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Poems by Mark Doty

Our Veterinary Medicine and Literature courses begin and end with a reading of "Beau: Golden Retrievals", a poem that we have found engages and inspires everyone who reads it and that says more than a hundred studies of the "human-animal bond". "Beau" is from Sweet Machine by Mark Doty, copyright 1998 by HarperCollins, and is used here with the author's permission.

News: Mark Doty will read and speak at the 2010 Veterinary Medicine and Literature Symposium, May 10 and 11. For information, visit the OVC Conference website.

Beau: Golden Retrievals

Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention
seconds at a time. Catch? I don't think so.
Bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who's—oh
joy—actually scared. Sniff the wind, then

I'm off again, muck, pond, ditch, residue
of any thrillingly dead thing. And you?
Either you're sunk in the past, half our walk,
thinking of what you never can bring back,

or else you're off in some fog concerning
—tomorrow, is that what you call it? My work:
to unsnare time's warp (and woof), retrieving,
my haze-headed friend, you. This shining bark,

a Zen master's bronzy gong, calls you here,
entirely, now: bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow.

— Beau

 

Ultrasound

I'm ushering the dogs into the back of the car,
after our morning walk in the wet woods,
herding them in—Beau who needs his generous
attention brought into focus, his gaze
pointed into the tailgate so he'll be ready
to leap up, and Arden, arthritic in his hind legs,
who needs me to lift first his forepaws
and then, placing my hands under his haunches,
hoist the bulk of him into the wagon,
so that he growls a little before he turns around
to face me gratefully, glad to have been lifted—
and as I go to praise them, as I like to do,
the words that come from my mouth,
out of nowhere, are Time's children,
as though that were the dearest thing
a person could say, the most loving name.
Where did that come from, why did I
call them by that name? I know
they fly along that quick parabola
faster than we do, racing the arc
as though it were some run
they'd gone for, a jaunt in the best
of woods, so inviting they continue
in their dreams, paws twitching slightly,
sometimes even releasing little stifled cries,
—as though even asleep they must hurry ahead
in the motion of time, which doesn't go fast enough
for them already? Weeks ago
my good boy—patient, willing to endure
whatever we deem necessary for him—
lay on his side on the high table,
while the vet ran along the shaved pink
and blonde down of his belly a kind of wand,
pointing a stream of soundwaves
to translate the dark inside his ribs
onto a midnight screen, its pulse
and throb of storm systems
charcoaled, imperial black, his body
figured as a field of pinpoints
subtle as the faintest stars.
The wand slides, the unseen's made
—not clear, exactly, nothing like anatomy
as I'd expect it, no chartable harmony
of parts. Something more like a blackboard
covered with a dust of living chalk, feeding,
hurrying, a live chaos-cloud worried
by turbulence, as the rod glides ahead
and the doctor narrates these swoons
of shadow I can't quite force into shape:
The kidneys might … the spleen appears …
But I can't see what he sees, and so resort
to simile: cloudbank, galaxies. That's it,
the inside of a dog's body resembles the far sky,
telescopic space alive with slow comings
and goings, that far away.
The doctor makes appreciative noises,
to encourage me; he praises Beau's stillness.
I stroke the slope of face beneath
his open, abstracted eyes. I'd like to see
where a bark begins its urgent unspooling
up from the depths beneath the surface of his belly
—revealed now, blue-veined, gleaming
with an alcohol gel to allow the sound waves
to penetrate more precisely. Though they don't locate
the quick core of him, his alert responsiveness
to the world—rabbit, stranger, cat on the lawn—
how the impulse leaps out of nowhere
then swells as it unfurls beneath the spine,
past the lungs' sounding chamber,
propelled by the diaphragm's push
across voicebox, tongue and the bright garden
of teeth into the light, baritone whoop
saying back to the day anything at all.
You can't see that, nor the clockworks deep
in the wellsprings, or that fixed place
out of which the dog's long regarding
of us rises. We didn't see, really,
anything. It wasn't cancer, wasn't clear,
no diagnosis firm. He's having trouble
keeping up his weight, and he's lost
his old appetites, though he races the damp trails
as though there were no tomorrow,
still fire, the same golden hurry
I've loved these years. Imagine a sound
to read us, render us, this morning,
in the last of the April rain,
the three of us energized by duration,
bound by the firing and fueling
in our depths, penetrated
by a rhythm too swift for us to hear,
though we catch intimations
of that furious rush and ardor.
Would it be an endearment,
the sound time makes,
seeing through us,
ushering us through?

Excerpts from Mark Doty’s Slate Diary where he discusses the writing of this poem – A weeklong electronic journal at http://slate.msn.com/id/81629/entry/81976/
Thursday, May 4, 2000, at 6:00 PM PT


The day after writing a poem is a strange day, as if some psychic weather system had moved through, disrupting the familiar, energizing the air, leaving a feeling of volatility and unsettledness. That state of receptivity can last a while. Sometimes one poem leads to another, as if the energy that generated the poem is still around, still swirling, and maybe if you're lucky it will lead to more.

I'd hoped this would happen today, but I couldn't quite settle in to work. It was that fritzy, distracted feeling—static on my inner radio. In part because my poem confronts the illness of my dear dog Beau, which I haven't much wanted to think about. He's lived with me for seven years now, and he came into my life in the most difficult of circumstances, at a moment of crisis. I was in despair, just then, but he was brimming with life; no matter how dark things were for me, Beau needed a walk, a run, dinner, a swim, and something about his shining sense of fun helped to pull me back toward life.

Therefore it's that much harder to admit that he's mortal—something we'd prefer not to examine about any creature we love anyway. And, of course, the mortality of animals is a way we approach our own, a means through which we rehearse our own aging, our ineluctable transits through time. My poem's only partly about dogs.

All this was tumbling through my head today, along with the need to do the laundry and my need to start getting ready for a little trip I'm taking tomorrow, flying to New Jersey to appear at a high school for a day celebrating the art of poetry. So, when I tried to write, to see if there was more where "Ultrasound" came from, I managed a few little silly, self-critical lines, making fun of myself for my preoccupation with death. Nothing much. I thought the workday was lost, so I gave up and paid attention to other things. Picked up the house. Shaved off my beard. Suddenly I felt much better, lighter. I remembered my friend Julia Alvarez, who, just a couple of weeks ago, was sporting short hair for the first time since I'd known her, a modified Jeanne d'Arc bob. She looked great, and when I commented on it, she said, "Oh, I just finished a novel, and I had to do something."

This makes perfect sense to me, but poets probably can't change their look each time a poem makes it onto the page. And since I keep changing my mind as to when a poem is actually done, I'd be putting myself through a dizzying series of looks! Oh, well—today a shave and an afternoon walk in the woods with Arden and Beau was exactly the thing. When I came home I decided to try one more time, and a few more lines tumbled out—nothing complete, but enough to make me feel my day wasn't wasted…


     

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