Animal House

Advice and insight from a professional poet.

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I’ve always had pets, but the guys I’m rooming with in college aren’t animal lovers and don’t want one in the apartment. I want a dog, but even a less traditional animal, such as a turtle or even a fish, would be OK with me. Can a poem help out in this situation?
— Mike C.

 

Most certainly. I’m thinking not only of a poem but of a whole book of poems, The Truro Bear by Mary Oliver. It’s a wonderful book of poems with animals as subjects, everything from possums to dogs to turtles.

“Turtle”

Now I see it—
it nudges with its bulldog head
the slippery stems of the lilies, making them tremble;
and now it noses along in the wake of the little brown teal

who is leading her soft children
from one side of the pond to the other; she keeps
close to the edge
and they follow closely, the good children—

the tender children,
the sweet children, dangling their pretty feet
into the darkness.
And now will come—I can count on it—the murky splash,

the certain victory
of that pink and gassy mouth, and the frantic
circling of the hen while the rest of the chicks
flare away over the water and into the reeds, and my heart

will be most mournful
on their account. But, listen,
what’s important?
Nothing’s important

except that the great and cruel mystery of the world,
of which this is a part,
not to be denied. Once,
I happened to see, on a city street, in summer,

a dusty, fouled turtle plodded along—
a snapper—
broken out I suppose from some backyard cage—
and I knew what I had to do—

I looked it right in the eyes, and I caught it—
I put it, like a small mountain range,
into a knapsack, and I took it out
of the city, and I let it

down into the dark pond, into
the cool water,
and the light of the lilies,
to live.

The only thing is, that poem could backfire because it celebrates the turtle in its natural environment.  Your roommates could argue that the turtle will only live and thrive “out/ of the city” in “the light of the lilies.” But just be aware of that and prep yourself with a convincing retort: Animals have a unique personality and spirit, and you could learn a lot from them, something which Oliver’s poems demonstrate, including the series that closes the book about her dog, Percy (which makes the most compelling argument for getting a dog that I can imagine):

“I Ask Percy How I Should Live My Life”

Love, love, love, says Percy.
And hurry 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.
Then, trust.

7 September 2010

Kristen Hoggatt lives, works, and writes in Boston, where she received her MFA from Emerson College. She volunteers at 826 Boston.

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