Signpost Twenty-One, Canis Familiaris, Mori Ponsowy

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Look away, cat people: it’s a dog poem! A beautiful dog poem, from the book Enemies Outside / Enemigos Afuera, published by Waterloo Press, Hove.

Mori Ponsowy was born in Argentina, grew up in Peru and Venezuela, but now lives back in Buenos Aires, where she works as a freelance editor. With an MA in Political Sciences and an MFA in Creative Writing, she has had several books published, including novels, and translations of poetry by Sharon Olds and Marie Howe.

Enemies Outside is a stunning collection of poems written by Mori Ponsowy and translated by Mori Ponsowy and Naomi Foyle. It is beautifully presented with the poems in Spanish on the left-hand and English on the right-hand page. Last night, my lovely poet friend, Susan Castillo, offered to read it in Spanish, and it was hypnotic!  Meanwhile, you’re stuck with me, so here it is in English, reproduced in full with the kind permission of the author:

 

CANIS FAMILIARIS

In the beginning, a dog
sniffed the air, the earth, the trees,
then told me which way
the red deer had run.

When I learned that seeds could yield
wheat, barley and corn,
he herded my cattle and sheep,
guarded the entrance to a hut made of mud.

He delivered messages from village to village,
hauled sleds over snowy tracks, watched me
make pestles, mortars and grindstones,
barked when I danced,
whimpered as I prayed.

At Pompeii, he tried to save my flaming child
I found them together –
the boy’s cries buried in ashes and lava,
my dog curled on top.

I named him King of Norway, Forced his subjects
to pay tribute, stoop before him, to submit.
He seemed not to notice – kept wagging his tail
in the mornings, licking my face and my feet.

He’s guarded the gates of the underworld,
guided the blind, Talked in the movies, served
as a test-site for human induced illnesses –
haemophilia, nephritis, von Gierke’s disease.

I launched him in a rocket to space. Strapped,
uncomprehending, destined to never return.
Biological data came back for a week
before the air provision ran out.

Across Sherman Road today, he looked me
straight in the eyes. I wanted to tell him I knew –
but we walked past each other. Closing our souls
and forgetting. Moving on with our lives.

 

***

 

So, when you’ve read the poem a couple of times and reached for the Kleenex, I’d like to say that the first time I read this , I found it heart-breaking – the way the dog has been with us throughout history, laid down its life for us, and yet we’ve mistreated it, ignored it, and how we may lose its companionship altogether . The third time I read it, I saw it as a depressing allegory of how we use, not only dogs, but all animals, including other people… well and minerals and vegetables, I suppose, to our own selfish ends. It can be a political poem, as well as a poem about dogs. I let myself feel desperately sad, but then I cheered up a bit and decided that we need to fight back against our selfishness and do what we can to save dogs/animals/the planet. Of course, you can also look at this interpersonally, at how we treat people we know, too. Am I preaching? Enough preaching!

Thoughts about the poem:

  • What a great idea to look at a subject through history! Paintings, history books, stories, movies, news items, medical research have all been used to give an epic backdrop to this poem.
  • The narrative is cinematic – we can see it, as if on a screen in our heads. The dog is active; sniffing, telling, herding, guarding. “…barked when I danced, whimpered as I prayed” gives us sounds, images, a sense of the dog’s camaraderie.
  • The mood changes from stanza to stanza, the interesting historical facts, the shocking Pompeii images, the bizarre King of Norway stanza, then the bringing up to date with movies, medical testing, space travel, and the painful stanza that takes place “Across Sherman Road today”, bringing the poem right up close in time and place.
  • Following on from the last point, I’ll always be grateful to Ira Lightman for telling me a poem should “soar”. This one picks up speed both emotionally, and through its narrative, propelling us to the powerful ending.

***

So, for our own poems, try writing about a subject through history and see what images and ideas come into your mind. Try some research, to add richness and interest to your poem. When I was first learning to write, I remember being taught that research is an important part of writing, so I rushed off to the local museum and came back with wonderfully dark images to write a miserable piece with a spooky Victorian background.

***

 

I could have chosen several poems from Mori Ponsowy’s gorgeous book, Enemies Outside, but plumped for this one because I’m a dog-lover and currently raising money for street dog rescue (details on my Facebook page). The beautifully-produced book can be bought from Waterloo Press from the following link:

http://www.waterloopress.co.uk/#/mori-ponsowy/4548331842

mori

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Signpost Twenty, ‘Way Out’, Susan Castillo Street

This blog is to keep a record of poetry that I’ve enjoyed and that’s inspired me to write my own poems, in the hope that you’ll enjoy them and be inspired, too.

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Born and raised in Louisiana, Susan Castillo Street’s voice retains a little of that Southern drawl, even after living in Europe since her twenties. I’ve just realized that when she speaks, a  memory of Scarlett O’Hara emerges, not of the doe-eyed Scarlett, simpering at Rhett Butler, but the survivor, who made a gown out of the curtains to try and fool Rhett, and vowed she’d never go hungry again. Susan is no fool. There’s very little worth knowing about American history that she doesn’t know. She’s appeared on BBC Radio 4 talking about the Salem Witch Trials and Pocahontas. She’s Harriet Beecher Stowe Professor Emerita, King’s College London. I know that – not because she likes to swank about it – but because she offered me a “pompous academic reference” (her words) for a university application. She’s kind, she’s helpful. She’s a wonderful storyteller. And she’s a gun-runner’s daughter.

Why am I telling you this? Because I’m currently thinking a lot about “voice” in poetry.  Although the idea can conjure eye-rolls at the whole pretentiousness of it, I’m learning that the more I throw caution to the wind and write whatever I want, the more I am discovering my own voice, in the sense that I’m writing poetry that sounds like me talking – something I would say in conversation. When you read Susan Castillo Street’s Gun-Runner’s Daughter it is just like sitting on the sofa in her house in front of a crackling fire and listening to her telling stories.

The Gun-Runners’ Daughter is divided into three sections. The first is about Susan’s own life, the second about historical characters, and the third, words of wisdom and observations on life itself. It’s not simple, but it’s beautifully easy to read. It’s published by Aldrich Press. You can buy it from this link:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Runners-Daughter-Susan-Castillo-Street/dp/1947465589/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1521117553&sr=8-1&keywords=susan+castillo+street+the+gun-runners+daughter

 

To the poem!

 

Way Out

At a certain age, one starts to think
about the way we’d like
to leave this Vale of Tears.

No slow drip of poison to our veins.
No exploding planes.
It would be far more fun

to go in burst of glory,
frolicking with a lover
heart to heart, skin to skin,

or topple over dancing
under the glitterball, lights flashing,
drums pounding in our ears.

Or fade to gentle night when sitting on a beach
smiling, waves
flowing in out, in out,

out.

 

 

***

 

 

I’m terrified of dying. Not the way in which I’ll die, but that I will have missed out – wasted time with unsuitable partners, not paid enough attention to my children,  argued too long with idiots, followed the wrong paths, and – yes, mucked about too long on Facebook instead of writing.

At first glance this poem is about the actual moment of dying, but then you realize it’s about how to live our lives. It’s not sickly-sweet. Life is described as a “Vale of Tears” and the horrors of “poison” and “exploding planes” are mentioned, although this is followed immediately with the importance of “fun”!

How romantic, that description of making love “heart to heart”, so it’s not just a stanza about having sex. In the following stanza, I can’t explain why I enjoy the word “topple” so much, but I do. This stanza is surely about living life to the full, with “glitterball, lights flashing, drums pounding”. And aren’t the different meanings of the title all making sense?

The ending, though! The “fade to gentle night” is cinematic. You hear waves flowing “in out, in out”, and that stanza break and single last word/stanza “out” is breathtaking.

 

***

 

So, for our own poems, try writing about how you would like to die. As ‘Way Out’ shows us, this need not be miserable or depressing.

Failing that, try simply being yourself and telling a story. Maybe from your childhood, or of someone you know or knew, or a story from history. See what comes out!

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Just a mention that if you write a poem inspired by my blog, I would love you to let me know! You don’t have to post the poem. You can use the “contacts” tab if you like.