There is a mystery, nature’s shadow, that haunts our relationship with our pets. So often they are the reservoirs of the love, pity and dreams of connection for which we are not allowed an outlet in our ordinary lives. The fierce intensity of this relationship is easy fodder for satire, but the utter strangeness of the attachment subverts easy criticism. There is something exceedingly human about our love for small, furry non-humans. Human beings use language, make art and keep pets. Go figure.
Karen Mulhallen is an old and dear friend. DG and his sons have stayed at the cottage in Irondale and the house on Markham Street. We knew Lucy (pictured with Karen in the accompanying photograph; NB dg’s dog is named Lucy, too) and Starlight and Dawn and Dusk, the whole menagerie and their successors. So these poems have a special, personal importance. Karen has published 16 books (and numerous articles), including anthologies, a travel-fiction memoir, poetry and criticism. She has edited more than 100 issues of Descant magazine. She is a Blake scholar and a professor of English at Ryerson University in Toronto. DG edited and wrote an introduction for her book of selected poems Acquainted With Absence. Her most recent collection, The Pillow Books, will be published by Black Moss Press this fall (see cover at the bottom of this post; see also three poems from this book published on NC in February).
The current poems published below are from an even newer book, Domestic Love, of which Karen writes: “It is about our relationship to domestic animals, cats dogs etc. The history of visual art is so rich in human interactions with their pets. And there are some wonderful prose and poetry books which also explore this. I thought, having written so many things which include pets it was time to devote an entire book to our relationship with these creatures with whom we are so privileged to share our lives.”
Poems from Domestic Love
By Karen Muhallen
May on the Haliburton Road Number 23
A fallen bird’s egg, broken blue
white stars of snow drops
masses of trilliums dog-toothed yellow
violets pendulous bells, the deep yellow fuzz of dandelions
moss, spikes and fur, acid green softness
sky blue cumulus puffs
a few threads of cirrus
beaver pond a blue eye trees at far shore
waterlily pads in the morning gold
dried pods of rushes ellipse of pond
verticals and horizontals of fallen trees
scrub with elder flower pods
lake caught from elevation
No Exit Road
hump, rise and fall and then fall no more.
Over the quiet a bird calls,
a plane leaves a stream a double wake,
alone on the lake one power boat
time and it passage
from light to dark.
The fox crosses as the sun rises from right to left
taking gold on his tale
Six in the morning and no one on the lake,
shore approaches shore
bird calls and calls again,
The birch tree is white, luminous white against the even
morning light which spreads
down the hill to the eastern shore.
Every sapling, every green branch
Gold becomes greener, hill becomes
clearer, bird song
I lift my eyes to the hills whence
cometh my peace, comforts do increase,
gold moves off from shore becomes
dark mirror moves toward
the south. North becomes day
gold takes the lake, silver
birches spread their limbs, tall
white. Birdsong becomes even, continuous
No exit from Road 23.
The fox crosses down as the sun rises right to left
taking the gold on his tail
road and trees are dark, the black top smooth
then the city spires arise
on the road a small mound of dead fox.
One option, no exit,
out out brief candle.
Once there was a carpet,
..there was a road,
..there was a woman;
..and nobody loved as much as she,
..but me I loved him more…
Spitz of the Cimelia
It was a misty early morning when the boy first saw the shadow
move from the stand of willows behind the burnt red of the
dogwoods near the pond’s edge across the grass toward his
Not yet nine o’clock and not a school day and he blinked the sleep
from his eyes and looked again
but there was nothing there.
The mist never lifted that morning, the sky was an even light grey,
and the trees, black willows
arms stood dark but blurry in the density of the watery air.
All night the sound of the rain had entered his dreams,
and this morning there was still a drip drip drip from the trees
and the roofs of the farm buildings lying low on the land,
not far from the quaking bog.
The birds began their commotion despite the grey of the morning,
and one of the farm cats, a male, the large orange tabby
began to yowl near the back door.
All early winter they would leave their wet mittens
and soaked boots on the small side porch.
Gradually a boot or a mitten would disappear from the heap, and
throughout that early winter morning departures for school would
become moments of crisis, one child or another
hopping on mismatched footgear down the lane to the school bus.
He was only seven, going on eight, his brother was five and in
kindergarten, one older sister, only a year older,
and at home a little sister, a toddler.
One late spring day, when the day lilies were just in bloom, we
were out in the woods playing and stopped to eat our lunches,
peanut butter sandwiches. Out of the brush streaked a comet of
and the sandwich was gone. He was ready.
After that we went to the woods to see him, and we always
took him his own lunch of peanut butter sandwiches.
And we were not afraid, though he was a wild dog.
A wolverine, perchance.
A good dog, as Beowulf might say.
As the bog flowers began to appear, pitchers opening to swallow
the first insects of summer, he led us deeper and deeper into the
woods and one day showed us his cache,
of all the lost boots and mittens.
He was aerialist, master of the woods and grasses,
leaping in the air to catch a field mouse,
all summer he was our companion in the woods and the vly
but each day with us he moved closer and closer to the house
and then he began to sleep out on the porch until winter came.
As cold deepened he moved inside
usually slept next to my bed, the lower bunk.
He would not be in the same room as my father,
nor any other person over six feet tall
even though my father fed him most of the time.
Table scraps, never dog food.
He refused dog food.
We were four, but he hung out with me most of the time
because I did the most things a feral dog would be interested in-—
His name was Duffy, but I don’t remember how he got it.
He was a whitish spitz, sort of a cross between a Finnish spitz
and the yappy cotton candy dogs you see.
Canis pomeranus, according to Linnaeus, not nearly so big
as a Siberian husky, or one of those Asian Chow-Chows
but his tail curled up and he had a thick coat and small ears.
Spitze are wolves of course, but he never barked like a wolf.
And if he were in touch with his ancestors he wouldn’t say.
He did not like cats, but he was otherwise purely virtuous.
The quaking bogs were our playgrounds.
The one nearest to Oneonata is completely closed over by moss,
with no trees until you get right to the edge.
In the middle it’s like being on the sea on a huge underinflated
air mattress. Its border is all cattails, large sausage spikes rising up
nine feet, rushes with their rounded stems and small yellow
flowers. Thick mats of sedges in circular mounds moving out from
the shore of the bog, their sharp edges cut us as we played, and the
bulrushes protruded from the watery bits of the bog.
The part I didn’t tell is the one instance a dog ever talked to me.
I was ten, just about to turn eleven, and out by a stream
on our farm, the sky was a very deep blue above the cumulus
clouds but their bottom edges were slate grey and threatening,
suddenly I thought he was there with me, saying goodbye.
Though neither his presence nor his talking was finite
or organical, as Blake would say.
And I never saw nor heard of him again.
Elegy for Starlight
Like a flight of geese you came through a February blizzard
A small black white and bronze mass of carapace
with bright blue eyes
I warmed you by the fire as they departed.
Home, home at last.
If I were to write the chronicle of your life
staving off the maw of Father Time
devouring always his young hostages to fortune
it would be to begin now, one year after your passing
while grief is fresh, but tears
have ceased, or so I would believe.
This morning the far western shore
replicates, duplicates itself
in the glass of water.
You are my Pangaea;
I your Gondwanaland.
And now to put an end
to all my journeying
open the window
let the warm love in.
This morning at last
the lake is glass on the far side
ripples nearby, light mist rising.
This Sunday morning
just before departure
the lake at last gave back
that quiet I had sought
the mist had gone;
it was now sheer glass
so smooth a passing motorboat
made scarce a mark or sound
to the west someone was gently
tapping, hanging perhaps a
picture of the mind or of the
thumbnail fawn toad
that hopped across my path
as I ascended to depart.
A Delight of Pigs
Overcomes Household Stigma
Singularity being the Mark of Cain in human society,
the only solution is the acquisition of a household of warm fur
Markham Street Household of large-haired warm females
language not confined but defined by barking growling hissing
chattering whistling and cooing.
Steady diets of fish and organic vegetables for Miss Lucy.
Steady diets of organic greens, melons and good books
for all other inhabitants.
Collage being the ultimate post-modern art form, democratic
and encouraging of viewer participation invites you to enter
Markham Street interactive space and play with the pigs
Dawn and Dusk
who being toupees on eight feet are easily distinguished
by colouring, Dawn of course having an orange face
and her sister a puff of smoke as light falls.
To bury one’s face in a guinea pig’s back is to smell
a meadow of wild flowers on a warm summer day
The story of how Dawn and Dusk came to live in a corner
of the dining room will have to wait for another episode of
How the House Turns
but it should be stated that Dawn and Dusk, aka the Little Girls,
prefer the corner of the dining room to the great outdoors,
to their antique carved wood Rajasthan dovecote in the garden,
to the kitchen and the living room, and might
even prefer the dining room to the grasslands of Peru
where their ancestors roamed free and mucky
for most of their organic filled green grass lives.
For Dawn and Dusk, the fly in the proverbial ointment
is the giant: ‘Pssst, Sis here comes the Giant’.
The giant like the pigs is warm blooded with immense
circular green and yellow hands off which tumble lettuces, alfalfa sprouts, melons, green peppers, apples, sliced green grapes,
coriander, swiss chard, and in spring and in summer
the sweetest of fresh grasses, lemon balm and parsley.
Before Dawn and Dusk came to live in their two-storey palace condominium, it was the home of Starlight.
Starlight had blue eyes, huge testicles, and a little penis
which only appeared when his belly was gently pressed.
Starlight took tea regularly with the giant,
and the giant white fuzzy called Miss Lucy.
In the evening, he lay on the white sofa with the giants
and he smiled, and sometimes contently pooed and peed
on whomever he lay upon. The white sofa
was Starlight’s favourite corner of the universe
because it also came with a big book
which the giant of the large hands held up conveniently
for him to chew. His favourite book was The History of Reading,
though he also had a nibble on Through The Looking Glass Wood.
Alas, Starlight passed over, much to the sorrow
and the continuing depression of the giants,
but the chewed corner of his favourite book remains.
See also “Solomon’s Judgement,” two poems on Carpaccio’s dog, and dg’s introduction to the selected poems—all published on NC.