A Dog's Life. Adam Scheffler. Jacar Press. Durham, North Carolina. 2016
Adam Scheffler is singing a big, big song in A Dog's Life and it is mostly a song of joy. You'll hear a few complaints and genuine concerns along the way but that's only natural. Mostly Scheffler is aiming high, he's generous and kind.
Scheffler ruminates at length in his conversational and prosodic style and boy oh boy do we like to listen. There's nothing naive about the poems in A Dog's Life but there is a certain innocence. Adam Scheffler's innocence has some experience to it.
Years ago I published a poem that had a line in it that insisted you can't have innocence and experience too, they are two separate horses bursting out of the gate. Well, apparently I was wrong.
Woman and Dogs
My girlfriend's dog is small and fat and neurotic
and smells at night like an African meat flower.
It loves her more than some people love anyone
in a riddle of love it worries at, lying there on the floor.
As she writes it makes strange sounds:
lickings, sighings, sucking, shiftings
like the worrying-tide of the world, like the vast
dog-tide of the world in its love of the moon
and of fetching sticks. My girlfriend is very quiet
and very white like the moon, and some people think
she is cold and uncaring just like it.
But her dog knows better, it knows she is quiet
like the sun as she writes her stories
tapping them quietly with her fingers, shaping
the messages she has heard of painful warmth
and love, quietly as a tree repeating the hard message
of the sun in its devotion of leaves and listening.
I have listened carefully to the dog. I have stolen
the dog's secret about her. I have figured it out.
She is quiet and so she writes long stories
and I am loud and so I write quick poems
tiring myself out more quickly to look up at her
as lovingly and neurotically as the dog
perhaps never as lovingly as the dog
who unlike me has nothing to prove
who does not write poems except the thought-poems
of the chase, the sky, the walk, the meal.
Sick of the dog, I have had too much also of poems
petulant, filled with strange achings
I think of my navel which is too deep like a mine
I send my finger into it like a canary and feel sad
and weird and know I will die. But sometimes
she tells me she likes my chest and I take her
in my arms and feel for once superior to the dog.
Before this dog she had another dog I never met, a
golden retriever, who was not at all neurotic
who swallowed her childhood happily
like a white spiral fossil and brought it back
covered with a fine varnish fine slobber of evening
and died, and now is only a picture in a cheap frame
on the top of her desk as she writes. It makes me think
of all I can't see: the long list of books she gave me
how they existed all my life and before it
and her story right now invisible to her too
like the idea of a flower to all the roots underneath
their gossipy brags and worries: how their flowers
grow tall as the spine of a young boy, go blue
as a nun's lips in winter, unless the earth goes
upwards forever unbroken - but there she is
at least, complete: watched by the dog who is dead
watched by the dog who smells bad and is alive
watched by me, who am sick of poems and of life too maybe
but am alive and glad to look at her, at the tiny mark
on her cheek where the clamp brought her forth kicking
from the womb to sit one day quietly in the
wound and fury of writing before the three of us
who cannot help, who wait in aches and shiftings
for her to turn round and speak gently our names.
Today's book of poetry found a lot of joy in A Dog's Life despite the arrows of real life skewering hearts, Scheffler has created an entertaining and compassionate balance in these poems, a sense of hope.
We do hear about the irresponsible parenting skills of pandas and the inexplicably large salary of a business man from Tulsa, there are laments of different orders peppered here and there, but Scheffler never loses his focus. The dark is only ever a reminder that the blue sky is coming.
They sit quiet in murmuring
restaurants, at family gatherings,
wearing old paisley ties and tweed,
hands folded on their laps,
ready to ask for the one thing on the menu they can order
for old age means fewer choices.
At the end of the table
they float on pillows, counting out
the abacus of their pills
for they are unhearing
though their ears are swollen up
big as cabbages in lovely whorls,
cobwebs, funnels gathering darkness.
Their boredom is loud though,
a knot we try to untie with talk.
They catch a few words, maybe,
or let them drift past like feathers,
turning their eyes inwards
to the root cellar where memories
and dreams grow twined.
It came as no surprise to Today's book of poetry that most of this collection had been previously published in scores of magazines and journals. Good ones. In fact it pleases Today's book of poetry to know that the editors of these publications saw what we see, Adam Scheffler writes damned good poems.
A Dog's Life comes right up to you just like a friendly dog, licks your hand, settles down at your feet and you feel reassured.
Our newest staff member Odin was particularly charmed by Scheffler's poems and made a special request that I post the following poem. Apparently Odin never met a waitress he didn't love.
Half the men in here tonight
are in love with her,
ordering twice as much wine
as they planned,
getting quite drunk.
She's not beautiful
quite plainly dressed,
in her early 50's. But the men
look up and drink,
admiring her no-makeup,
joking to see her smile blandly
and glide away,
making empty plates vanish
like any hope of her number.
They are in love for once
without desire, as she recites
from memory, taking orders
in her head too,
forgetting nothing, leaving them all
feeling that care and
distance are what they wanted,
not love after all.
Today's book of poetry felt that the poems in Adam Scheffler's A Dog's Life were straight forward and true. You will feel better about the world after reading these poems. Reason and hope go a long way to beating back the darkness.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adam Scheffler grew up in California, received his MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and is currently finishing his PhD in English at Harvard.
BLURBS“A Dog’s Life is a delightful romp through Americana by way of ‘real’ America with sly, politically engaged poems. Though this poet issues a rallying cry against ‘siren songs of entertainment,’ his poems are completely entertaining but, at the same time, completely wise. He takes on true love, extinction, our fragile environment, war, technology, porn, aging and our fight against it, cancer, nursing homes, and death. A Dog’s Life is an enlightened look at Doritos, Carson Daly, Walmart, McDonalds, theme parks, and, of course, dogs.”
— Denise Duhamel
“The real singers – whether lamenting or praising – give us a sense of life as larger than we could have expressed before they arrived. With an explorer’s curiosity and drive, Adam Scheffler turns his poems into a treasury. He speaks of the value and wonder in small and large things, and like a dog (the dog he’d have us believe his soul is), meets the world with undisguised exuberance. These poems are spiritual in the way poetry is best suited to be: they articulate our good fortune to be alive.”
— Bob Hicok
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