Audial and Visual Conversation in Mary Oliver's Dog Songs: Language as a Trans-Species Faculty


  • Paola Loreto University of Milan



animal studies, animal language, narrative empathy, Mary Oliver, Dog Songs


      The essay investigates Mary Oliver’s reflection upon, and questioning of, language as a marker of human/nonhuman divide as it unfolds in her second, 2013 “species collection” on dogs, Dog Songs (her first one being Owls and Other Fantasies, her 2006 similar collection, portraying her ways of communicating with birds). Through an exploration of both the visual and audial modes of Oliver’s conversations with the dogs she owned in her life, and treated as companions, this study demonstrates that the poet held an attitude toward the nonhuman which in contemporary theoretical terms would be defined as an “indistinction approach” to the animal question (Calarco 2015). In Dog Songs, Oliver portrays a proximity between humans and animals that ultimately preserves an unavoidable distance. Her writing exploits both her intuition of animals’ capacity for agency and creativity—which accompanies the de-emphasizing of human uniqueness—and her consciousness that we need tropes from human experience to convey our perception of nonhuman ways of life. Moreover, through her representation of the animal’s gaze, of a powerfully ironic reversal of the aims (and effects) of the pathetic fallacy, and of narrative empathy, she proves that an imaginative use of language makes poetry a distinct space for our efforts to envisage an ecosystem that animals may inhabit as our equals.


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biography

Paola Loreto, University of Milan

Paola Loreto is Full Professor of American Literature at the University of Milan, Italy. She is the author of three book-length studies (on Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Derek Walcott). She has written a number of articles and essays on North-American and Caribbean literatures (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vladimir Nabokov, Richard Wilbur, Robert Bly, A.R. Ammons, Bernard Malamud, Chaim Potok, Sam Selvon, Michael Ondatjie, Joy Kogawa, Jane Urquhart). A specialist in American poetry, she has translated Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Richard Wilbur, Philip Levine, Charles Simic, A. R. Ammons, Amy Newman, and some contemporary US ecopoets. Her latest research is in contemporary American poetry and poetics, poetry translation, world literature, ecocriticism and ecopoetry.