Reading Love Poems to My Dog: A Review of Micheline Maylor's Little Wildheart

A poetry collection isn’t necessarily meant to be read cover-to-cover in a single sitting, but curled in bed with my dog is exactly how I ended up reading Little Wildheart. In 2016, I heard Maylor read “How to be in a garden” at her Calgary poet laureate inauguration, and the sensual blend of animal and human, sincerity and sarcasm became lodged in my brain. Three years later, in a hunt for that single poem, I bought Little Wildheart. It felt natural to have my own animal companion beside me, as the poems delve into a human/animal dreamscape that is both memoir and imaged space.

Little Wildheart opens with the ominously titled “We are entirely flammable,” which starts: “Come, walk an open road. Stand./ Meld a hawk’s shadow/ with your own” (1). With this short poem, Maylor extends an invitation to her readers to quite literally come with her through this collection. The second and third poems introduce the reader to Maylor, who blends herself together with each poem’s speaker; Maylor writes of her own DNA and mixed heritage: “Double-stranded ascension to past and sky./ This is to say, my life is a hallway between those strands ” (“Convergence” 3).

Maylor’s careful awareness of the land on which she writes and her own place in it is touched upon several times in the collection, most notably in “Detroit Zoo bathroom, 1977” where she gives details of her “grandmother./ Bronzed Queen of Huron” and herself “bleached to blend in prairie snow” (16). Maylor continues to blur her identity beyond the human and into the natural world. In “Free” she writes, “The dogs in my brain run amok,” and more animals roam the poet’s body in “For there are still such mysteries, and such advice”: “The rabbits in my blood have turned to circus freaks […] Their fur, my DNA” (66, 28). With her images, Maylor draws the reader into her very body, forming herself into not only a space where nature plays, but into an unapologetically sexual space.

Having been introduced to this collection with “How to be in a garden,” which reads “You can’t be here fast enough, inside me. It’s been a long time/ since I’ve felt that dam burst,” I ought to have expected more of the erotic from Maylor, but each time her poems turned to the sexual, I was surprised by their outspokenness (38). Maylor rarely hides behind allusion or insinuation. In “Reasons for learning cursive” she writes, “Hand on quim, roll and ripple up, I/ scribble where your fingers trace again,” and in “Mercurial,” “under the pressure of your body on mine,/ that indelible surrender/ your crowning penis” (45, 54). Though perhaps too frank for some, I do not believe that Maylor writes gratuitously. Poems like “Mercurial” do the empowering work of reclaiming sexuality and pleasure within a female body as well as turning a sexed gaze upon the male body—a gaze so often turned upon women in order to silence and objectify. Meanwhile, works like “Polarity,” “Before the dark,” and “Talisman pool” depict motherhood (13, 14, 64). By including both topics, so often seen as separate—the sexless mother and the childless lover—Maylor reminds her readers of the connection between sex and childbirth and how the mother’s identity is one of plurality.

While “For there are such mysteries and such advice,” “How to be in a garden,” and “I always wanted a tattoo” are glosa poems, Maylor writes predominately in free verse, finding slippage between poetry and prose (28-29, 38-39, 46-47). In this slippage, Maylor constructs images through surprise and juxtaposition, often employing her own brand of snarky humour. “Fleece” exemplifies all of these elements: “All night, Salman Rushdie chastised me in my dreams […] His nametag says Dr. Authenticity […] I would agree even the shore seems god-lit. This morning/ seems like a reason as good as any to make off like a loon” (40). With the careful enjambment between “This morning” and “seems like a reason,” Maylor builds a deceptively simple double reading between her line breaks and her sentences, leading the reader to a larger world than the comic dreamscape they began in.

Little Wildheart is a collection that covers the pluralities of Maylor’s life as a poet, feminist, mother, teacher, and lover. As I curled in bed reading this collection aloud to my dog, I found myself unwilling to leave Maylor’s world in which human and animal blend seamlessly together with tender wildness.

Review by Kathryn Shalley, a writer, editor, and obsessive dog mom from Calgary, Alberta.

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