Poetry, and a Service Dog Memory as Autumn Comes

I have joined poet Bob Herz as co-editor of Nine Mile Magazine, and Nine Mile Books. Our latest issue, Spring 2015 is now online and you can read it here. I also urge my blog readers to visit our wonderful series of podcasts “Talk About Poetry” available both on Sound Cloud and iTunes.

“Do not be shy about poetry,” said the great American poet known as “My Dog” who has been to more poetry readings than most two legged poets, “for poetry is memory turned toward affection.”

I quizzed her about this. “Affection can’t be “all” that a poem is concerned with, surely,” I asked.

“I mean affection in a mammalian sense,” she said. “Affection is whatever ain’t neurosis.”

Aside from the fact my dog is a Jungian (and perhaps a bit sentimental in a Manichean way) I think she’s right. Poetry is the best available means of crafting both our memories and our instincts.

Robert Frost said famously: “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness.”

The crafting is another matter. The poem, a made thing, a true “fancy” is more than a lump in the throat. In effect a poem becomes a mythos—wherein past and present combine, and in turn, where that combinative work changes the future. Frost understood this better than many. We love him for knowing it. “Two roads diverged”:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

 

What poems give us whether we are makers or readers is the artful relief of aleatoric forces, the accidents, the large or small calamities that winnow us, frighten us, deplete our spirits.

Poetry always says we are smarter than we knew. We were homesick at first, then we found true Ithaca.

“True Ithaca” might be the title of a good poem. Please write it.

Meanwhile I hope you will visit our magazine. f

**

Odd events happen when you have a service animal, what I like to call little movies. For instance I was minding my p’s and q’s in Ithaca, New York, when the phone rang. The woman’s voice was gravelly and hesitant. “I don’t know you,” she said, “but I asked around about you.” “Oh yes,” I said and waited to hear what she had to say. “Well,” she said, “I’m the president of the local garden club and we’re a group of women who gather and talk about nature and we thought it would be fun if you came to our next meeting. You know, just talk about guide dogs.”

I agreed to do it. What harm could there be? I pictured a tastefully decorated sun room and a dozen women and a tea trolley. I should have suspected things would be different when Mrs. Grundy (for that’s what I’ll call her) dispatched a limousine to get me and bring me to their party. And I should have been suspicious that the garden party was meeting in the evening. Who holds garden parties at night?  Corky and I got into the Lincoln town car and the uniformed driver drove us through the rainy night for over half an hour only to drop us at a remote farm house. I didn’t know where I was. For some reason it didn’t occur to me to ask. I was attending a garden party at a gentle farm. How bad could it be? I had my dog. How bad could it be? The driver drove away. I stood for a moment in the rain and collected my wits and headed for the front porch. Up the steps we went. And the door swung open and there was Mrs. Grundy laughing to see us.

Soon enough we learned it wasn’t a garden party at all, but an “Amway” meeting—the event was about recruiting women to sell cleaning products and we were treated to a film about soap and stain removers and a dozen of us sat in rickety chairs and rain beat at the windows and I did my best to smile while stroking my dog’s ears—my dog as familiar, my dog as lucky blanket. I was in the country home of Mrs. Grundy who had a smoker’s cough and a watery personality, which is to say, she didn’t understand human beings are something other than images in dreams. We were captive in the temple of her thin, rural dream—we would sell soap and she would become the queen of soap and our chairs squeaked and every now and then you could hear November wind punching at the eaves of the old house.

When it was time for discussion, following the movie, and Grundy’s pitch about financial independence through soap, which meant, selling lots of soap, and in turn, recruiting people to sell soap, for Amway is a pyramid scheme—you sell detergent and get ten acquaintances to sell detergent, and you’re promised a handsome return—and after all that, I asked what any of this had to do with guide dogs. I was kindly or so I thought. Wasn’t I supposed to talk about nature?

Well Grundy had a different take for she said without irony that blind people are poor—aren’t they? And why couldn’t I recruit an army of blind soap sellers and thereby make sightless people rich? I could, couldn’t I? And that was my introduction to the able-bodied idea that all blind people must necessarily know all other blind people.

One woman spoke up. I don’t remember her name. She said: “How can Steve know every blind person? Do you think blind people just hang out together under a bridge somewhere?”

I loved her for saying it. But Grundy had no irony as I say, and she sailed onward:

“He can call all the guide dog users, they must have a network,” she said.

I was properly kind—said something about privacy laws.

It got worse of course. Mrs. Grundy said something about “the problem” with disabled people. That they don’t want to work.

I decided to walk out of her house and into the rainy night. I had no idea of the Lincoln town car would be outside. It didn’t matter. I figured with my dog by my side I could hitch hike back to Ithaca. I felt strong. The unknown didn’t bother me. It was a new feeling for me. I’d barely been home a month from guide dog school and I felt utterly independent.

I just got up. Opened the door and shut it behind me.

I walked a long way in the rain with Corky jingling beside me. Eventually I reached the bottom of Grundy’s twisted drive and just as I did so, the Lincoln pulled up and the driver swung open the back door and in we climbed and off we went.

I shared none of the story with the driver. Maybe he was Grundy’s grandson.

Blind people don’t want to work. All blind people must know each other. What wonderful medieval ideas, I thought. I pictured the blind, all of them, living under a bridge in Paris, all clutching battered fiddles, one or two of them with an untrained skinny dog on a string.

 

 

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