Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Gone to the blogs

My granddad, viewing earth's worn cogs,
Said, "Things are going to the dogs."
His granddad in his house of logs
Said, "Things are going to the dogs."
His granddad in the Flemish bogs
Said, "Things are going to the dogs."
His granddad in his old skin togs
Said, "Things are going to the dogs."
There's just one thing I have to state:
The dogs have had a good long wait.


Dogs have been on my mind of late. My wife's family suffered the bereavement of their old dog Sally (a kind of bloodhound I think), and have now adopted a Jack Russell puppy, Pippa. I am not sure how Hector, their aging Alsatian, feels about this. But our one and a half year old son, who was a recent visitor (16 acres, half of it woods!), has found a soul mate. He and Pippa spent two days blissfully barking, chasing each other’s tails, nipping each other’s heels and so on. So much for him learning to talk. Dogspeak is far more fun: "so elegant, so intelligent."

Mark Doty's new collection, SCHOOL OF THE ARTS, abounds in canine concerns. There are poems about dogs and ones dedicated to dogs, such as 'Heaven For Beau':

"On one of his last walks, he stopped
near the corner of Thompson and Prince,

nostrils startlingly wide with the scent
drifted from a lunchstand soup kitchen's

open window. Believe me,
a dog's gaze opens, like ours,
when the world's an invitation..."

Of course there are also poems in it about (or featuring) people. He has a nice one about giving a hyacinth to Stanley Kunitz for his birthday, called, naturally, 'Heaven For Stanley'. Kunitz is an avid gardener apparently, and Doty's poem celebrates the cherished impermanence of flowers and plants, setting this (as one does) against his art: "I had thought poetry a brace against time,/ the hours held up for study in a voice's cool saline,// but his allegiance is not to permanent forms./ His garden's all furious change,// budding and rot and then the coming up again..."

And this of course, also, is where Doty's allegiance lies, those lines from 'Homo Will Not Inherit': "I'll tell you what I'll inherit: the margins." Such as, in that particular poem, steam on city streets. Dogs would approve.

'Letter To God' is an amusing fable (a kind of shaggy dog poem) offering a unique explanation for why dogs sniff each other's behinds. The original dog-ancestors elect to send a missive to God, pleading for an end to their suffering. The messenger is a retriever, who of course fails to return with an answer.

I wonder if Doty got this idea from another poem/fable, Heaney's, 'Tonight A Dog Was Crying In Wicklow Also'. It's about a similar petition to God (or Chukwu), this one from humans who wish to put a stop to mortality. Heaney's does not have a comic-erotic element, but is beautifully elegiac. As in Doty's poem, the messenger is a dog who gets distracted (by a toad in that instance):

"And that is how the toad reached Chukwu first,
The toad who'd overheard in the beginning
What the dog was meant to tell. 'Human beings,' he said
(And here the toad was trusted absolutely),
'Human beings want death to last forever.'

Then Chukwu saw the people's souls in birds
Coming towards him like black spots off the sunset
To a place where there would be neither roosts nor trees
Nor anyway back to the house of life.
And his mind reddened and darkened all at once
And nothing that the dog would tell him later
Could change that vision. Great chiefs and great loves
In obliterated light, the toad in mud,
The dog crying out all night behind the corpse house."

I once drew a cartoon about Dublin dogs, called 'Gurriers'. I still have the first strip somewhere, which I sent in to IN DUBLIN, who weren't interested, unsurprisingly. Maybe I'll post it here if I can find it.

We have kept only cats since our last dog, Terry, ambled off one day in his obese, arthritic old age, some 25 years ago, never to return. Maybe dogs, like elephants, have their secret graveyards. And whether we keep them as pets or not, they shadow the borders of our lives, sometimes stepping briefly into the spotlight, so that we can't, for some reason, forget them. Like that one I saw when I got off a plane in Athens:

Glass airport doors slide
wide, for a lame dog, Argos,
in from the Greek sun.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Transvestite Hermaphrodites

This is what semicolons are, according to Kurt Vonnegut in an extract from his forthcoming memoir (The Guardian Review, Saturday 14th January). A few paragraphs about war (and whether or not to talk about it) are followed by a brief lesson in creative writing:

"First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college.

And I realise some of you may be having trouble deciding whether I am kidding or not. So from now on I will tell you when I'm kidding.

For instance, join the National Guard or the Marines and teach democracy. I'm kidding.

We are about to be attacked by al-Qaida. Wave flags if you have them. That always seems to scare them away. I'm kidding.

If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don't have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I'm not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practising an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something."

I can dig this kind of dogmatic humour: shooting from the hip, telling it like it is. Is he kidding about semicolons though? I don't believe he is. I remember the poet Martin Mooney had a similar revulsion towards them. Or maybe it was just that he told me about what American poet Richard Hugo said about them in his excellent, autobiographical book (about creative writing among other things) THE TRIGGERING TOWN. Maybe this loathing of semicolons (or poor old transvestite hermaphrodites, heaven help them) is largely an American thing. I understand that they are a bit fussy and fiddly (Hugo thought they were "ugly" if I remember right). But they do serve a function, being less absolute than a full stop and more absolute than a comma. Okay, you could just use a full stop, or a comma as many poets do, or an extra space or two or a Dickinson – dash.

Maybe KV has pinpointed a weakness in my work; vagueness, an attachment to in-betweeness, to things that are neither one thing nor the other. Still, I find it hard to take issue with innocent bits of hard-working punctuation minding their own business.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Southside streetlight

Autumn evening, southside
Originally uploaded by southsidernotes.
I've been photographing suburban night or evening scenes for awhile now. Here's one of my recent ones, taken from near the house where I live. I was struck by the way the streetlamp highlighted the colour of the leaves.