Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Beaufort: The Lost & Found Mountain

I had a poetry professor once tell me any poem about the loss of a pet were the only poems he feared critiquing. Murder, Auschwitz and even incest were potentially tricky, but poems about pets dying--were practically off limits for him emotionally. It was as if, he said, dying pet poems were too emotionally driven making them inherently too difficult to write well. It's very hard to write between the thin line of sentimentality and vulnerability. I took his words as a challenge.

Now don't get me wrong, I didn't take his words so seriously as to want to coin myself as the dead pet poet, but the idea of pets and their emotional place in our lives- the sentimental or naive to the vulnerable and human-has been a topic of much thought. And really, let's be frank about it, some pets--perhaps like the hermit crab, gerbil and snake might be the ultimate challenge to write about since they are neither cute nor cuddly. But regardless of what kind of animal we've had, pets are markers of our life's events--they are the living penciled lines on a door frame of our emotional growth. The dog that lived in our childhood home, the cat who stayed after a divorce or the pet who out lives a spouse. Perhaps pets are too poetry worthy. And maybe because they don't talk, we get to look at them and remember what we want from our past. But in poems or not, pets are the valiant and important bystanders to our human experience. Or maybe they are our personal soothsayers dressed in fur suits.

This past Sunday, my husband and I and some friends went out skiing in the Pintler Mountains. We drove on dirt roads to the base of Warren Peak, just outside of Phillipsburg, Montana and while parking our car at the trail head, a dog came running up dragging a leash attached to his collar. No tags or name known, this black and tan hound dog whom we called Beufort, we assumed was lost. Before we began our hike to ski, my husband tied Beufort to the trail head. As we started to walk away, the dog just howled. We were at least four miles into our hike when Beufort showed up, wiggling his body and only having on his tagless collar. He stayed close the entire 14 hour day. He summited. He kept up. Even when it was post holing through rotten deep snow. He seemed happy and as if he couldn't imagine being anywhere else.

When we returned to the car, we had expected some note, some sign from Beufort's owners looking for him. There was nothing. And the leash that had been used to tie Beufort to the trail head was gone. It was dusk, we were exhausted and so we put Beufort in the back of the car and headed back to Missoula--over an hour drive home.

The next day we called every Humane Society in a three county radius. While on the phone with a woman from Butte's Humane Society, she told my husband, "sounds like someone was dumpin' a dog." It had never occurred to me that Beufort might have been intentionally left. Left to be found or left for wolves? I couldn't understand either. Our local Humane Society was closed on Mondays, so Beufort stayed another day with us. A day where we had to take him everywhere, even in the car to get groceries for he just howled and howled if left alone.

On Tuesday, I took Beufort to the good people at the Missoula Humane Society and I won't lie, it was hard. I felt conflicted as if I wanted to keep Beufort but knew in our tiny house without fields for him to run, he'd be miserable. Or so I told myself. Sure, I had read Where the Red Fern Grows to know hound dogs just want to hunt or really, they just need to run. And so I left Beufort with the hopes of a home.

As I got back into the car, I placed his makeshift leash on the passenger seat and drove to work. I tried to tell myself that I wasn't being melodramatic or indulgent, as I teared up. I was still shocked that someone thought it okay to just take a dog out to the wild for mountain lions or happenstance. I cried and told myself to be grateful for being part of Beufort's happenstance.

I'm also grateful for the sentimentality I felt for this lost or left dog. I'm grateful that logic and rational thinking hasn't plagued me of emotions or moments of pure and unabashed sentimentality. As Richard Hugo stated in his essay, "Writing off the Subject" in the Triggering Town, "If you are not risking sentimentality you are not close to your inner self." And really, that's what I believe my professor was really saying is the hardest place to write from and even harder to write well. But really where else can you write from? To write from your inner self--the place that holds memory, childhood, fears--is a place that we all have in us. It is nameless and without an address in this world. I believe it is the place we must go to when we want to write not for ourselves but for the Beuforts in this world. And really at some time in our lives we are all like Beaufort, dropped into this place to run and find a home. May we all risk howling to be found.

Here's the only shot of Beufort I have from the day on the lost and found mountain. I also give you this poem that I wrote long before I lived in Montana. It is also my only pet dying poem as of yet. But really I'd like to think it is more about living and being found than getting lost and dying.


You drove me out of the dog dish

of Missoula and into the country

where we got lost in the threading

of our voices with the windows open.

Everything was open then. We talked

about the winged man in Brazil,

your cat Lulu, my dog in Michigan,

and ignored the Bitterroot River.

The dirt roads kept us from lunch.

We sat on a rock wanting to undress

each other down to the skin

we would later learn

to sink into. And when we stood

on top of the butte, I stared

at your hair, dark like a stone too heavy

to move. As a child I collected agates,

smooth and black. Tadpoles

in a desert pool. I thought I could take the darkness

out of water. Today, I sweep up hair

from my dying black lab and I cannot stop

thinking of you. I cannot stop

the cancer chasing her while she dreams

of squirrels. Dogs are smart.

Or not. Either way, they don’t look back.