Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Not-So Freudian Slip

A breeze too light to cool sways leafy shadows across the patio. The sun is high, stifling, even though the sky is thick with cauliflower-shaped clouds. The dogs circle the yard, fresh-cut, slowly. The air conditioner pants, as if needing a sup from a cool spring. I walk to the edge of the patio, filling their blue plastic dish with water. The robins, all around me, twitter call and response.

I’ve accomplished much today, but little writing—yet. A thick sweetgum branch that collapsed onto the patio under the weight of icicles earlier this year has been quartered into logs. The kitchen is, at last, relatively clean. A good friend in the Czech Republic has been sent a long, rambling letter with advice on publishing (persevere). And I have slept in the muggy heat while listening to Liverpool fall behind AC Milan in the European Cup.

I love football.

Soon, my wife will be home. Soon, the garage door will swing up and open, and she will ascend the steps from the basement, clutching an iced mocha from Starbucks, to meet me, and the dogs, outside. The dogs will swarm her like hornets. Dixie's stub of a tail will beat furiously as she thrust her dust-covered paws up onto her momma's legs, leaving silver-dollar-sized prints on Michelle's slacks. Archie will prance at the edge of the fray, waiting his turn for attention, as his question-mark-shaped tail waggles back and forth with the fury of a conductor coaxing the ferocious notes of a Beethoven symphony from his orchestra. And when Michelle has settled Dixie down, my wife will lift Archie into her arms cradling him like the Madonna with Child.

I adore my dogs.

For Michelle and me, personifying our dogs is easy. Perhaps too easy. Archie, the Italian greyhound, is a mere 10 pounds. Many human infants weigh more than him at birth. Dixie, likewise, weighs about 17 pounds, maybe a little more. At the height of winter, I even torture Archie with disturbingly adorable sweaters because his fur is so thin. More, we often refer to them, jokingly, as our children, and familial terms like "Momma" and "Daddy" pepper our references to and about the dogs. We think of them as part of our family—an integral part.

Nevertheless, at times I suspect I can see that ineffable otherness in Archie’s tiny brown eyes. I'll see Dixie leap three feet into the air trying to maul a sparrow from the sky. I'll catch Archie burrowing his head into a patch of dust from which a tulip once sprouted, sniffing and snorting at the lingering scent of a mole or a chipmunk. They are, unmistakably, dogs.

Every day, I do my best to allow them access to that nature, within reason. It's why I spend so much time outside when the weather allows, and more, it's why, in this space, I've described my dogs as tiny gladiators and described their games of chase and their "fights" at length. As long as nothing is killed, neither dog is hurt, and the yard stays relatively manageable, why should I worry if their behavior diverges immensely from what I would expect of actual "children"?

Yet, yesterday, as I watched Archie bow to Dixie, I found describing their play absurdly difficult. Easy tropes like "fighting" or my teasing association of my tiny dogs with "gladiators," which I've used before, seemed contaminated by the recent news of Michael Vick's potential involvement in dog fighting. I actually wondered whether someone who doesn't know me and hasn't seen the full context of this project might misread a previous description as something similar to the felonious and deeply disturbing activities associated with Vick.

Today, such a notion disturbs me immensely, although a month ago, I wouldn't have thought twice about the language I used.

More, although I won't indulge a peculiar temptation to invoke Derrida, such concerns about the way in which meaning can shift or be interpreted differently by different readers are crucial to writing. Indeed, to my mind, poetry often functions on a connotative level, working with the penumbra of a word's meaning, the variety of associations attached to any single word, or the (de)stabilization of meaning that context makes possible. And finally, consider the power of connotation: The dogs on the Vick property fought like soldiers on a battlefield, charging toward death; my dogs fight as children at play do, meaning no harm whatsoever to the other member of their pack. I find the lack of concern over the well-being of the dogs on Vick's property reprehensible and hope those responsible face the jail time their due; whereas, my actions are based solely on concern for the well-being of my dogs.

And the word "fight" contains, in some ways, both notions.

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