Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘dogs’

24 FEBRUARY, 2014

Tara Brach Reads from Mary Oliver’s “Dog Songs”

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The beauty of unconditional love, at its sweetest.

Key among my favorite podcasts is one by DC-based mindfulness teacher Tara Brach. Imagine my delight when in a recent episode, Brach illustrated one of her teachings on lovingkindness, or metta, by reading from Dog Songs (public library) by Pulitzer-winning poet Mary Oliver — one of 2013′s best books about pets and animals, with which I fell in love last November.

This particular poem, titled “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night,” is easily my favorite from the altogether magnificent book, and Brach’s beautiful, gentle reading makes it triply enriching:

LITTLE DOG’S RHAPSODY IN THE NIGHT

He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough

he turns upside down, his four paws
  in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.

“Tell me you love me,” he says.

“Tell me again.”

Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell.

Dog Songs is a soul-stirring read in its totality. Whet your appetite with a few more poems from it, and be sure to listen to some of Brach’s full lectures, for she might just change your life — she certainly did mine.

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03 DECEMBER, 2013

Legendary Cartoonist Ralph Steadman’s Inkblot Dog Drawings

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Canine humanity from the beloved Gonzo cartoonist.

After the ceaselessly delightful Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, John Homans’s poignant What’s a Dog For?, and Mary Oliver’s sublime Dog Songs, it might be tempting to think the world couldn’t possibly need another book about dogs. But how could one resist such a gem as The Ralph Steadman Book of Dogs (public library) by legendary British artist and caricaturist Ralph Steadman, best-known for collaborating with Hunter S. Thompson? His signature inkblot drawings — funny, beautiful, mischievous — tuck into the otherwise playful compendium of canine portraits a few serious, if subtle, jabs at our traditional attitudes. Somewhere between Antisocial Blot Dog and Buddhist Dog Searching for Happiness, we find parts of ourselves and find, above all, the ability to both laugh at them and accept them for all their messy earnestness.

Steadman, as his fans might know, is actually a longtime dog-lover. In the introduction to this book, he writes that he hopes it would present modern readers with a discovery tool for his three previous, out-of-print (though still findable and find-worthy) pooch paeans: Dogs’ Bodies (1977), A Leg in the Wind and other Canine Curses (1982), and No Good Dogs.

The Ralph Steadman Book of Dogs is an absolute treat. Complement it with 80 years of canine-themed art from the New Yorker archives, then see Stefan G. Bucher’s wonderful, Steadman-inspired Daily Monster, which is now a make-your-own inkblot monster app.

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12 NOVEMBER, 2013

Dog Songs: Mary Oliver on What Dogs Teach Us About the Meaning of Our Human Lives

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“Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift.”

Mary Oliver is not only one of the sagest and most beloved poets of our time, a recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, but is also among literary history’s greatest pet-lovers. Dog Songs (public library) collects her most soul-stirring poems and short prose celebrating that special human-canine relationship and what it reveals about the meaning of our own lives — a beautiful manifestation of Oliver’s singular sieve for extracting from the particularities of the poetic subject the philosophical universalities of the human condition to illuminate what it means to live a good life, a full life, a life of purpose and presence.

Inhale, for instance, this:

LUKE

I had a dog
  who loved flowers.
    Briskly she went
        through the fields,

yet paused
  for the honeysuckle
    or the rose,
        her dark head

and her wet nose
  touching
    the face
         of every one

with its petals
  of silk,
    with its fragrance
         rising

into the air
  where the bees,
    their bodies
        heavy with pollen,

hovered—
  and easily
     she adored
        every blossom,

not in the serious,
  careful way
    that we choose
        this blossom or that blossom—

the way we praise or don’t praise—
  the way we love
     or don’t love—
        but the way

we long to be—
  that happy
    in the heaven of earth—
        that wild, that loving.

Amidst the poetic, there are also the necessary, playfully practical reminders of how dogs illustrate the limitations of our own sensory awareness:

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know almost nothing.

Then there are the fictional — or are they? — conversations with Oliver’s dog Ricky, which brim with love and wisdom. In one, titled “Show Time,” they watch a dog show on TV and wince at the unfortunate, borderline abusive grooming the contestants have had to endure. Ricky exclaims:

“If I ever meet one of these dogs I’m going
to invite him to come here, where he can
be a proper dog.”

Okay, I said. But remember, you can’t fix
everything in the world for everybody.

“However,” said Ricky, “you can’t do
anything at all unless you begin. Haven’t
I heard you say that once or twice, or
maybe a hundred times?”

In another poem, Oliver affectionately acknowledges that innocent canine gift for employing a dog’s intellect for his own self-gratification, as when he dupes both you the other household human into feeding him breakfast:

Be prepared. A dog is adorable and noble. A dog is a true and loving friend. A dog is also a hedonist.

In a short prose piece, Oliver considers the wretched elephant in every dog-lover’s room:

Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old — or so it feels. We would do anything to keep them with us, and to keep them young. The one gift we cannot give.

One of her most poignant meditations strokes the heart of why dogs are so much more than the ornament Virginia Woolf’s nephew reduced them to. It comes in the collection’s concluding essay, emanating the loving-kindness of Buddhism and condensing that in the prism of the dog:

Because of the dog’s joyfulness, our own is increased. It is no small gift. It is not the least reason why we should honor as well as love the dog of our own life, and the dog down the street, and all the dogs not yet born. What would the world be like without music or rivers or the green and tender grass? What would this world be like without dogs?

LITTLE DOG’S RHAPSODY IN THE NIGHT

He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds.
And when I’m awake, or awake enough

he turns upside down, his four paws
  in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.

“Tell me you love me,” he says.

“Tell me again.”

Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over
he gets to ask.
I get to tell.

But even more powerful is the other direction of that affirmative affection — the wholehearted devotion of dogs, who love us unconditionally and in the process teach us to love; in letting us see ourselves through their eyes, they help us believe what they see, believe that we are worthy of love, that we are love.

THE SWEETNESS OF DOGS

What do you say, Percy? I am thinking
of sitting out on the sand to watch
the moon rise. It’s full tonight.
So we go

and the moon rises, so beautiful it
makes me shudder, makes me think about
time and space, makes me take
measure of myself: one iota
pondering heaven. Thus we sit, myself

thinking how grateful I am for the moon’s
perfect beauty and also, oh! how rich
it is to love the world. Percy, meanwhile,
leans against me and gazes up
into my face. As though I were just as wonderful
as the perfect moon.

Ultimately, the closing verses of the poem “Percy Wakes Me” speak for the entire collection:

This is a poem about Percy.
This is a poem about more than Percy.
Think about it.

And oh how much more is Dog Songs about. Complement it with The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, one of the best art books of 2012, John Homans’s impossibly moving What’s a Dog For?, and this illustrated adaptation of Bob Dylan’s classic If Dogs Run Free.

Donating = Loving

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