When the Humble List Poem Gets Sneaky-Good

Some list poems are obvious. You find yourself reading a list that only works because a.) it is specific and visual with the other senses occasionally thrown in to spice things up, and b.) it has some context in that it is working toward a greater cause (theme, tone, voice).

Other times, the simple list poem is less obvious. You find yourself reading a “sneaky list poem,” as I call them. It’s an anecdote of sorts, and this fact distracts you. Then, upon second reading, you realize that the little story is propped by a list. It owes its success, in other words, to a little itemization.

To illustrate, let’s look at Faith Shearin’s “The Dog Watched Television.” The story is simple enough. Grandma, nervous about an approaching surgery, is upset. Then there’s Fido, who has smaller concerns (at least from our viewpoint). He hates being left alone in a silent bedroom and registers his displeasure in the universal language of dogs everywhere: barking. Nonstop.

Solution? Leave the television on, of course. While it doesn’t solve the Grandma problem (who is carted off to the hospital with the poem’s speaker), it certainly proves medicinal to the dog.

Why? As Elizabeth Barrett Browning once said, “Let me count the ways.” And eureka, the reader has found it! A little list of what’s on television, specifically shows that might make a canine feel fine and a reader feel amused.

Bottom line? No more barking! (Though I do wonder how Fido managed the remote, which baffled Grandma, even.)


The Dog Watched Television
Faith Shearin

The summer of my mother’s illness,
a season so hot and dry it might
have erupted in flames, we discovered
the dog liked television. She barked
if we left her alone in the dim silence
of the bedroom but was cheerful
if we provided a documentary
about whales. She learned why
prehistoric wolves were likely to
care for their sick and injured while
we drove my mother, fasting,
to the operating room and kicked
the broken dishwasher and forgot
garbage day for so many weeks
the utility room became an odor.
The dog watched Billy the Exterminator
capture raccoons and alligators
and restore them to their natural habitats;
she watched The Civil War, learned
about our national parks, considered
the troubles facing our oceans.
My mother wept and raged and drank
clear liquids and worried that none of us
loved her enough, and the dog settled
her narrow head on a pillow,
her black eyes wise.