On the Page: Mary Oliver and David Finkel

mary oliverDog Songs

Mary Oliver

Penguin Press, 144 pp., $26.95

There’s a combative little essay in Blue Pastures, Mary Oliver’s excellent 1995 prose collection, that has stuck with me through the years. “Nothing in the forest is charming,” Ms. Oliver writes. “And nothing in the forest is cute.” It’s a particularly damning argument against the way we so often perceive the natural world, reducing it to something that is “powerless,” “capturable,” “trainable.”

I thought about that essay when I picked up Ms. Oliver’s new book of poetry, Dog Songs, a paean to the peculiar joy of canine companionship. Unleashed dogs, she writes, “are a kind of poetry themselves.”

This is a lovely idea. But for the most part, these 35 short poems—complemented by a smattering of pen-and-ink illustrations by John Burgoyne—are a refutation of that notion. For a woman who lives the examined life, as Emerson had it, Dog Songs feels remarkably light. Through imagined conversations and cartoonish depictions, Ms. Oliver turns her subjects into cloyingly anthropomorphic caricatures of themselves. She leashes the dogs in Dog Songs in a veil of sentimentality. In other words, she makes them cute. —Matthew Kassel

thank_you_for_your_service_300Thank You For Your Service

David Finkel

(Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pp., $26)

This is the kind of book that makes you miss your stop on the subway. Through the harrowing stories of Afghanistan veterans and their families, Washington Post writer David Finkel has crafted a relentlessly moving and unsentimental picture of the 500,000 mentally traumatized veterans struggling to live after surviving the war.

 Mr. Finkel embeds himself in the lives of these survivors, just as he embedded himself with their battalion in Baghdad for his previous book, The Good Soldiers (2009), weaving their text messages and diary entries into his reportage. He takes the reader into their homes, chronicling spousal fights and suicide attempts, and into the offices of people charged with helping them to cope. The result is a complicated mosaic that celebrates the individuals working to rehabilitate wounded soldiers, while exposing the injustice veterans often face in the form of treatment programs like the Warrior Transition Battalion. There, a shell-shocked soldier wanders from closed office to closed office trying to get 39 signatures, waiting for his next nightmare of a dying comrade. Admitting to needing help is hard enough, but the staggering bureaucracy facing veterans can make it nearly impossible to get. —Zoë Lescaze

On the Page: Mary Oliver and David Finkel