Book Review

Dogged, by Stacy Gnall, is a collection of poems that explores the relationship between the human and the animal, the human and the monstrous, and all the points of connection in these thematic arenas. As suggested by the title, there is a recurring focus on dogs—including a distinct historical perspective that encompasses the history (or imagined history) of domestication, dogs in art, and the ongoing evolution of human-dog connection. The book creates and imagines the voices of dogs and other animals, just as it merges the voices of humans and animals. Reading this book, I was drawn to the way that the poems continue to build on dog and animal voices, and the way the poems brought a sense of mystery and context into the sense of domestication and ordinariness associated with dogs, the animal, and human experience.

One of my favorite poems in the collection, “Satellite,” begins with the lines, “The dogs know / the night is strong / with ghosts.” Later in the poem, Gnall writes, “Says the myth, // they gave their lifespans / for ours—.” As indicated by these lines, many of the dog-related poems in the book specifically address the connection between the animal and the supernatural/mythical, as well as addressing the historical structure of wildness, domestication, and the ancientness of the of the human-dog relationship. Gnall seems to play with the idea of dogs as familiars, as supernatural forces that are tied to the human without being explained by or reduced to it. The poems also often combine the human and dog voices—for example, the poem “Dreaming Down the Dog” includes the lines “Taught to get what we want / with a howl // put it all in / our drooling mouths”—often mapping the human experience onto the language of dogs.

The book also weaves in the voices of other animals—including several poems that reference cats and the domestication of cats. Notably, in one of the last poems in the book, “Afterfeather,” the perspective shifts to the metaphor of a bird being hunted by dogs—for example: “At my heels like king’s hounds and hungrier. / I am a fistful of feathers.” This passage indicates dogs as both companions and predators and mirrors some of the violence and contradictions shown in the human voices of the poems.

There is a systematic concern with abuse of animals. For example, the poem “Some Curious End” describes animal abuse in the context of a fair:

With the black bear doped and posed at the county fair.

To prove there’s a god, a snake

                                                  held in prayer.

                                                                                          You are ending.

This poem, as well as others in the book, tie animal abuse with the destruction of the human or the alienation of the human from the sacred. There are also multiple mentions of Laika, the dog that was sent on an early Soviet mission to orbit the earth knowing she had no chance of survival. For example, “Pantoum for Laika with No Return” includes the line, “How small did our love look from that height?” also indicating a sort of blindness or limit in human perspective. The poems consistently imply that animal abuse is a form or spiritual or existential threat to the human.

An impressive feature of Gnall’s treatment of the animal subject matter in this book is that the writing does not rely on tropes. As dogs and other animals have a long history of relating to humans, they also have a long history of associated tropes and accumulated language. While Gnall is obviously nodding to and engaging with this language (ex. the first poem in the book is called “Man’s Best”), this is not a book in which animals appear cute or innocent, nor are they reducible to metaphors for human experience. The book effectively creates and relies on myth and mystery around animals and brings a sense of alienness to domestication.

While large portions of the book do seem centrally concerned with the animal world, there is a strong presence of the human world in this text. However, in contrast to the animal world, characterized largely by mystery and myth, the human world seems to be characterized by horror and estrangement. The middle section of the book, called “Creature Feature,” specifically references images drawn from horror films. This section is the only one of the three which has a specific title, and its references or associations include The Twilight Zone, Friday the 13th, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and King Kong. Many of these poems deal with the monstrous and threatening, often in the sense of gendered violence, as seen in the opening lines from “iv. /…”: “What I’ll never unsee is that / first scene—the jerk and drag / of the skinnydipping girl.”  The poems seem to both indicate the monstrous as alien otherness and the monstrous as human—ex. “the monster is often made / by another” (from “x./Swamp Thing”). Relatedly, some of the poems in the final section of the book deal with child abuse, including “Girl in the Window,” a poem after Genie, an abused child raised entirely in confinement and isolation. This poem connects many of the themes in the book, drawing out the primal/animal experience in torture and abuse and the monstrous nature of human abusers, for example in the lines, “Like the changed dog / of a caged dog. / Or the brutedog / who puts them there.”

Many of the poems here have a specifically female perspective, including recurring poems about motherhood and the animal female/female animal. The first poem, “Man’s Best,” is later inverted with a poem title that includes “Women’s Best.” Another poem describes an image of a woman training circus lions—“when the tamer steps lion-hearted into the ring” (from “Picture of Woman Training Circus Lions”). In concert with the repeated images of violence towards women and female animals—horror “scream queens,” abused girls, Laika—there is a balance of power, violence, and vulnerability in the book’s portrayal of the gendered body. One of the most beautiful poems in the collection, “Transformation Sequence,” uses an epigraph from Anne Sexton and alters some of her lines, describing transformation in connotatively female terms—gown, prettier, moon—including the lines, “Take your last / tremble, I said // you will be yourself / by morning.” The book seems to accomplish several different transformations of femaleness by the end of the text, often in concert with the animal. Overall, this text effectively revisits and transforms a core set of images, and these transformations are likely to change how the reader views both the animal and human world.

About the Reviewer

Kristine Nowak is a first-year MFA student in poetry at Colorado State University. Her poetry has been published in several anthologies and journals, most recently in CALYX: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women. She works as an instruction librarian at CSU.