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Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, July 16, 2006; BW12

Homer gives Odysseus a loyal dog, and Catullus laments for his Lesbia's sparrow. In more intense detail than either classical poet, the 18th-century Englishman William Cowper (1731-1800) closely observes the psychology and behavior of his pet rabbits. Cowper's "Epitaph on a Hare" includes these memorable lines on a loved, though less than perfectly lovable, creature: "Old Tiney, surliest of his kind, / Who, nursed with tender care, / And to domestic bounds confined, / Was still a wild jack-hare. / Though duly from my hand he took / His pittance every night, / He did it with a jealous look, / And, when he could, would bite."

Cowper reports Tiney's diet: "wheaten bread,/ And milk, and oats, and straw,/ Thistles, or lettuces instead,/ With sand to scour his maw. . . . And, when his juicy salads failed, / Sliced carrot pleased him well." He recounts that the rabbit liked to "gambol like a fawn" on the carpet, "And swing his rump around." In the elegiac conclusion, Cowper reflects on his motives for keeping a pet and, by implication, on his own mortality:

Eight years and five round-rolling moons

He thus saw steal away,

Dozing out all his idle noons,

And every night at play,

I kept him for his humour's sake,

For he would oft beguile

My heart of thoughts that made it ache,

And force me to a smile.

But now, beneath this walnut-shade

He finds his long, last home,

And waits in snug concealment laid,

Till gentler Puss shall come.

He, still more aged, feels the shocks

From which no care can save,

And, partner once of Tiney's box,

Must soon partake his grave.

Cowper, a tormented man best known for his "Lines Written During a Period of Insanity," in this droll, sensitive account of Tiney and gentler Puss tells something about himself. In a comparable way, the contemporary poet Robin Becker in her new book, Domain of Perfect Affection , tells about love and tension between two people by paying careful attention to a pet:

OK, Tucker

You win. My arm got tired of throwing the ball

before you got tired of scrambling up the river-

bank to fetch it. OK, Tucker, you can come, too.

Since you open the door with your clever snout

I'm not about to shove you back in. You win

the beauty contest, the most finicky eater award,

and the like-a-dog-with-a-bone prize; you win

the first-one-in-the-car sweepstakes. Look,

Tucker, we had no choice when we squared off

in your adolescence, we had to get along, it was a live-

and-let-live situation, both of us in love with her.

OK, I bribed you with biscuits and rides;

you conned me with a handshake and a smile.

Remember hide-and-seek in the cornfield,

the jack-in-the pulpit, the lady slipper?

That week at the beach with smelly gulls

wrapped in slime and tangled lines of seaweed?

And a pen of chickens? You had it made, but no!

Old girl, you chased the phantom squirrel

up the slope again and again, returned

slack-jawed, refused to come off the porch,

stood your ground in freezing November rain,

showed your dog's teeth when I showed my human

fear and for good measure ran circles around me--

when I was her woman, but you were her dog.

Becker's comic timing, her ultimate sincerity and, above all, her respectful, close attention make her poem, like Cowper's, a winning demonstration of how to express feeling through elements of a life that isn't literally or exactly one's own.

(William Cowper's "Epitaph on a Hare" can be found in "The Norton Anthology of Poetry." Robin Becker's "OK, Tucker" can be found in "Domain of Perfect Affection." Univ. of Pittsburgh Press. Copyright 2006 by Robin Becker.)

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