Book of Dog, Cleopatra Mathis
In Book of Dog, Cleopatra Mathis counters the absences inside a home with the everyday marvels of the yard, the woods, the shore. Attentiveness is a form of consolation, just as a poem transfers the grace of art to the humdrum losses and obligations of experience. “There is everything and nothing and why/ shouldn’t you see yourself the same.”
Cleopatra Mathis was born and raised in Ruston, Louisiana. The author of seven books of poems, her work has appeared widely in anthologies, textbooks, magazines and journals, including The New Yorker, Poetry, Best American Poetry, TriQuarterly, The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, The Made Thing: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern Poetry, and The Extraordinary Tide: Poetry by American Women. Prizes for her work include two National Endowment for the Arts grants, the Jane Kenyon Award, the Peter I.B. Lavan Younger Poets Award, two Pushcart Prizes, the Robert Frost Award, and fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts, and the New Jersey State Arts Council. Mathis is the Frederick Sessions Beebe ‘35 Professor in the Art of Writing at Dartmouth College. She lives in Post Mills, VT.
Praise for Book of Dog:
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.
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.
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.”