Book Review: A Dog’s Soul

Book Review by Elizabeth McKenzie

Unknown-1.jpegTerry McDonagh: Lady Cassie Peregrina Amazon 2016
RRP: $20 ISBN-10: 1851321608; ISBN-13: 978-1851321605.

In his latest anthology, Lady Cassie Peregrina, Terry McDonagh uses a quirky and effective conceit to establish two seemingly disparate worlds. The eponymous Lady Cassie Peregrina is a black and white border collie living in Co Mayo with her ‘family’ who have adopted her from the ISPCA. We, the readers are quickly drawn into her world. Within the ambit of their love and care, she tells us she is settling into family life, slowly shedding the nightmarish memories of her former one. However, it soon becomes obvious that while she shares the narrative of her growing confidence, sense of security, and great affection for her family and the life she is now leading with us, the readers, the poet has no idea of Cassie’s view of the world and has a narrative of his own, which runs parallel to Cassie’s but from the perspective of Cassie being a just a doggy family pet

In ‘I Am Cassie’ she appears to accept this limitations of her role in the scheme of things.

I am a dog – only a dog – and know
that’s what they want me to be. 

Her family, she asserts, don’t have great expectations of her abilities,

I don’t have to write, juggle words
or read fairy tales to young ones.

She reiterates this assertion in almost every poem in which she – but not her owner, the poet – ’authors’. In Time Out, she claims her dogginess status:

I’m not a great one for barking or noise.
Forgive me if I’ve said that already.
What I like most is dossing about
After I’m done with breakfast,
my walk and usual doggy functions.

She is adamant that she is not a composer or for that matter a philosopher, just a dog/rambling about – hating cats,

 Later in her cycle of ‘authoring’, she again reverts to establishing her dogginess but now she is domiciled with her family in a bustling city of Hamburg . In I Won’t Step Off The Kerb, her observations are

That city people are kind
but they take the music out
of a dog’s step
the moment the lead is introduced

 and in the same poem alarmingly seems to settle for being;

Just a bundle of black and white
with feet of chimes and a herding instinct.

Although her protestations that she is merely a dog, with only doggy concerns and thoughts, happy to belong to a kind and caring family but ‘now/that I’ve found a family/I don’t have to be afraid any more’, the reader realizes that indeed the lady doth protest too much. Lady Cassie is not just a herding dog, a black and white border collie. She is not blindly driven by the imperatives of being ‘just’ a dog. She is the very soul of a dog. In Rabbits, we might fear the worst:

When I open an eye
to watch a pair of baby rabbits
nibbling at dandelion sprouts
my single wish is
to snap this picture and frame it. 

And again the benign side of her herding instinct is obvious in On The Subject of Cows:

 It doesn’t take much to throw cows
completely out of thwack. It’s so easy it’s hardly worth the effort.
No fun.
They’re dense.

It is this lighthearted approach and even curbing of her innate instincts that would indicate that she has a deeper perspective on life than being a household pet.

Even if I can’t read or write
I can imagine sun flooding a page.

She is indeed a philosopher and observer of human as well as animal nature. In ‘To the First Ferry’ she casts a wry eye on her human ‘brood’.

They looked as relaxed as free ranging chickens
when we arrived at the ferry at Larne.

But occasionally her family is not the focus of her concerns, which take a more philosophical bent. In Dream On she conjectures on the future of the dog species.

A wolf came to me in a dream the other night,
not as a wolf from now
but as a wolf a thousand years from now.

But this wolf shows no sign of its predatory nature. It

looked blameless and incorruptible
almost gullible by a living room fire

and Cassie speculates what a domestic dog might have evolved into

a thousand years from now
would my way of looking all dandy and dapper,
dancing about on two or three legs,
imply I’d once been a loyal four-footed friend? 

images-1.jpegCassie’s is not the only perspective in the anthology. But while Cassie pursues her doggy inclinations, which include her philosophical musings,

I often lie there thinking
nothing is at it seems 

the poet has musings of his own. As he does his dutiful round, a seven-kilometer bicycle ride, with our border collie in tow, his journey is redolent with personal and historical reminiscences. In ‘Setting Out in 2014′, he recalls that

As a child these fences kept my ball on track
for hours on end’ 

although some landmarks have disappeared, ‘there’s/no trace of a sad thatched cottage’ with its history of tragedy. It is not just childhood pursuits that claim the poet’s attention, ancient Irish history is also part of the landscape:

When visitors came we were keen to show off
the High Fort Lios Árd’

as well as keen to show off a literary and cultural knowledge ‘and/be proud to tell tales of the blind poet Raifteirí’.

This is a different experience of the landscape to Cassie’s! Yet there is a suggestion that the poet is aware that

there’s more to her than just
the border collie she would have us believe’.

And there can be no doubt that it is this comfortable, familiar, safe environment that has helped create a deep and lasting loyalty between the poet and his dog, a loyalty that is soon to be tested in a much less amiable environment. For the decision has been made for the family – including Cassie – to return to Hamburg – a journey of several days by car and a whole new worlds to be negotiated as the poet anticipates in ‘The Full Circle’

and even when I look harder I cannot fathom
the silence between horizon and horizon’.

The anthology is structured into six different sections, three devoted to Cassie’s voice and three to the poet’s concerns. Dog and poet share the same terrain, as they traverse the landscape of Co Mayo in Parts 1 and II, the journey from Cill Aodáin to Hamburg in Parts III and IV, their life in a big city, Part V and VI. The predictable, dog/poet friendly atmosphere of Co Mayo in general and Cill Aodáin in particular established in Parts I and II, emphasizes the poignancy of Parts III to VI where dog and poet must make sense of a more alien, challenging environment. In Hamburg, Cassie’s confusion becomes a cri de cour.

I wonder when I can stop
being scared on streets
where almost anything
can crop up

The poet too grieves for the world left behind in Co Mayo.

The rear mirror is my constant companion
but no matter now often I check, our home
in the west of Ireland draws further away.

The first half of the narrative is replete with evocative images, many of which elicit a smile if not a LOL moment. Parts I and II create the richness of life for both dog and family in Co Mayo. We are drawn into the – very convincing – world of Cassie and her owner. With his poet’s eye and sensibility, the poet imbeds us in both their worlds so that we too feel the tug of exile as the family make their way across several countries to their old haunts in Hamburg. And we are left to wonder whether

memories of scuttling and loping
next to the rear wheel of a bicycle,
within earshot of giggling frogs

will be enough to sustain Cassie or whether the poet too will be able to rise above the tug of home

wondering if home was a matter of the heart
in a no-man’s land or
not weeping in everyman’s land of spring.

images.jpegBut it is in Hamburg that we leave them both. We are left to wonder if, Cassie, who has known brutality and fear, but now great love and acceptance from her family, can come to terms, as the poet must do, with a whole new concept of being.

Night and day career past and I ask: is this the start of sadness?