Yesterday I read a comment about this year's fiction and memoirs, suggesting that the period of "dog stories" was coming to an end. But later in the day I heard someone talking about how the latest dog "memoir" was encouraging too many people to purchase yellow Labrador puppies too quickly, and, horrifically, the animal shelters are getting ready for the deluge of rejected animals.
So the title and cover of Carey Salerno's new collection of poems from Alice James Books, SHELTER -- illustrated by a poignant color photo of two your dogs peering through a kennel fence -- gave me some warning of what might lie within.
But this is a powerful collection, and the warning wasn't strong enough. There should be something like a Surgeon General label on the book: "These poems may produce tears, an upset stomach, and an abiding sense of horror and grief."
I try to be careful about conflating the author and the poetic speaker; they're not always one person. But I kept turning to the author photo on the back of the book, with its winter-garbed, dark-eyed young woman (Salerno, who lived in Boston when the book came out, has moved to Maine and is also now acting director of Alice James Books), and wondering: Did she do the things she's writing about? Did she euthanize hundreds of animals? Grow numb at the whimpers and cries and mounds of stiffening bodies? Bear guilt for moments of rejection and even torture of some of the animals whose dying bodies and wounded reactions all piled up in her thoughts, dreams, shames?
The collection opens with devastating detail, in "Fledgling." Here's the center of the poem, after the speaker injects seven kittens with the death-dealing poison for euthanasia:
Kittens, velvet skeletons, wither
in my hands, cumbersome skulls
drooping without muscle. Their tongues
strain to brush ashen noses--
then slacken, knock against loose jaws
unmasking porcelain, pushpin teeth.
Don't expect forgiveness; the poems build in a crescendo of pain and bitter knowledge. Here, from "Certification," is a comment that follows a co-worker's effort to learn the technique of killing an animal quickly and mercifully:
... She cannot miss its vein, focusing
on the twenty-five cent raise. Wasn't that enough
to lean over and stab the heart, humor the vet's
sensitivity? Compassion: the slabbed certificate
on the wall reads so. In the name
of all holies, she, he, anyone will-
ing to work for minimum wage can kill.
The titles lay out the landscape: "Burnout"; "Communion"; "Asylum." Even "A Business of Killing." If Salerno hasn't walked this terrain herself, she must have mapped it with anguish for someone else.
The spare couplets, the cascading forceful images, remind me particularly of Maxine Kumin's work when the New Hampshire poet is writing about horses, especially the Kumin poem "Jack."
I wanted to run to an animal shelter and adopt a creature, quickly, to stem the tide of bodies. But there is no stemming a tide, is there? In fierce evocative poems, SHELTER makes that clear. And it is our hearts, as well as the hearts of the lost loved dogs, the early-born kittens, the scrambling puppies, that are stabbed.
NOTE: Salerno will read with Anne Marie Macari at the Collected Poets Series in Shelburne Falls, Mass., in April.