Review: Dog Medicine, poems by Matt Dennison

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dog Medicine, poems by Matt Dennison
Dog Medicine, poems by Matt Dennison
Pudding House Chapbook Series
ISBN 1589984617 / 2007

Dog Medicine is a high-class chapbook, 21 poems stapled snugly inside a heavy-weight cover, and an admonishment from the publisher that,

"This chapbook is limited edition fine art [...]. You are not buying paper and printer's ink by weight. You selected language art that took as long to create as paintings or other fine art. Pudding House caters to those who understand the value of the poet's good work. [...] Manuscripts are chosen on the basis of their contribution to literary arts and to the popular culture."

At $10 for 24 pages of content, one feels the ratio heavily.  But in a curious way, the cost of the chapbook does lend the contents more value--I was determined to get my understanding's worth from each page, each poem (of course, this was a review copy, so the only thing GUD is paying for is shipping to the raffle winner--but it's the thought that counts).

At first blush, a good portion of the poems simply washed past me--generally filled with well-turned phrases and interesting scenarios or images, but not gripping me.  But I read Dennison's Dog Medicine through several times, trying to see which poems would blossom with understanding, and which would remain, for me at least, unsolveable puzzles.

I found this approach rewarding--reading once through set them in my mind, and a second time I saw things I'd mis-seen or mis-thought... or simply missed, entirely.  And a third time, I sat and struggled with pieces that wouldn't fold into sense or statement--and some of them, with this encouragement, did solidify.  Of course, some still didn't--but given the strength of the poetry overall, I'd give the author the benefit of the doubt that the missed understanding might be on my end.

And now on to the selections, or at least those I felt I could say something about--

The titular piece, /Dog Medicine/, does well as a prologue and introduction to the rest of the book, but seems one of the weaker pieces on its own.  There's too little context for what's there for any connection to be made.  Perhaps I've not climbed enough hills, though--and I'm not a fan of dog slobber.

/Picnic/ became more coherent for me with re-reading, but still never found its mark.  I feel like I have all the answers until the last two lines, which put my understanding of everything up to that point in limbo.  I get the base scenario, but I'm missing the meaning.

/Help Us to Pray for Craig/, on the other hand, gave me all I needed to understand--there are a few large questions that I wish I knew for sure, but their answers only change a note here or there in the piece's score.  It's a complete story, with wind-up, misdirection, and, as James Bell would say, "Kapow".

/The Attic/, one of the longer poems at a full two pages, is also a full story.  We get to feel the larger part of someone else's life, incredibly subtle for something touching on the Holocaust; made actually more personal through one-step removed POV, because it puts the "could have been me" one step away, makes you wonder for a moment what stories are right around the corner that you've never thought to ask for.

/Barbarians/ is just a moment, a brief moment, and while understanding passes, at the end, between the two characters involved, I missed all but the setting.

/Cancion De LaVenganza/ has a compelling rhythm, drives you swiftly to the end with its cadence and its damning lines--"and all my sins / you eat", which brings you back through to wonder at what just happened.  Simply put, but beautifully executed--its simplicity belies the complexity of the statement.

/Father Swarat/ is a swift build up towards a single thought, but doesn't seem to have the power of other works in the collection.

/Enjoyment/ is clever, and fun--a back and forther that ups the ante the slightest bit each time; actions and consequences toggling between enjoyment and not.

/Enemy Camp/ is too straight-forward in a simple twist, mental fantasy sort of way for me.

/The Lawyer, the Businessman, the Kid and You and I/ doesn't feel complete to me--just a glimpse.  But it's a glimpse that can be digested repeatedly, good fodder for one's own reminiscences.

/Sweet Basil/ paints a simple picture, with enough details to provide a certain texture but at the same time coming off as mostly flat.

/Mother/, on the other hand, tells a lot with very little.  A wall is described, and what happens across the wall, and from that, rooms, and even lives, are constructed.

/Home/ is sad, and while it seems to manage what it set out to do with that, I'd rather it hadn't.  I want to reach through the poem and slap the person trying to bury their weakness under the sand.

/Cold Metal Part/ is solid but perhaps too simple.  The story goes where you'd expect a simple twist to go, and while well depicted doesn't feel full.

/His Mother Locks Him in at Night/ has good description, but doesn't connect for me.  I can visualize it, see it acted out, but it's there and then it's gone.  Perhaps I don't yet have the life experience for it.

/Those with Special Powers Die on Nights Like This/ was disgusting, as I presume it was intended to be.  It's a true statement, though.

And the last piece, /One Night/, while outwardly upbeat, is flat out depressing.  It's the story of one man's small success; and in that success, for me, at least, a statement of how little anything matters--something I try to think as little about as possible.  All the same, it's one of the poems I'd be most likely to share with a friend: good food for thought and discussion.

All in all, a lot of material for 24 pages of content, worth some cogitation if you've got the relaxed time to spend.
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posted by kaolin

11 comments; 0 subscribers

Tuesday, October 23, 2007 / 11:56:42
To enter into the raffle for our review copy of Dog Medicine, tell us what "Dog Medicine" means to you. :)

Open to any shipping address in the continental US. :)

Leave your answer by the end of Oct 31, 2007 (pacific time), and we'll count you in our raffle. :)
Tuesday, October 23, 2007 / 14:42:12
I'm intrigued by the title of the book, but it's difficult to get a feel for your criticism without some (more) quoting of the actual lines/poem in question.

Dog Medicine reminds me of the time I tried to help my next-door neighbor medicate her dog Cooper. I held his (considerable) jaws open while she rubbergloved her hand and stuffed the pill down Cooper's maw. He later shat the capsule out intact, so it was a lot of effort wasted. But that's what Dog Medicine means to me. ;-)
Tuesday, October 23, 2007 / 16:36:29
Thanks for the feedback. :) Next poetry collection I'll try to find some relevant bits to quote. My original review started with the following sentence:

"This has been a hard review for me to write, as I'm not particularly schooled in poetry, nor have I had the experience with it that I've had with short fiction."
Tuesday, October 23, 2007 / 17:25:12
I enjoy poetry and this sounds interesting. I don't think it is about what I initially thought - but still sounds interesting. I'd like to win.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007 / 19:44:00
Dog medicine reminds me of therapy dogs walking around hospitals for the terminally ill. The patients still die but the dogs somehow make them feel better.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007 / 00:10:53
Matt suggested we print the title poem, Dog Medicine, in the comments section, to help people trying to win our copy. So thank you, Matt! Here goes:

/Dog Medicine/
With the hill as steep as the nights were dark,
I could usually count on a fair amount
of stumbling and cursing before finding a spot
that would not quickly send me
back to the bottom
and when, every night,
the dog,
bigger and blacker than any I had ever seen
and looking as if he had borne
every blow
from every man
and every beast
on every inch of his solid, dumb face
would come sniffing up from the junkyard
that lay at the base of the hill,
find me and cover me
with the dirt of yet another hole
dug with steady, giant earnestness,
heave a mournful sigh
and settle his massive body across my legs
the better to gaze upon my face,
I would tell myself dog medicine
is better than no medicine
and look into his eyes.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007 / 08:55:08
At first glance, the dog, "looking as if he had borne/ every blow" seems a metaphor for the Earth itself, abused by all ("every man/ and every beast"), yet at the end of another day of blind activity ("stumbling and cursing...") still nurturing. In the last 3 lines, the poet(if grudgingly) acknowledges and appreciates this.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007 / 10:02:27
While at first I wasn't quite sure what to make of the title, after reading the poem, I see what "Dog Medicine" means. Being a dog-person myself, I completely understand the emotion behind the words. No matter how rotten and frustrating my day has been, no matter how terrible I feel, coming home and playing with my dog always makes me feel better. The loyalty, the goofy, unquestioning adoration, and the fast-wagging tail all tell me that I'm okay, and that I'm loved.
Yes, I'm a firm believer in Dog Medicine, and I would love to read more of the chapbook.
Wednesday, October 24, 2007 / 11:33:10
Good poem. It really starts to roll about halfway through and then takes off with the the last 3-4 lines.
Friday, October 26, 2007 / 14:45:18
Dog Medicine is the relief granted when a terminal cancer destroys pain receptors in one part of an organism -- a temporary numbness before the cancer metastasizes.
Monday, November 5, 2007 / 13:49:14
robert eggleton--you're our lucky winner this week. :) I'll contact you off-board for shipping info. :) Thanks everyone for participating! And if the chapbook really does sound like your brand of medicine, go get yourself a copy! :)

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