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Reading Book of Dog at the Rumpus

By Harriet Staff

Camille Dungy chose Cleopatra Mathis’s Book of Dog for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club. Why, you may ask? Here’s why:

I don’t really even care for dogs, but reading Book of Dog I care, very deeply, for three dogs and a pack of coyotes. I care about a spider and a day old mouse. I care about an over-wintering beetle, a drowning chipmunk and a dissolving marriage. I care about an old heron and the trials of this heroine’s life. I care because Cleopatra Mathis makes me care. She writes with such deft control and concentrated urgency that I cannot help but care about the world she renders.

Dungy then gets to the heart of the reason why she cares:

When asked what the poet’s job is in the world, I have said poets are the articulators of empathy. The poet understands another’s feelings. The poet clarifies her own feelings as she relates them to the world. This is not easy work. There is a divide between the self and the other that must be addressed with care. In her poems, Mathis bridges that distance in the same way a spider’s web might bridge a divide with “the few crossed lines/ threaded by the sun, lit so lightly/ as if to be ignored” (“Holding On”). This is a difficult task, the spinning and revealing of webs, but Mathis makes it seem effortless. Not because her poems are not carefully crafted, but because they are so carefully crafted as to appear natural. Through her direct and simple language, Mathis masters one of the most difficult challenges of empathy. She enters other bodies without appropriating their individual spirit. No one being’s importance is shoved aside in favor of another’s. The dog’s ambitions are articulated simultaneously with the human speaker’s. I understand both, believe both, and care about neither more than the other.

Make the jump for the rest.

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, November 5th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.