You don’t really own a dog, you live with one. You live with the wet noses, happy wags and unrestrained love. This brevity of our being is revisited courtesy celebrated poet Mary Oliver in the trailing lines. What we own and what owns us.
“A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house, but you do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the trees, or the laws which pertain to them …
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. . .” — Mary Oliver
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?
In ‘School’, Mary’s recitation on the impermanence of love and loss is as profound as it is simple:
You’re like a little wild thing That was never sent to school. Sit, I say, and you jump up. Come, I say, and you go galloping down the sand To the nearest dead fish With which you perfume your sweet neck. It is summer. How many summers does a little dog have?
Once for new year’s, I received a greeting card from my English teacher with a note tucked in between. It was a time when commercialization was yet to encroach the spaces between people. When time was a luxury people had. When greeting cards were hand made and mails came in envelopes. It was the time when postcards were precious and stamp collection was well, still a hobby.
The note read:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
— Mary Oliver
Not sure what I wanted to do with my life or who I wished to be, the lost lad that I was, marveled at the words. I was engrossed in the note when I met the ire of jealous seniors.
A fair decade in between and if you discount what I quote at interviews, I still am clueless as to what I want.
It was way later in the sophomore year that I read Mary Oliver, the 77-year-young Pulitzer Prize winner and America’s best-selling poet. Having carved herself a life little far from the urban humdrum, her poems too, the breath of an escape. In the woods, accompanied by her pet ‘Percy’, who she named after the famous 18th-century Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she keeps assigning new meanings to the world.
Here are three of my favorite Mary Oliver dog poems:
I. Wild Geese
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
call to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
II. Excerpt from In Blackwater Woods
“to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go”
And as for the answer to how to live a life, Mary Oliver’s best friend Percy, the dog gives the simplest mantra ever:
III. I Ask Percy How I Should Live My Life
“Love, love, love says Percy.
And run as fast as you can
along the shining beach, or the rubble, or the dust.
Then, go to sleep.
Give up your body heat, your beating heart.
Like words scribbled neatly in her notebook, lost lads like me seek refuge in not knowing what the journey is all about, but setting forth.
As for the note, I still have it as a cherished bookmark.