Mercies

by Don Paterson

copyright ©2015 by Don Paterson

She might have had months left of her dog-years,
but to be who? She’d grown light as a nest
and spent the whole day under her long ears
listening to the bad radio in her breast.
On the steel bench, knowing what was taking shape
she tried and tried to stand, as if to sign
that she was still of use, and should escape
our selection. So I turned her face to mine,
and seeing only love there – which, for all
the wolf in her, she knew as well as we did –
she lay back down and let the needle enter.
And love was surely what her eyes conceded
as her stare grew hard, and one bright aerial
quit making its report back to the centre.

Notes on the Poem

When we previously considered a selection from Don Paterson's 40 Sonnets, we looked at how he clearly had some fun with and, as a result, cheerfully subverted the sonnet form. Let's ponder another, and see how his work thrives within the limits of the sonnet format. Paterson keeps within the succinct 14-line form to tell a story sadly familiar to people with companion animals: the circumstances of having to compassionately say farewell when a beloved pet's health is failing rapidly, and trying to convey love across the human-animal divide in those painful final moments. The rhymes in "Mercies" are gently understated: "dog-years / long ears" and "nest / breast". Embellishments such as adjectives are brief, perhaps terse: "long ears", "bad radio", "steel bench". The brevity suggests the narrator can't speak at more length without being overcome with emotion. The line scans are consistent and evenly paced, as if each breath - the narrator's, the dog's - is carefully measured. The only imagery in the poem is the twinning of the rueful "bad radio" with - because it comes towards the end of all this constraint and restraint - the sharply poignant and hence unforgettable "bright aerial". Do the constraints of the form help to keep the subject of the poem from straying to excess? It seems those constraints actually lend the poem more power rather than repressing or draining it. Several years ago, Believer magazine offered this essay on artistic constraint, discussing "the stark emotional power of the best constrained writing and the possibilities for the marriage of content and form". The essay cites the sonnet - albeit much more aggressively deployed than what Paterson has so finely wrought here - as the ideal vehicle for such exercises of content and form.

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