Lifesaving Poems: Christopher North’s ‘The Dog’

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Occasionally the entrance of a poem into your life is a combination of a series of tiny events, each of them like a link in a chain which in hindsight appears inevitable.

Finding Christopher North’s ‘The Dog’ was like this for me.

First of all I received an email from a friend telling me his pamphlet A Mesh of Wires (Smith/Doorstop, 1999) was extremely good and that I should buy it immediately. I ignored it, of course.

Not so long afterwards I noticed that Christopher was going to be at the Ways With Words literature festival in Dartington, Devon. I decided I would accidentally bump into him while I was there. This happened sooner than I had planned. There he was, in the oak-panelled dining room, holding court in a crumpled linen kind of way with some other writers I did not recognise. Knowing he would not know who I was, I froze and went to sit in the corner.

As luck would have it I found him later that afternoon leaning in a doorway I needed to go through. Pretending I did not need to go through it I approached him as though I had known I would find him there. He was at the festival to give his annual workshop on the art of keeping a notebook. Assuming flattery would get me everywhere, I asked him about it. The next hour or so flew by in a bespoke and personal tutorial on the great notebook keepers of the twentieth century. He recommended The Poet’s Notebook: Excerpts from the Notebooks of Contemporary American Poets (Norton, 1997), saying it was in the festival bookshop.

It wasn’t. But lying on its own on a table there was A Mesh of Wires, ludicrously priced at £3. Decisions do not come much easier. I went back out to find Christopher so he could sign it, but he had vanished.

I ordered The Poet’s Notebook on Amazon that night. Then I read A Mesh of Wires cover to cover, finishing with ‘The Dog’, marvelling at its combination of the actual and mysterious, its telepathic mirror image of my own actions a moment before. It’s an experience I am still savouring.

The Dog

I called amazon dot com and entered ‘Robert Frost’;

his hoary name a birch tree in a disco amid the graphics.

Working down the list I spotted the cassette tapes

and bounced my electric order off the satellite to Seattle.

They arrived shrink wrapped from their traverse

of the North Pole in the belly of a Boeing

and I took them on the M25 to Chelmsford.

Passing Potters Bar, with St Albans Cathedral

a squat blue bedstead on the west horizon

I listened to ‘Death of a Hired Man’,

the tape unspooling that ponderous conversation.

Then just before the tunnel with ceiling tracer sodiums:

‘Trees at my window, window tree, my sash is lowered.’

and behind and beyond the raspy, old man’s voice,

a faint dog bark out in the Massachusets night.

It couldn’t be caught, wouldn’t be edited out;

barking at house lights maybe or a passing car

or rustlings from the shadows at the end of a yard,

defiant animus behind a mesh of wires.

Christopher North, from A Mesh of Wires (Smith/Doorstop, 1999)

Lifesaving Poems

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