The Unleashable Dog

EJ Miley--curious orange 023
EJ Miley, Jr.

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
          to love.

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.

Charles Rafferty at EIL

Charles Rafferty’s Appetites, a book review at EIL

Charles Rafferty’s Short Fiction, a book review at EIL

The Unleashable Dog at Amazon

More dog art by EJ Miley, Jr.

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