Book of Dog
All praise to the light on the wing
of the wasp fallen to the wood floor,
enough universe for the dog
waiting while you are away.
But as long as your body sits on the chair,
he’s not worried
where you are and when you look up
from that far place, he returns
may I lick your hand: the sign
you give back in the glory
song of the one word:
his name in your mouth.
From time to time, all too rarely, we come upon a book that reminds us why we go to poetry in the first place. Why, amid the depredations of time and faithlessness and the stark indifference of the gods, we still seek solace in language and clarity of mind. Book of Dog is just such a reminder. These elegant, heart-wrought poems were written by a lyricist at the height of her powers. I will turn to them again and again.
Cleopatra Mathis’s work is immediately recognizable to readers of contemporary poetry. It's inclusive and personal. She is committed to writing her poems using the material of her life, present and past-- always writing, as Yeats said, "as if in a letter to an intimate friend." She is not a maker but a seeker; she does not teach and delight, but tells us plainly what matters to her; she is less interested in nicety of expression than in communicating her emotional energy. She is original in the way she works the contours of her subjects, trying to let them have their full articulation over the imperatives of form. These new poems proceed from devastating circumstances: they are wilder, more moving, and more beautiful than anything else she has done.
I love this book! And haven't been able to say so about any book so unequivocally for a long time. Not only has Mathis found subjects that impel her toward writing that's both deep and poignant, but she's not afraid of registering sentiment right up to the almost unbearable edge. The creatures for which she has so much intelligent and well-wrought empathy, we suspect arise out of a profound sympathy with the travails of simply being alive, but there's no self-pity here, just what feels acute and often painful, and beautiful accuracy.
Divorce is its own manner of dying. But where a death may solidify memory, stabilizing the past, divorce recasts, mistrusts, and erases our engagements, even our sense of self. That is its particular horror. Cleopatra Mathis’s Book of Dog commences at the onset of such crisis, where “somewhere in there should have been a marriage.” These severe poems trace the trauma of rupture, written out of a shocked and diminished present where life is reconstituted in doubtful ways. Yet Mathis’s soulful generosity and artistic courage show us a solace in begrieved solitude; and as she documents her first stunned new steps forward, we marvel at her freshly seen community of comrades—a spider, a bat, a day-old mouse, and a wonderful companion “new dog,” whose eager “what now, what now?” becomes a figure for resilience and the prospect of hope. The deepest gift of Book of Dog is precisely this hope, this “waiting to be charmed.”