Say it’s grief you’re after, then Poetry is your place…

Cover of Planet of the and dog....

If it’s grief you’re after then poetry is your place. And poetry is a place. As he approached the end of his life James Tate named it “the government lake.” While embodied grief and poetry grief are not precisely the same lets say poetry is dark tourism.


Three years into guide dog life I saw that the village square is filled with Tennessee Williams characters, Blanches and Stanleys whose hearts are so busted they’ll think nothing about approaching a blind man to talk about the deaths of their pets. And I saw behind these stories of doggie demise were divorces, run away children, job losses, car accidents, so that I wanted to weep for our strangeness. This is a high gravity world.


As a poet this wasn’t big news to me. About suffering they were never wrong the Old Masters. Not only is it always occurring, but we’re invited to look away. Unless that is, you go absolutely every place with a dog. On the airplane. In the shopping mall. Riding escalators. Then all bets are off. A guide dog user becomes a mark. In effect I became a walking minister. A circuit rider. My Finnish grandfather was a Lutheran pastor who preached to immigrant congregations in Minnesota and Wisconsin. I saw my guide dog was my Model T Ford. The common street was our patch of souls.


I’m irreverent. But I couldn’t laugh at the unbidden, constant sadnesses of happenstance people. And I couldn’t let them dominate me as the price of listening or allow them to ruin my days. Her dog had been poisoned. His dog lived to be fifteen but succumbed to joint disease. Her dog got stolen. His was shot by hunters. You’re just sipping coffee. You’re sitting on a bench. The sorrowing comes to you like birds.


Grief land in poetry differs from grief in the public square because our brains make maps–neuro-synaptic fetishized memory-habit-charts. Grief in the mind is like every ghost story you’ve ever read–every thought we have about the past is a revenant trick. Go ahead, write them down those miseries, the sorrow has outraced you and is already occupying your future memories.


This is why I prefer the dark tourism of poetry: the blackbird whistling or just after. In poetry’s haunted house they are the same.

In poetry’s haunted house self-contempt appears swollen and cartoonish. Routine sorrow becomes collectivized, atavistic. James Tate writes in a prose poem called “The Visiting Doctor”:

“This afternoon about half past four I was sitting at my
desk when somebody knocked on my door. I got up to answer it
when my leg crumbled beneath me. I tried to stand, but it was
as if my one leg were made of silly putty. Finally, with the
help of the arms of the couch, I pulled myself up and yelled at
the door, “Come in, the door’s unlocked.” The door opened
slowly and there stood a little man in a doctor’s uniform.
“You rang?” he said. “Well, not exactly,” I said. “Yes, but
you need me. Am I right?” he said. “Yes, I suppose I do,”
I said. “Well, then, let’s get right to work. It’s your left
leg, am I right?” he said. “Yes, it’s my left leg,” I said.
“Well, I’m afraid we’ll have to saw it off,” he said. “No,
please don’t. You haven’t even looked at it,” I said. “I
heard you fall. I know the sound. It’s no good anymore,”
he said.”

Excerpt From: James Tate. “The Government Lake.” Apple Books.


When, as I do, you travel everywhere with a guide dog public space becomes a confessional of sorts. It’s a rare day when a stranger doesn’t approach to say, “I had a dog like that once, but he died,” or, “Labradors, they’re the best dogs in the world, but mine’s dead.” The first time this happened I was a newbie guide dog user, alone, in the Pittsburgh airport, and a woman said, “I had a dog like that once, but someone poisoned it.” She had an overpowering minty odor and kept snapping her fingers. My dog and I ran away from her.

I feel safer beside the government lake.

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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