Jesse Lee Kercheval’s Dog Angel (2004)

Over the next few weeks or months, I will post all my reviews (“Tom’s Celebrations”) that appeared in Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, & Prose (formerly Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) up to and including issue 12. After that, my reviews appeared here (The Line Break) before appearing in the journal. This review first appeared in issue 4/5, which was published circa early 2005.


Jesse Lee Kercheval – Dog AngelJesse Lee Kercheval’s Dog Angel (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004) is a book of a lifetime. It inquires how to live a life, understand it, & overcome the fears in it, especially & importantly if god is dead. The book begins with “Enter Mecca” – a poem set in a sandwich shop where “In the far booth sat Dr. Rubenstein, / famous for a book declaring God was dead.” Dog Angel is existential by way of every day life, not through philosophical means. Consider a few lines later:

                                              How can a man
   study Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Treblinka
   every day with no God to pray to
   and still eat tuna on whole wheat for lunch?
   I had no answer.

And that’s the most deliberate the existentialism is. After this there are five more sections & each section has a theme(s) explored: Section II – disappearance, recovery, & transference. Consider “Once Upon a Time I Had a White Comb.” In this prose-poem, the speaker as a young teenage girl has a big “off-white comb” that she can’t lose no matter how hard she tries. “I left it behind just for the pleasure of having it come back, boomeranging – thunk – into the palm of my waiting hand.” Then the pivotal turn on the next paragraph & onward:

Then one day, it didn’t. [. . .] I had never lost anything important to me. What did I know? First the comb. Then my mother went to the hospital and came home without breasts. Then my father left one day for work and never did come back.

I did the only thing a girl with no comb could do. I let my hair grow, tangling down my neck, shoulders, eventually past my waist. [. . .]

So the white comb stayed gone, unless [. . . .] Those bumps along along my spine. The comb! Clearly this is the source of those sharp pains in my liver. [. . .] The white comb. Perhaps a little pink after causing so much bleeding. The white comb, my comb, in my palm again.

Worth any amount of pain, any number of stitches, to have the past again.

Section III – revival & pushing away the past & its pains;

   Why do we never ask out ghosts — 
   Just who are you, really?
   Why are you talking to me?

   In Hamlet, the dogs of day chase the king’s ghost away.

   If not day, perhaps a bright light would do. The noise of a radio.

   Shall we try it?
                          (Closing lines to “Notes from a Lecture on Rilke’s Requiems.”)

Section IV – creating, finding the eternal & concerns with the present & the eternal “But in the end, what cannot be extinguished? [. . .] In 1952, a Zippo was taken from the belly of a fish. // It lit on the first try. // Zippo Fact: Eternal flame.” (from section IV’s only poem, “16 hours in Bradford, Pennsylvania”); Section V – walking in the eternal that surrounds us & transcendence (“. . . to love / is to be a heart pushing / blood through the universe”), reflection, the big question; & Section VI – the big answer, overcoming fears, & life with god in the “sweet” ever after.

Dog Angel is then a book about Mother & children, which to me is generally not the type of content I enjoy when I read poems, but here in this book I am fully engaged & in awe. I’m driven forward to a well deserved, earned, & written “sugary” ending. By the time I finish reading the book, I felt I have experienced a life.

In addition, not one poem of Jesse Lee Kercheval’s Dog Angel is out of order – each poem is in its perfect place! The book flows smoothly.//




Kercheval, Jesse Lee. Dog Angel. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004.//

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