Dogs of Brooklyn
by Susie DeFord
Poet Laureate Press; 102 p.
An attention to detail displays both obsessiveness and love, a line often hard to draw. For instance, take Susie DeFord’s beautiful, deceptively simple debut book of poetry, Dogs of Brooklyn. The book, to the extent that poetry fits with summaries, describes the tones, tunes, voices, and pulsations of the beautiful variety of people and animals in different parts of Brooklyn. To that extent, the book serves as a paean to a community in a time when we usually assume communities live on their last hobbled, crippled leg, when we assume we live atomized lonely lives with limited human interaction. Consequently, this signifies a welcome antidote against the gloomy sense of isolation that we cling to in our pursuit for singularity, even in the harried, hurried city life. Instead of an exploration of the human spirit, the eternal subject of poetry in the past century, this book explores people, animals, and things bound together by nothing more than proximity. Not to say that DeFord romanticizes the beauty of her, or any community, because as she says, “If someone says they’ve never thought about leaving/ they’re lying.” She marks the ambivalence of a city, infringing on nature, on the quiet of our minds, at the same time that pays tribute and homage to the sprawl.
Given how outdated we perceive this effort, it makes it, in terms of content, somewhat of the avant-garde of poetry. And with good reason. I always wonder how much more we can plunge the depths of self-awareness. Writers, for so long now, especially with the turn of modernism, focus more and more on the Self, on identity, which given the increasingly fractured nature of identity makes some sense, but it borders on an obsession. Sooner or later we must reach a point in which we drill so much that we hit the molten core and can dig no further. A consequence of this obsession over self is the neglect of community in literature or poetry.
Not to say that DeFord lacks an perceptive eye for insightful paintings of people, but she chooses to use these descriptions as scenery to reflect the larger beauty of the community. With a keen ear for the visions and sounds of mundane life (“Horizon cranes tower over quiet water, industrial giraffes in a bucolic oasis,” “I’m not much for gossiping, but I do love to talk shit,” and perhaps, one of the best descriptions of Nathan’s french fries, “Nathan’s tiny red fork crinkled accordions salt”) and a wide eye for the array of people (dreadlocked drug dealers; Maclaren Mafia mommies; Laundromat Ladies; the Jah Love guy; the eye-patch guy; Mohammed, the ornery bodega owner; and Ninja, a guy who sells junk and bikes in front of the liquor store at night.) DeFord, playfully explores the life of a city, its breathes, its gasps, its joys and sorrows, its celebrations and rhythms. DeFord, more than most contemporary poets, explores the spaces between people to powerful effect, instead of relationship dynamics or the constant monologue in our heads. Again, all of this is relative, as DeFord does write more internal, lyrical, confessional poetry, but the majority of her books spend time focusing on setting, on the interaction between person and place.
Of course, true to her job and title, DeFord also (curiously, to this reader) explores to insightful results the relationship of Man and animal. Animals here serve both as foils to human beings and as distinct entities that contribute to the life of a city. In fact, some of the animals seem more alive than many of the human beings we encounter, and clearly provide more solace than other human beings in these poems. Only coming to appreciate dogs just this past year, I still feel biased towards the conclusion that the love of animals misplaces our emotions, or allows us to indulge in immaturity in which we can attain many of the results of a real relationship without much of the vulnerability and sacrifice. However, DeFord, in her vivid portrayals of the human-animal relationship, complicates this matter past my simple bias. “I swear, you and the other dogs/ of Brooklyn were sent to save me from all these lonely/ days in the autumn heat and trash confetti streets,” which describes a dog who provided solace to a woman living through the trauma of a miscarriage.
Though I grew to respect this sentiment, I still find it hard to justify to myself this emotionality. Dogs “love” indiscriminately (or they don’t) but regardless, the “love” they give you provides nothing but animalistic reflex. We interpret it as more, but how does this rise past the category of illusion? Does it matter? Do animals represent anything more than our basic desire for unconditional love and loyalty? Regardless, DeFord’s ability to describe the human-animal relationship with such refreshing candor, insight, and beauty, might say more about her ability to project emotions, but that doesn’t affect the quality or importance of the poetry, and DeFord’s magical ability for empathy. If art often forces both the writer and the reader past their normal comfortable bounds of empathy, then the ability to describe a dog as, “a tiger-striped whirlwind/ a bouncing boxer ready for a fake fight, or as a “love junkie,” speaks to a heightened sense of empathy.
Stylistically, DeFord makes use of her prodigious talent and comfort with many different poetic forms and tools . Following a Beat sensibility, she often cuts out the pronouns to capture the music of her city, what she refers to as Prospect Heights Pop (“Brooklyn’s gummy summer street malaise.”) The lack of pronouns, the plethora of alliteration, her balance and shifts between prosaic language to poetic, more lyrical language, all serve to create an immediacy of sound and sight. She seeks to recreate the experience, not just her impression, or her recollection, and succeeds.
Ultimately, the book represents a great account of one person able to transcend, “our heads full of words and lives lacking reason,” to the level of awareness and attunement to the ferocious beauty in every detail we find. Like the best of the nature poetry, DeFord’s work challenges us to stop, breathe, take a second, and just look around, not inward; to look at other people, or animals, not at ourselves. It is descriptive of the frenetic city life, and stylistically, the onslaught of each poem mimics the this restlessness, but the poems also acts as an antidote to its frenzied pace, and in that sense it transcends its the limitations placed on it by its genre limitations as city or animal poetry.