Language—and Beyond Language: Lisa Bickmore’s “Dog Aria”

Anthology Poet Highlight 23/82: Lisa Bickmore, “Dog Aria

Lisa’s poem is about a dog. And not about a dog.

On the surface the poet narrates her dachsund’s relationship with water and with song, showing the canine “baying adagio,” swimming “among the staves”—the movements of the sprinklers, the dishwasher, the washing machine—as the hush of water grows thick in his ears and baptizes the landscape in night. The “frisk[iness]” of this image comes through for me in the language the poet uses to frame it: the alliteration of “surprised into song by the slosh of dishes” and “late loads of laundry;” the staccato tapping of “the staccato of his quick sprechgesang”; the playfulness of “Trained in bel canto, he had perfect pitch,” which anthropomorphizes the dog and compels a better-trained articulation of the line (if the dog can be trained in bel canto, why can the reader not be trained by the poet to read the poem?). This training takes place, to a degree, with the opening of the palate with the long /a/ of “trained” and the rhyming short /a/’s of “canto” and “had”; with the alliterative /p/’s of “perfect pitch”; and by the way the line is held together on the tongue with the repeated /t/, a phoneme that’s softened and expanded a bit by the /d/ of “had” and the /tch/ of “pitch.”

Below the playfulness of the imagery and the language, however, I feel the poet yearning, perhaps for a deeper relationship with the dog and, by extension, with nature; for a deeper relationship with language; for a deeper relationship with her readers and, by extension, with humanity. This yearning really comes through in “the leitmotif of [the] dog” “and a half”—which, as I’ve suggested, points to the poem’s deeper theme of connection—and in the poem’s last two lines: “and the long notes, impossibly long / —O Sigmund! O song!” In her reading of the poem, Lisa gets a bit more contemplative here and she performs “the long notes” of “long,” “impossibly long,” and “song” with a bit more, well, longing. Additionally, the two “O”s in the final line signal a lament of sorts: a lament, perhaps, for the dog, for his song, for deeper relationships and the ultimate inability of language to build and to nurture them on its own.

Hence the need for music.

Hence the need for poetry, which is language, yes, but also more than language: it’s rhythm. It’s embodiment. It’s longing, connection, and desire compressed into words, thus making those words more, perhaps, than just mere words.

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