- Courtesy Of Andy Solomon
- Rebecca Starks
According to Merriam-Webster, the word "doggerel" refers to verse that is "loosely styled and irregular in measure especially for burlesque or comic effect" — a wedding speech delivered in singsong rhyme, for example. Despite its second, more derogatory meaning ("marked by triviality or inferiority"), "doggerel" manages to keep one paw in highbrow culture: Think the annual holiday poem in the New Yorker.
Richmond poet, editor and workshop leader Rebecca Starks' second collection, Fetch, Muse, straddles these expectations of high and low art. Published in 2021 by Able Muse Press, the book bears a simple cover illustration of a dog. That and its title, punning on Homer's Iliad ("Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles"), might lead readers to wonder whether the book has more to offer than odes to a beloved pet.
The title of the opening poem, "Hear, Muse," doubles down on that pun, and the first line of the poem triples down: "Here, Muse, I'm calling you by name again / quietly, not to wake my sleeping sons. / I'm all out of treats this time." Comparing the ancient tradition of invoking the muse to whistling for a pet is amusing (pun intended), yet the joke initially seems impossible to sustain.
Then something curious happens: When Starks' descriptive powers take the wheel, the book's premise suddenly feels not just feasible but also hypnotizing.
"Don't turn on me your scleral, new-moon stare, / head floored between both paws about to spring, / your sighs canting my equilibrium," she writes. More than a pat metaphor, the dog becomes both a "test of permanence" for the speaker's marriage and a test of her abilities as a mother.
The puns fall away, making room for Starks' searingly good lines: "I felt as jumper-cabled to your needs," she tells the dog, "as a newborn mother, terrified / I had nothing to give but my body—take, eat— / its milk-clock presence."
Starks is a consulting and founding editor of Burlington-based literary magazine Mud Season Review. Originally from Kentucky, she studied English at Yale University before earning her doctorate from Stanford University. Currently, she teaches privately and for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Vermont, and she serves on the board of the Sundog Poetry Center in Johnson. Fetch, Muse is her second collection; Time Is Always Now, her debut, was a finalist for the 2019 Able Muse Press Award.
Most of the poems in Fetch, Muse resemble so-called "American sonnets." A recent take on traditional sonnets, which date back to the 14th century, these retain the 14-line shape of their European counterparts but lack the formal strictures of rhyme and meter and tend toward explicitly political subject matter. Wanda Coleman, the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles, pioneered the innovation in the 1980s. Today, the form is receiving new attention, thanks in part to the success of Terrance Hayes' 2018 collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.
- Fetch, Muse by Rebecca Starks, Able Muse Press, 82 pages. $18.95.
Starks' sonnets, focused on personal narrative, might be better called prose sonnets. While they lack the inventive intensity and sociopolitical ramifications of Coleman's and Hayes' works, the sonnets in Fetch, Muse toy with tradition and form in their own way. One of the challenges of the sonnet is compression; Starks sidesteps this problem with occasional double sonnets, in which 28 lines provide enough space to develop a story.
Together, the sonnets craft a larger narrative. As the book progresses, the speaker's relationship with Kismet (as the dog is auspiciously named) illuminates the joys and challenges of the writing life, family, motherhood, nurturing and letting go. In "Flawed," for example, we learn that earning her father's approval factored into the speaker's decision to raise a pet: "a dog the only thing / he'd get down on his knees for, go soft on / as if repenting rage he hadn't meant."
It soon becomes clear that Kismet suffers not only from hip dysplasia but also from increasingly frequent bouts of aggression. Without giving away too much, we can say that the book traces a truly wrenching journey that any dog owner will understand, even if they haven't experienced it themselves.
Starks divides Fetch, Muse into three sections: Dog, Child and Muse. The second section begins with the slyly titled "Misconception." Here, the poet ruminates on her pregnancy and how it will affect her writing practice: "Once I was pregnant, my mother thrilled to say, / everything I did was full of purpose— / eating, sleeping, nurturing the life within. / I was too ashamed to say I'd felt that way / about my mind."
The opening conceit gains a broader scope in subsequent sonnets. In "Fledgling," the speaker says she has become "all beast, / belly splitting." In "Shades of the Prison-House," she speaks of the "choked-up leash— / the care that once flowed through it now diverted / to course through my son's umbilical cord."
We learn that the original pun of the book's title has a second, much more profound meaning. The oceanographical definition of "fetch" is the span of water over which the wind can blow without interruption. "Your fetch [is] as long as your leash pulls you up," Starks writes in "Fetch, Muse."
Although this line is addressed to Kismet, along with everything else in the book, it takes on a host of meanings. Starks might as well be talking in second person about herself, or about the challenges facing female artists in general, or even about all of humanity — we all have our limitations, our own leashes. We all have a fetch to measure how far we can go.
Still, Starks can't resist the temptation of dog-related puns. Along with "you pedaled / doggedly" and "brought you home to heal," we're treated to some truly gorgeous lines, such as these concerning grief: "I keep expecting sun on sawdust, / a clear-cut loss"; "what can be humanized / can be brutalized."
Fetch, Muse is cause for dog lovers to rejoice and a reminder that poetry needn't be the exclusive domain of "highbrow" subjects and academic references. Sometimes we just have to let poetry leap up and lick our faces.
'Law of Motion' From Fetch, Muse
Each lunge and twist at the end of the leash
inducing early Braxton-Hicks so strong
I had to sit on curbs, still blocks from home,
and cry you had so little care for me,
as later I would cry at my son's indifference
when I cried. I was nothing but reaction
trained on your reaction: equal, opposite—
I, too, wanting everything just out of reach.
Three times I drove to a fenced-in dog park,
one corner shaded by firs you stood guard
barking under—a mast year for squirrels—
until dodging me you nosed the gate latch open
and raced to hurtle yourself up each trunk,
straining against the fixed end of your chain.