A review of To The Dogs by Roberta Gould

Reviewed by Karen Corinne Herceg

To The Dogs
by Roberta Gould
Flame Tree Press
Jan 2016, Paperback: 80 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0692588758

In the title to her latest book, To The Dogs, we have classic Gould turning a conditioned phrase on its head, investing us with new, disparate contexts. A series of photos throughout the book further enhances the many spontaneous and unaffected moods of our four legged friends and displays a wide array of vision and perspective. Often deceptively subtle, this is an important book with important messages.

Roberta Gould knows the minutiae of discrepancies and how we interrupt our own joy with preconceived notions, imagined grudges, misplaced assertions. In “Best Friend,” the title tells us how she feels about her dog, yet she hesitates to share a piece of her food. Finally relinquishing it and, realizing the irony of the conflict, she states, “I do it grudgingly/confusing myself with the truly hungry.” In this simple gesture she questions the meaning of generosity and our perceptions of need and greed. Then in the last line, “gone to the dogs,” she re-invests the phrase with homespun, wry humor: we realize this going to the dogs can be a good thing.

In “They Never Reached You,” she discusses lost pecans meant as a gift but never sent for being waylaid somehow and possibly eaten by some canny canines. She states flatly: “I’m glad.” There’s no lament here, although Gould acknowledges the loss in the gift not reaching the intended recipient. Rather the gain is by an animal or a bird that “merits applause from these hands.” Or, if the pecans are lost and pounded into the earth by rain, is this any true loss of nourishment? She questions what or who is more deserving of sustenance when asking if any are “more worthy/than little blue flowers nurtured, and April’s grass, with the loss.”

In “Scanning” she examines our persistence for inconsequential things and what we miss in those stubborn pursuits. Similarly, in “Compensations,” a newly blind person can overlook his disability with the dedication of his guide dog and the beguilement of accepting the help of an ‘elegant black woman’s arm.” There is much that is missed by diversions of the more superficial elements of life, our ego gratifications that allow the reader to ponder the importance of what they may not see. “Stray Dog” emphasizes the narrator’s heart-wrenching inability to aid a homeless, starving dog, the helplessness summoned up in the final line: “Doing or not doing won’t help.” She supplies no remedy, simply acknowledging the stark realities of such situations.

Gould proclaims admiration of her dog outright in the lovely “Epiphany.” Reflecting on our misplaced energies, she describes her companion as, “You who harm no one/patient in your infinite love.” And remembering the loss of a former dog in “Delilah,” she speaks to being challenged “with your persistent nudging and love.” She moves through a symphony of sound and visual stimulation that seizes emotions through the simple routines of the animal world and its ability to awaken us to life’s treasures. The elementary act of walking with animals, unaffected in the moment of a day, abounds in “Morning Walks.” Diverse images jar our senses when “new shoots sprout like dense cathedrals” and subsequently “cognition gives way/to the ground under our feet.” This examination of perceptions continues in “Her Cat” where we wonder who is inside looking out and outside looking in? What do we really know in a landscape of change, “this night that begins to start,” when we are done with things and doing. Left alone, the poet observes, “The world small as a jail/…the voice of the wind/was enough to assure my silence.” These are Gould’s “Little Things” that give the feel and ambiance of life as one person, in a view from a city apartment, notices leaking faucets, stray gloves, “No grand scheme.” These are the imponderables “of the human heart” as she tells us in “Viet Nam,” a poem that questions the survival of a genocidal pilot in the wreckage of war.

In “Valiantly” she again confirms her mastery of the contrasting understatement, comparing such divergent analogies as her aging dog’s growing inabilities to the failing health of Saint Therese known as The Little Flower. “Unable to travel far, to Bethlehem, in illness/or the tree a mile away, in her nineteenth year/they affirm life’s existence/valiantly.” By depicting these dueling images, Gould shows us how to notice life’s inherent connections and illusive similarities. Herein resides the very heart of poetry and poetic expression. It engenders true compassion for all life as exemplified further in “Kitchen Moth,” whereby she emphasizes our ability for benevolence despite inescapable inevitabilities—the unavoidable losses of a “…spider washed down the drain/or the June bug battered after the rain.” Yet she manages to rescue a moth avoiding another “kitchen death.” These are small but imminently important actions by which we enhance our humanity in the aggregate.

“Dimanche” – the French word for Sunday, cleverly uses another language to emphasize a distancing from one who is “…losing my voice” and “…can’t find my speech.” It reflects our continual mundane mutterings, “…nothing new in these assertions.” The author’s dog and cat go about their daily habits without explanations and complaint or a need to seek “the speed of stimulation.” Taking their lead, at the end of the day, she remains “tongue tied and happy.” In the final poem, “Sleeping Dog,” she mitigates the inconveniences of shedding hairs and allergic wheezing in a humorous image of vacuuming hairs right off of the dog but allowing her to remain on the bed, “docile as usual.”

Gould includes, as an addendum, Lord Byron’s poem, “epitaph to a Dog,” in which he eloquently lauds his own dog, Boatswain, as purer than people, given our vanities and supposed patents on souls and salvation. This is a fitting inclusion in To The Dogs, verses inscribed on Botswain’s tomb being larger than Byron’s own, an apt deference that Gould convinces us is entirely just.

About the reviewer: Karen Corinne Herceg graduated Columbia University where she studied with David Ignatow and Pulitzer Prize winner Phil Schultz.  She has featured at major venues with such renowned poets as John Ashbery and William Packard. Her new book of poems, Out From Calaboose, was released in November 2016 by Nirala Publications with edits by Linda Gray Sexton, bestselling author and daughter of two-time Pulitzer Prize winning poet Anne Sexton.  Her website is www.karencorinneherceg.com.