Monday, January 31, 2011

Little short poems that live in my notebooks

The literary world, so full of epics and 40-line free verse and fat sestinas, doesn’t seem to have much room for little short poems. So these babies don’t get out much. It’s okay, little poems–don’t be scared.

* * *


The dog’s note, a word.
We know his bark at night
like your daughter’s voice on the phone
saying she’s fine, but can she come over,
a stranger laughing behind her,
can she have dinner,
can she please come home.

* * *


Her laugh
like a coin
in the laundry dryer
of your heart—
seven more minutes
maybe eight.

* * *

Evening, July

The cat slides two paws
under the screen door. Outside,
wind scratches the grass.

* * *


She writes goodbye on her nametag,
avoiding that middle step
of breakfasts at the window
and nights on the steel chairs
of the hospital. She says
it was nice to know you,
fixes her lipstick
in the smooth face
of a steak knife.

* * *

Horse Dreams
ten years old

Pinto, paint,
apple-drop gray,
red roan, tunnel black,
Assyrian chargers,
then a neck,
a river-run shoulder, gone
back to the night
where all the horses sleep,
where I keep
a small saddle.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Book review: A Day, a Dog

A Day, a Dog

By Gabrielle Vincent

Front Street Inc., 1999

$16.95 hardcover

This book was such a discovery that I remember exactly where I was when I first saw it several years ago. The dog on the cover caught my eye at M Is for Mystery, San Mateo’s great bookshop. I opened it to the first page, and within a minute I had tears in my eyes. By the time I’d finished it (it’s a picture book; it doesn’t take long), I knew that in the name of kindness and of all good things in the universe, I had to buy it. This book is that profound.

In spare, exquisite charcoal drawings, Belgian author/illustrator Gabrielle Vincent begins with a heartbreaking image: a dog being thrown from a car. The dog chases it, but the car speeds away until he’s exhausted, confused, despondent. How do we know a dog is despondent? That is the secret of this book: Vincent’s remarkable ability to depict body language with a few simple lines. We follow the dog through the first day of his sudden, unwanted freedom, wandering roadways, causing a traffic accident, roaming a desolate beach, and finally skulking through back alleys. In the end, Vincent leaves us on a hopeful note (which I won’t give away), and we’re left to draw our own conclusions. Does the dog find happiness? I have to believe he does. It still chokes me up to think about it.

Though Vincent is known for her children’s stories, this book would have disturbed me as a kid. But perhaps with gentle parental guidance, it can be a catalyst to helping children understand their responsibility toward other living creatures. For the rest of us, it’s both a harsh reminder of how cruel people can be and an affirmation that compassion for animals is a gift we can—and should—offer every day of our own lives.

List: Possible Reasons Why My Cat Is Fat

Is on a “calorie-counting” diet but can’t count.

Does not use rowing machine enough.

Orders out during the day.

Does not want my other fat cat to feel self-conscious.

Blew out a knee while attacking a burglar.

Will not switch to margarine.

Surreptitiously takes bites out of me as I sleep.

Diet pills make him bitchy.

Will only do ab crunches if treats are involved.

Idolizes Glen “Big Baby” Davis.

Father was also fat.

Is depressed about the economy.

Hot Pockets.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Book Review: Lives of the Monster Dogs

Lives of the Monster Dogs
by Kirsten Bakis
Warner Books, 1997,
$12.99 trade paper

This is not your father’s Frankenstein. Not his Lord of the Flies, either. It’s a little of both.

Lives of the Monster Dogs begins with mad scientist Augustus Rank getting his kicks by amputating and reattaching cows’ legs. (Animal lovers will be cringing for about ten pages, but it’s worth the trouble.) When he decides to build an army of genetically engineered animals, Rank chooses dogs for their loyalty and unthinking savagery. He finds a quiet spot to carry out his research—an enclave in the frozen reaches of northern Canada—and spends the next few decades constructing a small army-in-training of highly intelligent dogs. And then he dies.

That’s when the Lord of the Flies part begins. The dogs are trained to walk upright, wear clothing and prosthetic hands, and speak English through voice-synthesis boxes. Without the charismatic Rank to lead them, the dogs realize that they’re basically slaves, and they rebel against their human captors—with spectacular success.

Then, in a wonderful twist, the liberated dogs find their way to Manhattan, where they’re instantly embraced as celebrities. They take up residence at the Plaza Hotel, are featured in a Vanity Fair photo spread, and throw lavish parties for their enthralled fans. The media and public are so fascinated by these exotic, erudite creatures that they’re willing to forgive the dogs of their bloody past. But there’s trouble ahead: The dogs’ genetic engineering is breaking down, and one by one, they’re reverting to their natural doglike state—an “illness” the sophisticated dogs find shameful and terrifying.

Bakis covers a great scope of ideas here: what is human, what is celebrity, and whether we’ll ever be able to navigate the ethical dilemmas of manufacturing living creatures. The resulting novel is a melancholy and entertaining fever dream—thought provoking, highly imaginative, and highly recommended.