Ode to the Dog

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One of the richest and deepest blessing poets of the 20th century is the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Poetry in 1971.  A Marxist who supported the popularly elected Communist government led by Allende, Neruda was dismayed by the violent overthrow of the government by the military led by General Pinochet, an American supported military dictator who only relinquished power in 1990.  Neruda, who had been a diplomatic representative of the Allende government,  returned to Chile after his Nobel award, but was most likely, all remains uncertain in the shadows of Pinochet and the disappearance of thousands, killed by a doctor’s injection.  But no one knows for sure.

His poems relish and give thanks for ordinary life.  He wrote a series of Odes, that is, poems of celebration, which are usually in the Western poetic tradition about great events and great people.  Neruda turned the Ode to celebrate the most ordinary things, like soap , the color green, a chestnut on the ground, the liver, an orange and an onion, and kindly and thankfully on.  His Odes in particular bring us into the world of praising things, the rich and peculiar and graceful things of creation, both God’s and the world’s and our own.

Because of my love for my puppies, Finn and Molly, who are nearly 11 years old but who are still dear puppies, one of my favorite Odes is Neruda’s  “Ode to the Dog”, translated here by Ilan Stavans from All the Odes, published by  Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2013.

                ODE TO THE DOG

The dog asks me

and I have no answer.

He jumps, scampers through the fields

and wordlessly asks me,

and his eyes

are two wet question marks, two liquid

interrogating flames,

and I’ve no answer,

no answer because

 

I don’t know, I just can’t.

 

Cross country we go

man and dog.

 

The leaves glisten as

if someone

had kissed them

one by one,

all the oranges

climb from the ground

to establish

little planetariums

in trees round

as the night, and green,

and man and dog we go

sniffing the world, parting the clover,

through the fields of Chile,

between September’s clear fingers.

The dog comes to a halt,

chases after bees,

leaps over gushing brooks,

perks up his ears at far-off

barking,

urinates on a rock,

and brings me the point of his nose,

like a gift.

It’s his tender coolness,

conveying his tenderness,

and there he asked me

with his two eyes

why it’s daytime, why night comes,

why spring brought

nothing

in its basket

for roaming dogs,

but useless flowers,

flowers, flowers, flowers.

And so the dog

asks

and I have no answer.

 

We go

man and dog together

through the green morning,

the rousing empty solitude

where only we

exist,

this unity of dew and dog,

and poet of the forest,

for the hidden bird does not exist,

nor the secret flower,

just trill and fragrance

for the two companions,

a world humid

with the essences of night,

a green tunnel and then

a meadow,

a whiff of orange-scented air,

the rustle of roots,

life walking,

breathing, growing,

and the age-old friendship,

the joy

of being man and dog

converted

into a single animal

walking along moving

six legs

and a tail

splashed with dew.

Before Mary Magdalene and all the other Marys and women got to the tomb on the morning of resurrection for Jesus, and before Peter or John arrived, and even before the young men/the angels arrived to spread the word of resurrection, before all of them including the drowsing soldiers at the tomb, I like to imagine a dog waiting and resting, for resting and waiting is what faith is about,  in front of the sealed tomb – and then the first to welcome Jesus into the life of the world again.

The dog is who Jesus needed to come back amongst us.  We always want to run away, angels and disciples and saints alike, off into Holy Land and Spirit and Heaven.  But Jesus was not resurrected to Holy Land or to lead us there.  Jesus was resurrected in flesh, back into the passing world we are alive in, and while we are all praying and trembling in a hidden room with the frightened disciples, or in an early morning Easter liturgy at church, the dog looks up into the face of Jesus and puts his nose into Jesus’ hand and licks his fingers, alive in flesh again.

And then off into the world they go, the dog with questions but not needing answers, needing only to wake from his long waiting, as Jesus from death, and walk together, six feet and a wagging tail again, and as they went,

life walking,

breathing, growing,

and the age-old friendship,

the joy

of being man and dog

converted

into a single animal

walking along moving

six legs

and a tail

splashed with dew.

Neruda, from his own attention to the world of ordinary people and animals and weather, fruits and things, gives to me a better imagine of what the resurrection can come to be in me than most Christian books and preachings.  Instead God and man in Jesus then rising in blessing man and dog together, all baptismally  “splashed with dew.”

If you have or ever had a dog I trust you know that central line in Neruda’s poem: the dog brings me the point of his nose / like a gift .  When Mary Magdalene and then the disciples all come with doubts, with questions, with all their dashed needs in the crucifixion, the dog offers sniffing near his nose as Jesus comes out of the tomb – his nose saying everything YES, and there is no question about where to go next – out into the world in spite of all its questions and disappointments.  Out into the world with Jesus.  The dog no less than we, and most likely the dog leading the way,

converted

into a single animal

walking along moving

six legs

and a tail

splashed with dew.

The Marxist Neruda imagines for us a conversion “into a single animal”, a single flesh, people and dogs, but then also Jews and Muslims and Christians, no less than dogs and trees, squirrels and birds….but as to cats, well, that’s one of the dog’s unanswered questions.  Poetry offers this discovery how in all our differences we might find ourselves converted into company and metaphor coupled and shadowed, “splashed with dew.”

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