Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

[Poem + Commentary]

Joseph Duemer

Abandoned Bluetick Bitch

Numbed with self-loathing, 
we abandon the emissaries 
of grace. Chained to a tree

beside the empty rental 
she hollowed out a den 
for herself & her young.

By the time we found her 
the water they’d left her 
was a couple of days gone.

When it was gone she would have 
slept, not dreaming, letting the pups 
nurse her sparse milk

& when the smallest died 
she ate it to keep
her strength & cleanse the den,

depriving coy dogs & foxes 
an expedient scent.
It’s likely there were two more

before we found her.
Ribs covered by a tissue of dry skin, 
she was nothing—a shadow

on the dirt & was just able
to raise her head & take
a little water from my hand

before turning to nose 
her three live pups awake. 
Reader, it is true, there is

horror everywhere worse
than this & cruelty that beggars 
imagination, but this

is my horror, local & particular; 
these were my neighbors did this, 
who, without even the excuse

of racial or religious psychosis, 
committed this wrong. Who live 
in this same light & shadow I live in.

Let us kill one another
with heedless abandon—we deserve it—
but not these poor relations

whose lives are without malice
& whose motives are transparent. 
Let us kill one another.

—From Magical Thinking: Poems, The Ohio State University Press (2001)


“On Abandoned Bluetick Bitch”:
Commentary by Joseph Duemer

I don’t do many poetry readings these days, but I was prevailed upon to contribute to my department’s colloquium series this semester and decided to give a reading & talk that would try to explain a few of my ideas about poetry. This seemed like an appropriate approach given that I teach in an interdisciplinary department with political scientists and anthropologists and historians and philosophers as well as literary scholars. I thought I would try to tell them what it is I do when I read and write poems.

I am one of those poets who has never been able to articulate a coherent poetics, though I’m certain that I have worked from a fairly consistent set of poetic values for more than thirty years. I have tended, perhaps, to define myself negatively, by knowing pretty clearly what I did not want to do as a poet. I decided to take the opportunity of the colloquium to sketch the barest outline of a poetics. I started with the idea that the poems that mean the most to me almost always have a point where something twists to the point of breaking, where the procedural logic of the lyric breaks down. (Though of course it may be part of the procedural logic of the lyric that its logic break down.) Where the lyric self calls itself into question. The most radical example of this sort of poem I know of is Emily Dickinson’s “I felt a funeral in my brain,” in which interior experience expands to encompass the universe; but more recent examples might include Frost’s “Desert Places,” in which the torsion is applied by a silly rhyme, or Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” in which the world turns inside out on the word “victory” near the end of the poem, or even John Logan’s “Three Moves,” in which the insight turns on a rueful joke.

Such moments in poems might amount to little more than a lyric trick, but in the best poems the twist, the break, leads toward insight. They do this, I think, by generously, perhaps guilelessly, opening up an affective space in which such insight might occur. In which some truth might be revealed, however fleetingly and provisionally, for that is always the way with truth. “Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden famously wrote, giving rise to a long line of esthetes, the best of whom is probably John Ashbery. Cleaning out a file cabinet recently, I came across a twenty-year-old interview with Ashbery from The New York Times in which he quotes this slogan of Auden’s approvingly. But that misses the point! I thought, reading it over. Very few poems have ever attempted to “make something happen,” so to say that poems make nothing happen is to set up a false dichotomy, to accuse poetry of trying to do something it rarely if ever attempts. Oh, sure, perhaps some protest songs can even be said to have “made something happen,” but I’d argue that they did so, not directly, but by clearing space in which some insight, some truth, might have a chance to come into existence. No guarantees even here, of course.

So I gave the poetry reading in the colloquium series and read some of the poems I’ve named above, as well as some of my own. And though I was not entirely successful, I managed in my remarks and descriptions to offer a sketch of something like [the] poetics I’ve tried to describe here. When I was finished, I invited comments and questions. Almost immediately, one of my colleagues noted that many of the poems I had read—both my own and those by others—were about animals. Specifically, about human encounters with animals. She asked me to comment. To be honest, even though I once co-edited an anthology of poetry about dogs and have certainly populated my poems with plenty of animals, especially birds, I’d never thought of myself as an animal poet. I have long been interested in two things about animals. First, I’ve been interested in what animal minds tell us about our own minds, which, unlike those of our fellow creatures, are so filled with words; second, I’ve noticed the ways in which animals, especially domestic animals like dogs, test our compassion.

But none of that occurred to me in the moments following my colleague’s observation. I floundered around, unable to articulate what I was feeling, then said, “Wait! Let me read you a poem.” I grabbed my book and opened to “Abandoned Bluetick Bitch” and read it to the audience. It’s a tough poem to read to an audience, but it was the only answer I could think of and is still the best I can do to explain at least the moral component of my interest in animals. But the poem also enacts the sort of lyric movement I described a moment ago, especially with the injunction at the end, I think, to “kill one another,” which presents the reader with a moral paradox meant to be disorienting. After the disorientation, perhaps a moment of understanding will have a chance to open in the reader’s consciousness.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury