As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Paisley Rekdal in response to a video of her reading her poem “Once” aloud. Paisley Rekdal wrote letters back to two of these students; their letters and her replies are included below, along with several additional responses from students.
Paisley Rekdal also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Thank you all for your letters! I’ve really enjoyed reading what you wrote about my poem, and I’m grateful for your questions, many of which get to the heart of the poem. The first question many of you asked is whether the poem is true, and if it referred to a specific set of experiences I had with a particular dog. The answer is yes: my dog’s name was Shumai (which basically means “pork meatball” in Chinese) and he was my constant cross-country skiing companion when we lived in Wyoming. I had Shumai for 14 years before he got a cancerous tumor in his leg, which shattered the bone in a way that the vet said was impossible, at his age, to fix. He was my first dog, and when I understood that I had to put him down, all I could think about were the times we went skiing together.
Losing Shumai made me aware that the loss of a dog is also the “loss” of a particular period of time in your own life. This is partly what makes a pet’s life so precious to us, since we remember and mark time through them. A few people asked in their letters why I might consider loving an animal “hopeless”, and whether that same sense of hopelessness would then extend to loving a person. It’s a great question, since of course animals die before we do (unless you get a parrot, in which case all bets are off), which is why the love we have for them can feel, at the end, like a kind of willful blindness about the passage of time and the inevitability of death. We know that we are going to lose the animals we care for, and yet we love them anyway. Of course, people, too, can die: grandparents and parents are certainly meant to die before we do, but sometimes we lose friends and other people who are close to us, both in age and in our hearts. And when or if we have children ourselves, our hope is that they outlast us, in which case our love will have a life beyond us. But no love is truly wasted or hopeless, which is also something I hope my poem speaks to. As humans, we are designed to give love. I truly believe that we are meant to give ourselves up to others, both as a way of feeling more connected to the world, and to offer something back to it. Love is a great and sometimes foolish gift, and if we don’t give it often and gratefully, then we are wasting our time here.
One of the best questions I was asked was whether I think dogs get anxious or sad when they see suitcases. I travel a lot—or at least I did before the pandemic—and I know for certain that my new dog, Frank, understands the sad meaning of a suitcase. Frank also knows when I’m packing for a road trip to go hiking, and I can always tell how relieved he is when I put him in the car along with the tent. Dogs are very human in the way they express their emotions, and while it’s tempting to believe that dogs love us back in the ways we love them, I suspect the love they have for us is different because it is largely outside of language and memory, thus any ability to hold a grudge. I think dogs love as in a way that is like human love, but also essentially different. Which, to my mind, makes the connection we develop with them more touching.
Finally, some of you have asked if writing the poem made me feel better. I wrote the poem many months after Shumai died, and though initially it was painful to write, finishing it did actually make me feel as if I’d articulated something about my love for him that I hadn’t even been aware of myself. That, to me, is the best part of writing a poem: discovering, through the act of writing, what you believe about the world before you understand it completely, or consciously, yourself.
Thank you all again for your letters! I hope you all have a healthy and happy year.