I have been asked to tell you about the talking dog. Scotty was an old dog that came with a house in LA we rented. When no one rented the house, he lived there alone. His food was provided by a neighbor, who threw kibble over the fence and saw that he had water. When my wife at the time, Dinah Berland, first saw him, she was a bit alarmed: our landlord-friends had not said anything about Scotty. Crouching in a hallway, the white dog, rather fat and dirty, did not make a good impression. But when I looked at his face, there was something about him. “Look at his eyes,” I said to my wife, "this is a good dog.”
And so he was. Not very active but quite smart, and responsive to language. If I would tell him to walk on the sidewalk instead of the street, he would. If I told him to go in the house and bring Daisy, another dog we acquired, out with him, he would. One day I was sitting on the front steps and I asked him, “Do you know any tricks?” He raised his paw up in the air and left it there. Just left it there. It was as if he was being ironic. Finally I had to physically push his paw back down. ‘OK,” I said, “I got it, no tricks.”
One day we were standing together on the front lawn. I looked down at him and said, “Scotty, do you think if I wanted to communicate better with dogs I should learn dog language?” He looked up at me, shook his head up and down affirmatively, and said, “Uh-huh.” Admittedly not much of vocabulary, but a word. I bet it is in the dictionary.
Before that, I had a parakeet that used to drink brandy with me. I taught him how to dance—big mistake: I could not listen to music without him twirling in circles in his cage, and making a racket to be let out to dance. I had a few birds and I can tell you, birds like Elton John. They also like jokes and laugh if you do something stupid, like trip in front of them.
When I lived in Colorado there was a magpie that I knew. When I would leave the house, he’d fly down and walk beside me for a quarter-mile or so. I would talk to him and he'd nod as if he’d heard it all before. Once I freed a large fish that was trapped in a drying creek; I took him in a cooler to where the creek was open all the way to the ocean and poured him in. He swam about 30 yards away but then he turned and came back. He swam around my legs three times and then took off for good.
There is a moment in many James Tate poems that I call the grace of animals. It almost always comes at the end of a poem. A creature turns and looks at the speaker. Or the speaker comes and joins the beasts, not as one of them, but just sits, at peace, as if he had found his way back to some earlier time.
Here is the end of “Non-Stop”
And then it got very dark and quiet.
I closed my eyes and dreamed of an emu I once loved.
The last lines of “Maine”
…Then, darkness fell like a
moose upon us. Giant Moose shades guided us back
out of the wilderness and we were much obliged.
The last lines of “Geese at Night”
After they had disappeared, their honking still
floats back to me, an immortal celebration and a
The beginning of “Look at Me”
I was taking my morning bath when I
suddenly noticed a fox stand on its hind
legs peering at me.
And here is “Blue Spill.” I see this as an ars poetica, a sort of poem of gratitude for the poem itself, the lucky accident of poetry. Notice the eyes of the creature and the speaker quietly regarding each other.
He's been wading deeper into the accident area
where he's the fatherless son and the sonless
father. He walks on through the valley and over
the mountains, some still virgin, with the same
concentration, heart, he has benefited from this
spill. He is now betrothed to blue, at home with
her wisdom of refracted light, troubled only in the
sprinkly dawn, in a blue beret. Blue becomes him;
he has moved as it worked its way up his leg—
was beautiful to behold this sight of blue meeting
blue, why such cause of joy? Thank you turned
into a gaze, blue's aura and dream. It must be
the Aegean, he is swimming in it! O pale body,
he writes this passage for himself to remember . . .
this very special private island was wished
by him, he brought it on by his contact with
illuminated manuscripts, such fingers! Tips
of—guess what—blue, and bluest eyes, this light
is home at last, this blue is blue all through.
He's in control as he strides further into the
meadow, dripping, but he's weathered a lot worse.
Forgive me for not lying about this but he
could be dead right now if he hadn't wandered into
this lucky accident area, where his new life
begins quietly in the eyes of a wakened animal.
“I think I could turn and live with animals”
Walt Whitman: “Animals”
Fanny Neuda's Book of Prayers for Jewish Women