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:
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.
- A note on the title. “Canis Familiaris”, suggests a sense of history in the idea of a dog being a domesticated animal, descended from the wolf. Mori has just read this (!) and pointed out to me that I haven’t explained that the dog genus, canis familiaris, evolved around people, with our families. It wouldn’t exist without people. The word “familiaris”, even if you don’t know it is Latin for “family”, has connotations of family, which brings the dog in the poem closer to the reader, and of familiarity, suggesting the dog being always with us, always around, so that the last stanza is even more powerful in that if we carry on like this, one day soon the dog may no longer be around.
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: