The Victor Dog*
for Elizabeth Bishop
Bix to Buxtehude to Boulez,
The little white dog on the Victor label
Listens long and hard as he is able.
It's all in a day's work, whatever plays.
From judgment, it would seem, he has refrained.
He even listens earnestly to Bloch,
Then builds a church upon our acid rock.**
He's man's--no--he's the Leiermann's best friend,***
Or would be if hearing and listening were the same.
Does he hear? I fancy he rather smells
Those lemon-gold arpeggios in Ravel's
"Les jets d'eau du palais de ceux qui s'aiment." *
He ponders the Schumann Concerto's tall willow hit
By lightning, and stays put. When he surmises
Through one of Bach's eternal boxwood mazes**
The oboe pungent as a bitch in heat,
Or when the calypso decants its raw bay rum
Or the moon in Wozzeck*** reddens ripe for murder,
He doesn't sneeze or howl; just listens harder.
Adamant needles bear down on him from
Whirling of outer space, too black, too near--
But he was taught as a puppy not to flinch,
Much less to imitate his bete noire Blanche
Who barked, fat foolish creature, at King Lear.*
Still others fought in the road's filth over Jezebel,**
Slavered on hearths of horned and pelted barons.
His forebears lacked, to say the least, forbearance.
Can nature change in him? Nothing's impossible.
The last chord fades. The night is cold and fine.
His master's voice rasps through the grooves' bare groves.
Obediently, in silence like the grave's
He sleeps there on the still-warm gramophone
Only to dream he is at the premiere of a Handel
Opera long thought lost--Il Cane Minore.***
Its allegorical subject is his story!
A little dog revolving round a spindle
Gives rise to harmonies beyond belief,
A cast of stars. . . . Is there in Victor's heart
No honey for the vanquished? Art is art.
The life it asks of us is a dog's life.
James Merrill 1972
*Long a trademark of RCA, the dog "Nipper" - here called "Victor" - was on the label of RCA Victor records, listening intently to a gramophone, with the caption "His master's voice." In the poem, passing reference is made to the jazz trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, the classical composers Dietrich Buxtehude, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel, Franz Schubert, and Robert Schumann, and to the modernists Pierre Boulez, Ernest Bloch, Maurice Ravel, and Alban Berg.
** Cf. Matthew 16.18: ". . . upon this rock I will build my church"
*** In Schubert's song "Der Leiermann" ("The Organ-Grinder"), an old man cranks his barrel-organ in the winter cold to an audience of snarling dogs.
* The palace fountains of those who are in love with each other (French).
** The composer's works are compared to labyrinths executed in living boxwood plants, popular in eighteenth-century formal gardens.
*** An opera by Berg in which the protagonist murders his unfaithful wife beneath a rising moon.
* In King Lear, the mad kings says, "the little dogs and all. / Tray, Blanch, and Sweet-heart, see, they bark at me" (3.6.57-58). Bete Noire: a person or thing detested or avoided; in French, its literal meaning is black beast, whereas Blanche means white.
** The proverbial wicked woman, she was killed in the street; when the body was recovered for burial, dogs had eaten most of it, as had been prophesied earlier by Elijah.
*** The little dog (Italian).