Arc Poetry Review of The Hundefraulein Papers

The Hundefräulein Papers is Kathy Mac’s second poetry collection, and it recounts her six-year stint as live-in Hundefräulein (roughly, “dog nanny”) to the numerous dogs of Elisabeth Mann Borgese, the writer, musician, and oceans activist. Mann Borgese, daughter of Nobel laureate Thomas Mann, passed away in 2002, and Mac’s collection is a memoir and an elegy to her friend and former employer. This elegy is generically and tonally diverse, which makes for engaging reading, and is truer to life than an entirely lofty and lugubrious dirge would be. Mac presents a range of texts, including straight lyrics, pastiche poems incorporating passages from Mann Borgese’s numerous works, a recipe for a “doggy birthday cake,” and both a newspaper want ad and obituary that bookend Mac’s relationship with her eccentric employer. The Papers focus largely on the relationship between dogs and their owners, and readers leery of sentimental “pet poems” may groan at the prospect of an entire collection of these. Indeed, a few of Mac’s poems vindicate such wariness; for instance, some pieces in the “Setter Sonnet” sequence, such as “Amanda’s Presents, Returned,” don’t present enough in the way of sonic or semantic craft to interest the reader in the commonplace content. This shortcoming is also present in some passages and poems, such as “Recurring Motifs,” that draw episodes or facts from Mann Borgese’s life. More often, however, Mac’s facility with sound, image and metaphor, as well as her careful control of internal tensions, elevate her subject matter and by turns lend it either humour or solemnity. For instance, in “Setter Sonnet: Serio Mann Borgese, Licensed to Bite,” in order to undercut the almost unavoidable sentimentality required to describe a dog who has lost its master, Mac concludes, “So you stand, eyes cavernous with grief, / or the cogitation of genius, or sleep. It’s so hard to tell.” Not only does the poet express uncertainty as to the dog’s mental state, but calls into question the animal’s capacity for such higher order mental functions altogether. This sonnet is also typical of one of Mac’s most successful structural techniques: that of commencing a poem or section with relatively straightforward description or narration, then concluding with a subtly suggestive metaphor or image that inflects retroactively what came before. This is a common enough technique, but Mac is capable of remarkable subtlety in its execution, as in “The Weight She Bears.” In simple language, this poem imagines Mann Borgese watching the topography of a group of coastal rocks change with the tides until finally, “in between times, one island, turtle shaped– / the turtle that bears the weight of the elephant above it, / the elephant that shoulders the weight of the world.” The “semantic rubbing” that occurs here leads us to associate Elisabeth, who pushed the global community to greater environmentalism, with Hinduism’s Akupara, a giant turtle said to carry the world on its back. This association leads the reader back into the poem, where the simple geological observations take on greater significance. In spite of the few poems and passages where Mac’s craft flags, this collection contains some excellent images and metaphors, and some musical and memorable lines. Even more to Mac’s credit is that over the course of The Hundefräulein Papers the reader comes to care about Mann Borgese and the other residents of the storied “Dog House” at Sambro Head, Nova Scotia.

  • Jesse Patrick Ferguson

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