The Unleashable Dog
The Unleashable Dog, by Charles Rafferty
Steel Toe Books, 2014
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, EIL Poetry Editor
In The Unleashable Dog, by Charles Rafferty, something odd or unexpected keeps being revealed as perfectly natural, after all, in these lovely, funny, strange and wonderful lyric and narrative poems. Several appeared together in Appetites, an electronic chapbook published by Clemson University Digital Press (and reviewed here at EIL in March, 2012). In this full-length collection, they resonate again but differently, like thunder come closer than it was before, like music from “the black trumpets / of the sound system” of a traveling circus that has suddenly arrived in town, or like when the ice cream truck turns onto your own street, maybe exciting the unleashable dog!
Often in these poems, some absurd circumstance—a man with a hawk in his suitcase, a woman who eats fish from the aquarium—becomes a metaphor for an aspect of the human condition in contemporary times, say, the artificial enhancement and necessary suppression of natural appetites. Of course it is awkward to travel with a raptor in one’s suitcase, especially if one’s work requires frequent, even international travel. On the other hand, isn’t a man supposed to take advantage of that time away from home to have extramarital affairs? What’s a man (and his hawk) to do?
But he dreads unpacking—the wild
batting of the hawk as it crashes
about the room in search of a perch up high.
He has learned to open the bathroom first,
for the bird prefers a shower rod, and of course
it must be fed—with mice if he can get them
or with a sandwich of local meat.
And if a woman does come to his room and the hawk “mistake[s] her tossing hair for an animal / in distress,” there will be trouble.
The woman wants to leave
when that happens, or rather, she flees
into the corridor, wrapped only in talon marks
and fear. It is always the same.
The man hands her crumpled dress
through the half-opened door
while the bird knocks over table lamps
and shreds the curtains.
See how the quiet storytelling and utterly accessible language render the absurdity into something rather matter of fact, after all?
Of course the man doesn’t get away with any of this—the hotel asks him to leave, and he goes back to his self-contained life, not quite satisfied. Not this time. But this poem opens both the book and the section titled Satisfactions, so apparently the inconvenience of traveling with a hawk is, generally speaking, working out.
Part two is Frustrations, and part three is Anticipations, balancing worry and hope.
In “The Man with a Missing Dog,” still among the Satisfactions, the speaker finds “a couch with its legs knocked off / in the center of a field,” creating an unexpected living room in a trashy-yet-natural habitat, giving rise to an erotic imagining and a sweet reverence for “the girl / who must have been there—how she opened
like a gift, how she redeemed the blasted upholstery,
how she overcame a field of random trash
with the traffic blurring by—the glow
of the Mobil station lighting the steps
she took on the way back out. It was private—
a place that no one frequented but high school lovers
and runaway dogs. Good for her, I thought—
to make use of her body and this palsied couch
before it became worthless to all but the mice
and millipedes. But it was getting late.
I saw where the path continued and I took it.
Somewhere up ahead the unleashable dog
had begun its nightly barking.
And there you have it, “the unleashable dog,” the book’s title, introducing the poems as, perhaps, the poet’s own “nightly barking,” a call to be let in or let out, or, if lost, found, but always unleashed and unleashable.
The poems are funny and serious at once, at times scary and unpredictable, as barking, unleashed dogs can be. “The Pornographer Speaks” is strangely beautiful and deeply disturbing. “Butcher”—about, yes, a guy who cuts up meat and lies to his daughters about it—is horrific:
He runs a calf through
a band saw, the frozen meat flying up
like murderous rain against his goggles.
But the horror of “Butcher” gets undone, somehow, when, in “The Man Explains His Souvenirs,” the speaker shows a molar from a wild pig’s jaw, antlers, fossils, and a turtle shell to his daughters as things he saved, knowing their value.
All of it
sleeps in a basement box—a kind of coffin
for my former life, but also a proof
that I stooped to the world,
that I kept what came my way.
These two poems, placed side by side, have that obvious connection—animal parts and daughters. That’s an aspect of the ordering of poems in this book that makes for a very interesting reading experience. In “The Man With a Missing Watch in Spring,” a man, well, has lost his watch! In the next poem, “The Man With Rotten Fruit on His Wrist,” well, you can see what happened. Both are dealing with the abstraction of time, and both have gorgeous endings that also connect. Compare!:
… Yes, this is the week with a missing
watch. But it’s also the week
when a man can’t bother to get on his knees
in search of anything but what has been rising
to stop him with gold and green.
Exactly! And now this ending:
When asked why he straps old fruit to his wrist,
he says simply that ash is impractical,
that fog forgets to linger. Besides, he likes always
being ready to boo a performance
or to plant a small garden at the end of the world.
Here are some other side-by-side connections I enjoyed: In “The Man With a Woman Waiting” is this marvelous use of a tool and of the word “tighten”: “her body / laid out like a gleaming wrench // that would tighten the man it touched.” In the very next poem, “The Man With a Boat at the Bottom of the Lake,” is this gorgeous phrase, extra mysterious out of context: “sometimes / with the clear eyes of a mask / tightened to its face.” “Lobster” and “The Man on Break” are side by side poems about cigarette breaks. Sometimes the connections are farther afield (or at sea); the poem “Bismarck” has “a battleship stalled at the bottom of a sea” to answer to the man with a boat at the bottom of the lake.
Oh, and then I noticed all the “un” constructions that align with “unleashable dog”:
“the body’s unleaveable jail”
“windows / unopenable by design”
“a gulf of blackness / uncrossable in between”
All the “un-ness” of the world leads inevitably to this, in “The Man Waiting for the Boat to Still”:
It is cloudless and moonless and breezeless—
a night of deficiencies he has grown
And there again, you have it. What can you do but grow to love life’s deficiencies? To grow big enough to fill the absences? “The trigger / was unpullable anyway by the fog / of finger he had left.” Better to love the life you have, full of its losses and lacks, yes? What’s there to leash? Whatever’s there, let it be.