If you were going to get a pet
what kind of animal would you get.
A soft bodied dog, a hen–
fur and feathers to begin it again.
When the sun goes down and it gets dark
I saw an animal in the park.
Bring it home, to give to you,
I have seen animals break in two.
You were hoping for something soft
and loyal and clean and wonderously careful—
a form of otherwise vicious habit
can have long ears and be called a rabbit.
Dead. Died. Will die. Want.
Morning, midnight, I asked you
if you were going to get a pet
what kind of animal would you get.
“If You” has pulled me along for years, as if I were its pet, to use an imprecise animal simile. The poem’s rhyming couplets occasionally do not rhyme. Punctuation and tense seem misapplied and misaligned. When I first encountered the period at the end of line two, I imagined it was a typo, and the tense shift in the third couplet invited puzzled re-readings. The more I read the poem, the more I kept re-reading it. I had wandered far into its language and set up guideposts that became inscrutable, especially to me. I imagine or sheepishly hope there are others of you out there who, like me, feel inexplicably drawn and yet feel compelled to figure out what constitutes the leash that ropes you to your pet poem. So I “begin it again,” the work of reading this one.
I enter through the period at the end of the second sentence. There is a certainty about “get” and getting, obtaining, buying. The options (animals of various “kinds”) are questions, but according to the economies of pet acquisition, if you have the capital to obtain a pet, you usually do. The selected pet certainly has none, or very little, say in the matter of her or his acquisition. The acquisition of the new pet (who could be anyone: dog or hen, furred or feathered)“begin[s] it again,” the process of being in relationship with another creature.
Suddenly, though, the selection process feels more random or, depending on your perspective, fated. You find an animal (it doesn’t matter who, or of which species) in the park. A strange place to be “when it gets dark.” That rhyme feels lullaby-like, but expectations of human softness and cozy domesticity have been traded in for a trip to manicured, safe-ish nature (“the park”) where the abstract “animal” is found. An “animal,” in this context, seems goofy or menacing. It is the word “animal” that creates this shifting effect. It is so abstract and somehow, propped up next to the idea of the “human,” unpredictable. We don’t know what kind of animal s/he is, and assume the speaker would have told us if s/he had seen a squirrel or a robin. The speaker brought home a dog or a cat…right? The animal becomes a gift for “you,” which means that the animal has become someone else’s object and pet. But the speaker, who is also the giver, has “seen animals break in two.” This is physically impossible, but the accidental violence of overuse, a metaphorical breaking of or breaking down, suggest something about what happens to commodity-animals, the pets of human imaginations, over time.
The gift was not, after all, exactly who or what was imagined. “Loyal” is a familiar human-ascribed attribute of dogs, “clean” perhaps of cats, but “wonderously careful”? Could any animal be as “careful” as a human? Language is slippery, and the assumptions embedded in its use heavy. Animals occupy and live their own lives, carelessly and carefully. When we scrutinize animal subjects, we scrutinize their forms, and assume that animal bodies respond out of dulled “habit” or lightening-quick “instinct.” Is the disappointing pet a “rabbit”? Or was the rabbit the desired, but not gifted, pet? A rabbit may seem, at a distance, “soft” and “clean,” and maybe even “loyal” and “wonderously careful,” but in the cold light of proximity, a rabbit is simply a creature of “vicious habit,” an uncontrollable nibbler and breeder. It is telling that this same logic could be applied to the hoped-for, but not received, gift-rabbit as compensation for not having gotten the desired present. In other words, the animal subject must either withstand the scrutiny of her or his owner, or the dream-animal must be pushed out of mind to make room for the actual pet because s/he was, after all, merely a creature of “vicious habit.” Here too the weight of language and assumption is heavy.
The verbs opening the second-to-last stanza move from present (“Dead.”) to past (“Died.”) to future (“Will die.”) The sense of being the one who ushers the pet through life and into death, that mysterious, colorless expanse, is present here, and bound up in so much vague wanting. Control, companionship, death, and want: there is, finally, nothing to do but circle back and reiterate the question: “I asked you / if you were going to get a pet / what kind of animal would you get.”
Creeley’s poem reminds me of a story I encountered in geographer Yi-Fu Tuan’s book Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets:
Alcibiades possessed a large and beautiful dog, notable in particular for its long, feathered tail. It was an animal he could be proud of and which he surely valued, and yet, according to Plutarch, he caused the tail to be cut off so that the Athenians might focus on this eccentricity of behavior rather than on something worse. The behavior was eccentric and intended to shock. Still, we may wonder whether an attitude of indifference, interspersed with bursts of effusive attention, was not rather common for his time—and, indeed, of what historical period would this attitude toward animals be untrue.
I am surprised, and not surprised, when I notice that “my” dog’s muzzle has turned equal parts gray and black. When did it begin to turn, and why am I only noticing it now? Who is she between our encounters, between walks and pettings? She is her own person, and I mine. We circle one another, and each day “begin it again.”
Painting: “Christa und Wolfi,” by Gerhard Richter, 1964.