Cleopatra Mathis. Book of Dog. Sarabande Books, 2012.
Dissolution of marriage—the separation of self and other—offers readers a poignant initial crisis in Book of Dog, Cleopatra Mathis’s sixth poetry collection. While the marriage’s trajectory is straightforward (i.e. downward), Mathis’s honest, intriguing, and affecting interiors and exteriors—her intersections between self and other, indoor and outdoor, middle ear and inner ear, silence and speech—help readers become more intimate with the female speaker’s evolving emotional condition throughout the collection. At first devastated, almost erased, the speaker forges new relationships with her exteriors, ultimately transforming how she perceives life. Achingly precise and intensely experienced, Book of Dog is a stunning recovery of self.
“Answer,” Book of Dog’s profoundly understated first poem, introduces the offending “hole” between the speaker (also, largely, the poet herself) and her husband that has “been dug, immense, / all their words thrown in there, / irretrievable.” This “hole” of silence, her husband’s external pressure, disrupts the speaker’s sense of self. As such, she “trie[s] to disappear, obliged / by his own disappearing, becoming / who she [isn’t]” (“When She Spoke, He Closed His Eyes”). The home is no refuge—a heartbreaking circumstance. Instead, this inner space is the speaker’s husband: in “Chipmunk in the Pool,” the speaker “call[s] now to the silent house”—to the silent husband within—to “bring me the broom.” Even the speaker’s innermost locations are affected: as explored in “Labyrinthitis,” the ear, unlike the human figures in Mathis’s collection, maintains a “home / for balance” through its “canals,” but “there should have been a marriage” between this “home” and the ear’s “nerves for hearing, or mis-hearing.” Because the only marriage is a disintegrating marriage, Mathis’s speaker tragically internalizes the figurative “hole” of “Answer”; her ear, like Book of Dog’s domestic space, contains “two organs” who “live,” but are otherwise mum, even vacant (“Labyrinthitis”).
Consolation in Book of Dog, then, must come from beyond home and the human. Indeed, Mathis’s speaker evocatively looks outside for new exteriors: as Mathis explains in an interview regarding Book of Dog, “Escaping the house to walk the dogs…led me to more of a sense of security than I felt inside the house.” This activity offers respite because it allows the speaker (Mathis) to access formative external spaces: unlike her husband, nature responds, and the speaker’s (re)discovery of this primal condition is aptly dramatic. In “Interstice,” for instance, the speaker finds that although “there were no words [her husband] could hear,”
The speaker makes noise, and the deer, significantly gendered male, responds. Here, then, is a chance for Mathis’s speaker to voice, and thus concretize, her sense of self through external reactions, which she has otherwise recently lacked in marriage to her tacit husband.
pulling at a dead limb releases a clatter,
and as I stand there,
dark surrounding trunks come alive
and leap away. The deer
is designed to resemble a tree,
and I only need take one brittle stick
to brittle bark and bang it to see everything plain—
the deer tearing through woods,
believing he is running for his life.
Although the speaker’s developing relationship with nature could easily become overly romanticized, Mathis sustains Book of Dog’s fascinating concentration on interiors and exteriors, creating spaces that are spare, vivid, tender, honest, and complex. Dogs, specifically named in the title as well as two of three section headings (Canis and Book of Dog), play an important role in the speaker’s increasingly outward focus. In addition to helping her step outside her fraught domestic space, dogs help the speaker become more in sync with her external surroundings—in the seventh poem in the Book of Dog section, her dog “will try to go to the woods, or any hidden place, / as if to an origin some instinct / has handed down…before the human generations of home.” However heartrending the journey may be for her (this dog dies in the tenth poem, and in a moment of extreme pathos, the speaker goes “out to hit trees”), the speaker can “go to the woods” with her dogs and similarly access their primordial, if now and again severe, space.
Overall, the most compelling aspect of Book of Dog’s speaker and the outdoors is her unflinching consideration of life: while Mathis’s speaker values “new life / surging forth,” she also perceptively voices the prosaic, even tragic, facets of the outside world (“Transformation”). This world often clashes with human dwellings, thus furthering Mathis’s intriguing attention to internals and externals. For example, ants invade the speaker’s “immaculate shack and [climb] the pilings” to consume “the moth: my creature” that she “[p]ulled from the sea with [her] own hands” in the poem “Ants Want My Yellow Moth.” In “Chipmunk in the Pool,” “Chippy [has] fallen in” the “tame backyard pool,” and in “Canis,” the speaker shuts the “one window’s / half-inch crack” to quiet the “coyotes just outside.” Each of these poems is heartfelt and thought-provoking, but some are simply devastating in their treatment of interiors and exteriors. From “Dune Shack,” the speaker observes that “[t]o live in this place, you have to kill things,” and
By the third day you’ve scoured the place,
but hunger being what it is, the mother mouse
moves right in, deposits her half-inch
offspring in some cotton you left unguarded.
And hearing her scratch through the night
is made worse only by her disappearance…
So: since you’re who’s left, who’s responsible,
Number 1, get the little things out of hiding.
Number 2, just get it over with.
In “Day-Old Mice,” a later poem:
Die, I said—coaxing, hammering
gingerly with the heel of my shoe.
Babies covered with ants, and what
has delivered them like this, alone
in plain sight on the shack’s floor?
By the end of Book of Dog, finding a safe middle ground between interiors and exteriors provides the speaker (and her readers) with, if not total consolation, then at least continuation: as evidenced by the rodents of both “Dune Shack” and “Day-Old Mice,” new infant mice will come along and ultimately survive even if some die. A “New Dog” will provide the bereaved speaker with another canine relationship after the loss of her companion. Life goes on despite its trauma, and Mathis most movingly expresses this idea in “Survival: a Guide,” the last poem in Book of Dog. Regarding a heron, the subject of this poem, Mathis writes, “Some blind clockwork keeps her going.” Such dogged persistence is the natural lesson of Book of Dog, and Mathis’s speaker arrives at this recovery of self through lyrical verse that is always beautiful, at times necessarily ruthless. Book of Dog is a remarkable addition to Cleopatra Mathis’ previous works.