a poem he called “Fetch.” You might find it fetching. You might find it delineates key aspects of dogs’ characters. For starters, their unconditional love and loyalty—rare things coming from humans.
Whatever you find or don’t, you have to admire Hoagland’s trying. There are no forbidden topics in poetry, he seems to be saying. And if dogs don’t belong in grocery store carts, they at least belong in poems!
Who knew that the sweetest pleasure of my fifty-eighth year
would turn out to be my friendship with the dog?
That his trembling, bowlegged bliss at seeing me stand there with the leash
would give me a feeling I had sought throughout my life?
Now I understand those old ladies walking
their Chihuahuas in the dusk, plastic bag wrapped around one hand,
content with a companionship that, whatever
else you think of it, is totally reliable.
And in the evening, at cocktail hour,
I think tenderly of them
in all of those apartments on the fourteenth floor
holding out a little hotdog on a toothpick
to bestow a luxury on a friend
who knows more about uncomplicated pleasure
than any famous lobbyist for the mortal condition.
These barricades and bulwarks against human loneliness,
they used to fill me with disdain,
but that was before I found out my metaphysical needs
could be so easily met
by the wet gaze of a brown-and-white retriever
with a slight infection of the outer ear
and a tail like a windshield wiper.
I did not guess that love would be returned to me
as simply as a stick returned when it was thrown
again and again and again—
in fact, I still don’t exactly comprehend.
What could that possibly have to teach me
about being human?
It’s one of those poems that ends in a question. A metaphorical question, if you’re a dog owner.