Shit Poetry

By Heather Phillipson

Courtesy the artist

Nobody wants to wake up to a blanket slicked with shit and vomit but this started my morning last week, and it was very real. I spent 30 solid minutes wrist-deep in excretions and extreme cleaners, and with a horselike tension of nostril.

The responsible party was not even being disrespectful, nor responsible. She crawled onto the cold kitchen tiles and exuded regret and the haze which seeps from one’s spirit when one is sick. I wanted to tell her that it’s fine to burst out. That’s what bodies do, letting off their prosaic peculiarities. I’m more sorry the domesticated world weighs so heavily in her digestive system – this should be stopped and thought about, plus whatever happened to the white chalky dog-stools of the 1980s (the butchers stopped crushing bones into food, I suppose), and what quality is more necessary than surprise – how often are we truly surprised? Is this our fundamental bombshell – (communal) defecation?

In a keen/quiet way, I tell her, I await your next voluptuary tour de force.

Is it too much to ask your dog to understand you? Yes, if ‘understand’ means speaking in straightforwardly human ways. I don’t want to say things in straight-forwardly human ways that are usually the quickest route between two points and that = death. WHAT GOOD DOES THAT DO FOR POETRY? I prefer to toss and turn in a fatty, logic-blocking fug.

Being with a dog means being with nuance. It means facing up to our own farce, farce and more farce. So much to come across, so little to say. I don’t dare presume Marj cares to know what I think when I open my mouth to talk about such-and-such a topic. She makes me an inarticulate hulk. Now that we’ve inherited each other, we must, as Donna Haraway puts it, ‘learn how to see who the dogs are and hear what they are telling us’. Marj is willing to hear my voice – whether calling or cajoling, commanding, asking or serenading (frequently) – and, to every shade, respond appropriately, which is a tough and endless job. But she doesn’t conform with a reply. Dogs give us images, angular emotive music, unopened files. It is all conjecture. Marj locks on to a football and swings it around her head.

There’s been a lot of talk on this, our worried island, of ‘taking back control’, which is the opposite of life as a domestic dog, I think. All that wholesale temperament and chewed-up rubber and the entirety of outdoor space a toilet and every open gate signifying ‘hi there’. The dog does not fear contaminations. And in this way and many others, the dog may be our best guide through the overgrowths of poetics-politics. I would like to write and go out as a dog goes out. With a twist of the hip and the air crisp, crisp and full of intrigue as a hand-gifted biscuit. Marj would go anywhere where the long grass and dogs are, trotting off proud, tail held high, to find a future friend or fried chicken bone tossed in the weeds, a swig of micro- biome-rich puddle water.

I am wary of telling her too much of my feelings. Barthes wrote that a compliment, like all adjectives, can damage. Am I not beyond all qualification? Poetry, like music, is more than words and song. When Marj is chewing other dogs’ shit, she has a nifty wiggle to her. It’s too good to waste while it’s cooling. But when I hold her jaw to extract it, inserting my fingers into her scratchy pockets of teeth, she allows me this tenderness of touching and talking – ‘Marj, let’s get that shit out of your mouth’ – as if she were my cherished grandmother (Marjorie) and I still her entreating grandchild. We start from a dense, unspoken nucleus of near-familiarity, with its moods and times of day, and stretch out towards and away from each other, and then where shall we go? What would it be like to change direction, sharply as a dog? 


From the November 2016 issue of ArtReview