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Mary Oliver’s ‘Dog Songs’: Processing Grief and Celebrating a Dog’s Life

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCD chapter.

CW: death of a pet

In February, my family’s dog, Star, passed away. She was old, and it was not unexpected, but I was not able to make it home from Davis to be with her. I said my goodbyes to Star in my heart, as opposed to being with her in her final moments. Since then, I’ve been dealing with the many emotions of mourning Star — both reflecting on the many happy memories of her, and processing the sorrows over losing my little dog who I love so dearly.

Amidst my sadness, I’ve grappled with the possibility of my grief being silly — too much, too melodramatic for the death of a pet. In hopes of relief from this feeling of unwarranted theatrics, I turned to the poet Mary Oliver’s collection Dog Songs. I rarely connect with poetry, but I’d read Oliver before, and I like her crisp words and simplicity, her meditations on nature and miniscule moments of life, and her love for dogs. Dog Songs is described (by the back-cover blurb) as a “celebration of the special bond between human and dog”; the works inside range from conversations between Oliver and her dogs, to details of daily life with her pets, to reflections in memory of dogs who’ve passed away.

Reading through the collection did not lessen my grief. In fact, reading words of such kindness and care about dogs released more downpours of tears. But, in these poems, I found solace. I felt understood; likewise I understood how Mary Oliver loved dogs (and specifically her dogs) as much as I love mine — I understood how she cherished, and honored, and mourned her own dogs like how I did Star. The worries that my feelings were trivial were swallowed up and dissolved by the tenderness of Oliver’s work.

Three poems in particular resonated with me. I cannot do them justice with only excerpts, but I’ll pull some lines from each to share here. 

From Little Dog’s Rhapsody in The Night (Percy Three): “Tell me you love me, he says. // Tell me again. // Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over / he gets to ask it. / I get to tell.” 

From “Bazougey”: “See how the violets are opening, and the leaves / unfolding, the streams gleaming and the birds / singing. What does it make you think of? His shining curls, his honest eyes, his / beautiful barking.”

From “Her Grave”: “A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house, but you / do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the / trees, or the laws which pertain to them.”

The power in these poems comes from the feeling of connectedness between Mary Oliver and myself. Though our lives are completely separate, her writing about dogs captures our shared feelings — and maybe this suggests a relatedness between us, after all. In understanding her love and appreciation for her dogs, I feel vindicated in my own love and mourning for Star. Knowing that someone feels as I do brings me a sense of freedom and release. In turn, this freedom has allowed me to focus on the peace found in my good memories of Star. I still feel sad thinking about Star, but, as Oliver recognizes in her poems, there is a special connection between human and dog with the power, I think, to transcend the feeling of loss.

Raised in Southern California, currently studying English Lit at UC Davis. Banana pudding enthusiast and aspiring corgi owner.