Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

Run by HappenStance Press

Shining Tree Press, 2008    $8.00

 

Reviewed by Rory Waterman, Emma Lee and Sue Butler

 

Rory Waterman:

The Foreword to this book (here, on three separate occasions, a ‘Foreward’) is written by Camella, the poet’s pet dog. “I’m Camella, Jane’s dog,” it begins. “I think that writing [these poems] made her understand me better,” it ends. You get the idea. This sets the tone for the collection.

 

Robbins has an eye for how dogs behave and her pleasure in their habits is charming enough, but she rarely turns it into more than well-meaning, superficial verse suffocated by clichés. Occasionally an image resonates briefly. The following lines from the opening poem, ‘Pele’, can stand for a considerable proportion of the pamphlet:

 

When I come home, in the black of night,

Even before I get out of the car

He is there, his cold nose nuzzling into me,

And once I am out he leaps in the air,

His tail a semaphore of joy.

 

Fine by itself, perhaps, but these heartfelt reminiscences quickly become irritating.

 

I do not doubt that the dumb love of a dog is comforting. I recognise myself when I read, in ‘Poodle in My House’, “now I smell like a kennel/ But I’m smiling”. But the poems—all in slack free verse—rarely transcend this sort of thing in any meaningful fashion. They are (excuse the pun) kind-hearted doggerel. The images and ideas rarely surprise, and the poems run on the spot so much that they risk burning a hole in the floor. ‘Pele’ begins: “Pele is my neighbor’s dog/ But I feel like he’s adopted me”. Two poems later, ‘Poodle in My House’ begins: “Today for an hour/ A dog adopted me”.

 

Occasionally Robbins attempts to turn her attention to more significant matters. Unfortunately, such attempts invariably have the feel of chopped-up prose from a not very inspiring diary or blog. In ‘My Dog is Crazy’ she writes:

 

At the pound where I found her,

I learned that people brought her back

Not once but three whole times,

Learned that even earlier she’d been

Abandoned and abused,

Not unlike some people I have known,

Even, sometimes, myself.

 

And ‘Dogs’ asks if we are really so “stupid”

 

That we can put men into space

Or fly an airplane through one of the

Tallest buildings in the world

And we can’t learn to wag our tails

Like a dog?

 

Had Robbins developed any of these ideas she might have written a poem of significance at least in terms of meaning, if not in terms of execution.

 

Emma Lee:

‘Dogs in Topanga’ features an introduction from Jane Marla Robbins’s dog, Camella, who is a Lhasa mix and appears in five of the nine poems within. I have no problem with writing from the viewpoint of an animal or even pretending to be the animal, but the bland introduction, which more or less said ‘here’s some poems about dogs’, was a representative taste of what was to come.  In ‘Poodle in my House’

 

A silly yellow white poodle

‘Standard’, but exceptional,

Curls on the top of his head,

And sheared like a sheep

On his body and legs

Pushed me, rubbed his head

And neck and haunches up against me,

His body on me like a mountain. . .

 

I failed to see why this particular poodle was “exceptional” since the descriptions in the poem suggested ordinary and the dog itself is simply greeting a human in the same way millions of dogs greet millions of humans every day. There’s not much poetry happening either. It’s not enough to grasp the first image that comes to mind and think ‘that will do’. I find the first line works because it’s descriptive, rhythmic and has assonance on the ‘i’, ‘o’ and ‘l’ sounds. I like the rhythm in the second line, but that last word sets up an expectation that isn’t met. The remainder of the extract is cut up prose: there’s nothing poetic and the dog is behaving like a standard poodle.

 

Similarly in ‘Dogs’ I found a lack of care:

 

Can’t we learn anything

From dogs—

Are we that stupid—

That we can put men into space

Or fly an airplane through one of the

Tallest buildings in the world

And we can’t learn to wag our tails

Like a dog?

 

 

Even if read as a metaphor—can’t we enjoy living rather than competitiveness (the space race) and destruction (the World Trade Center on 9/11)—I find this simplistic. I have a problem with the use of “stupid” here. I don’t think the complexity of putting a man in space or of a terrorist plot can be reduced to “stupid”. Again, not enough thought has been put into the use and implications of the words. Dogs in Topanga comes across as self-indulgent, not written with the  contemporary poetry reader in mind.

 

 

 

 

Sue Butler:

This pamphlet begins with a ‘foreward’ by Jane’s dog Camella, a Lhasa mix, who tells us, “I like the idea of living on after I’m gone, in this book. When Jane got me from the pound I already had little stitches in my belly, which meant I would never be able to have puppies, to leave part of myself behind. I like at least there’ll be this book.”

 

Now I don’t have a dog (or a cat, before people get partisan) but there was something about this that didn’t ring true. Perhaps I’ve just met the wrong kind of dog but the ones I’ve known are concerned with food, sticks and rabbits, not leaving a lasting legacy. So the next time I saw Mitch, a rather rotund and elderly Jack Russell, I asked him. He scratched, pissed up a lamppost, then suggested I consider that poets writing about their dogs are really writing about themselves.

 

And there you have it. Ladies, gentlemen (and any dogs that may be reading), this is a collection of poems about Jane Marla Robbins. The dogs in Topanga are simply part of the landscape in which she lives. For example in the opening poem ‘Pele’ she uses a description of a dog’s black and white coat to talk about loss:

 

He’s as black as the few charred, remaining beams

Of the house I was renting that burned down in May.

He’s also invisibly speckled with white,

As if to prove he’s venerable,

Or perhaps to remind me of the ashes.

 

Dogs in Topanga, opens with an undercurrent of loss, which for me swelled and eddied, even when the poems were allegedly about happiness. I found the loneliness in ‘Midnight Visit’ almost overwhelming. Here Jane’s dog jumps on her bed depositing dirt and fur. However, when she finds some lavender, she knows “I’ve come to sleep/ in a bed of flowers. . . / because my dog was here.”  And in ‘Dog Morning’ she tells us,

 

On my morning walk

I’d have thought

I’d want to see people,

But loping, loopy towards me

Come my happiest neighbors. . .

 

—who turn out to be “three black and sibling Labs” and a Golden Retriever, all of whom are thrilled to see Jane’s “little Lhasa mutt/ And all of them sniffing/ Every doggy’s bottom. . .” But the people with these dogs stay hidden. And while I enjoyed these poems, this love that Jane and so many people have for dogs wasn’t explored enough for me to say, Ah, yes, I see now why Jane can’t stop smiling when

 

Rocky jumps his big and mud filled paws

Up hard against my dress

To leave another imprint

on my life.

 

In ‘My Dog is Crazy’ Jane tells us her dog Camella, came from the pound, after being, “Abandoned and abused/ Not unlike some people I have known,/ Even, sometimes, myself.” As Mitch so wisely counselled, these poems aren’t about dogs.