PQ Contributing Editor
The first poems I wrote were about my cats, a pair of crabby old ladies who died within months of each other at the venerable age of eighteen. I was operating on Hemingway’s dictum to “write what you know,” and what I knew at the time was cats and death. What I didn’t know was how easy it is—when writing about the deaths of pets—to veer into sentimentality, the dangerous territory that lurks just beyond real emotion. Not surprisingly, my dead cat poems were labeled “too sentimental” by the editors who promptly sent them back. One editor, in fact, included a terse sympathy/rejection note: “I’m sorry your cat died, but I don’t want to read a poem about it.”
So is it possible to write poems about dead pets without veering into the sentimental? In “‘My Only Swerving’: Sentimentality in Contemporary Poetry,” Andrew Hudgins wades into this dilemma by surveying some contemporary examples of dead animal poems and concluding: 1) Without wit and irony, a dead animal poem typically veers into the sentimental; and 2) Perhaps the non-ironic works only when a fairly large (human-sized) animal is involved, as in William Stafford’s “Traveling in the Dark,” a poem that “owes much of its success to Stafford’s exquisite awareness of the significance of the dead deer he finds beside the road.”
Hudgins grapples with this conundrum in “Sentimental Dangers,” a poem from his debut collection, Saints and Strangers. The speaker in the book’s first section is that of “a person who writes of himself and whose concerns are disturbing and profound,” “disturbing” largely owing to subjects that range from the bodies of rape victims found in the woods or hunters butchering a doe hanging from a child’s swing set. In contrast, “Sentimental Dangers” is striking in its reflective understatement, a device that allows the speaker, and the poem, to avoid the dangers inherent in the subject matter.
The poem recounts a troubling time in the speaker’s past: He is unemployed— “fierce with self-pity”—and his marriage is failing. He comes home one day to find his wife tossing a stick to a stray dog, an “ugly dog” who starts hanging around, eventually becoming the speaker’s confidant:
I’d sit outside all afternoon and talk
to him, to the hard knowledge in his face
that she’d leave me when I was well enough
to be left. I talked too much.
In subsequent lines, the speaker reveals his wife’s alarm over his preoccupation with the dog and his unemployment:
She’d tell her friends,
He’s out of work. He thinks he is that dog.
And she was right, I did.
Poverty and circumstance compel the speaker to take the dog to the pound where he consigns him (most likely) to a sure death. Yet even as the speaker “signed him away with my right hand,” the dog demonstrates his continued and unabashed affection for the speaker by licking his left hand, prompting him to feel as if “I was signing myself away. / An illusion sure, but one that lasted months.”
This is subject matter that in other hands could turn sentimental. Hudgins, however, avoids the “dangers” alluded to in the title by deft use of point of view, specifically the vantage point of the speaker. The humorous yet poignant tone conveyed by the speaker’s voice suggests that there is enough temporal distance between the events of the poem and the “narrative now” of the speaker for him to reflect on the past without acrimony or melodrama. It’s a conversational, mostly matter-of-fact tone, established and modulated by loose iambic pentameter lines. Consider the first three lines:
When out of work and fierce with self-pity,
I’d walk until the fierceness left my feet
and I broke down. Then I’d start home
While the first line follows an iambic meter through four feet, the fifth is a trochee—PI-ty—so that the box-carred stresses of “SELF PI-ty” call attention to themselves—much as the moping, self-pitying person will. The second line eases into a conversational iambic pentameter, while the third line once again breaks the rhythm and calls attention to the stressed syllables of “broke down” and “start home.”
The first several lines quickly establish one of the poem’s conflicts, the “essential ingredient of story,” according to Gregory Orr in “Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry.” The speaker’s self-pity, a result of being out of work, leads to his alliance with the dog, with whom he identifies, and ultimately complicates his relationship with his wife. The resolution, then, is to take the dog to the pound.
While the poem’s structure mimics the classic Aristotelian story model, it can also be viewed as a series of connections and disconnections between the poem’s characters, a pattern that’s necessary if a story is to be a “source of meaning and significance,” according to Janet Burroway. The speaker’s disconnection from employment leads him to connect with/complain to the dog and further disconnect from his wife. By disconnecting from the dog at the poem’s end, the implication is that perhaps now he’ll re-connect with his wife. And yet it’s the dog, and not his wife, that he’s recalling in the shift to the “narrative now”—the “today” in the last lines of the poem:
I thought of this today when I crossed the bridge
and the river smelled like a wet, unwanted dog.
Though the voice remains low-key and matter-of-fact, the consonance of those repeated “w” sounds in “wet, unwanted” echo the mouth sounds of a baby’s cry (wah), hinting perhaps at an unspoken sorrow. That the dog is brought in peripherally, through a remembered smell, is heartbreaking in its understatement, its suggestion of regret. In doing so, Hudgins acknowledges the dog’s significance, but—like Stafford—does not sentimentalize it, ultimately avoiding the pitfalls of the dead pet poem.