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In Your Previous Life

In a previous life, I was a waitress…before that, a farm girl. I spent a lot of my farm-girl childhood pretending to be a horse named Stormy. I think somewhere in time I was a tree.

In my next life, I’d like to teach a class called “Writing YOUR Memorable Poem,” and this is one of the poems I plan to use.

It’s a weird poem, really, more a surreal little short story. But from the time I first came across it (almost 20 years ago, in The New Yorker), it has stayed with me. Maybe the spell James Tate (1943-2015) weaves has something to do with the repetition. (Dog, for the most startling instance, is repeated  9 times.)

Tate’s Poetry Foundation profile quotes from his interview with The Paris Review: “There is nothing better than [to move the reader deeply]. I love my funny poems, but I’d rather break your heart. And if I can do both in the same poem, that’s the best. If you laughed earlier in the poem, and I bring you close to tears in the end, that’s the best.” That’s exactly what this poem does for me.

The Promotion

I was a dog in my former life, a very good
dog, and, thus, I was promoted to a human being.
I liked being a dog. I worked for a poor farmer
guarding and herding his sheep. Wolves and coyotes
tried to get past me almost every night, and not
once did I lose a sheep. The farmer rewarded me
with good food, food from his table. He may have
been poor, but he ate well. And his children
played with me, when they weren’t in school or
working in the field. I had all the love any dog
could hope for. When I got old, they got a new
dog, and I trained him in the tricks of the trade.
He quickly learned, and the farmer brought me into
the house to live with them. I brought the farmer
his slippers in the morning, as he was getting
old, too. I was dying slowly, a little bit at a
time. The farmer knew this and would bring the
new dog in to visit me from time to time. The
new dog would entertain me with his flips and
flops and nuzzles. And then one morning I just
didn’t get up. They gave me a fine burial down
by the stream under a shade tree. That was the
end of my being a dog. Sometimes I miss it so
I sit by the window and cry. I live in a high-rise
that looks out at a bunch of other high-rises.
At my job I work in a cubicle and barely speak
to anyone all day. This is my reward for being
a good dog. The human wolves don’t even see me.
They fear me not.

—James Tate, Return to the City of White Donkeys (HarperCollins, 2004)

So here’s your assignment: who or what were you in a previous life? Was there something you accomplished in that life that landed you here?

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