It’s hard not to start this book distracted by its bird-bone brittleness. Cameron Anstee, publisher of Apt. 9 Press, has put together a stunningly white, hand-bound book that emits immediate guilt for smudging with fingerprints. But when the reader enters into the text, greeted first by an epigraph from Homer’s The Odyssey, he/she dives into an exploration of loyalty and patience told somewhat cheekily through the eyes of Odysseus’ dog Argos.
As a conceit, the dog-as-main-character runs the risk of being trite, even cute. Ladouceur fights expertly against this by balancing a tongue-in-cheek wit against large backdrops of myth and emotion. The epigraph introduces Argos as a once fierce dog, a warrior, who “no wild beast he chased escaped him.” He is the perfect companion for Odysseus – a cocky and ferocious hunter.
Yet that same epigraph lists him as neglected, forgotten by “careless women” and by his long travelling, “likely dead” master. Argos is both tragic and heroic then, mirroring the sweeping epic of sirens and impossible, often lonely landscapes of The Odyssey itself. Argos, like Odysseus, is a singular creature, isolated in adventure and ultimately cut off from the people he cares about most.
Ladouceur does note merely ape the original text though; The Argossey off sets, sublimates, the original with its light phrasing and free verse. Lines such as “they say good-bye with tails/tongues/everything but words” (“book v”) showcase the distracted and often jumbled nature of the work. The story, as told through Argos’ eyes is not the wide epic tale told in heroic couplets, but rather closer to Penelope’s view of anxious and ultimately fruitless waiting; the lines are choppy, apprehensive, full or jerks and starts. From these irregularities echoes of penance emerge, a limbo that must be endured. Both Argoes and Penelope are cast as helpless, tethered to another man who is “currently nailing a virgin/ on an island of convenient location” while they both wait for his return.
Argos is loyal to a fault, pushing away the rest of his world in a singular obsession with waiting for Odysseus. “book vii” is a perfect example of this, a poem that begins with “when he returns,” Argos’ boundless anticipation and climaxes with the dog’s yearnings for any scrap of Odysseus, even “the drips from his very greasy hair.” On one hand, passages like this lighten the text, creates moments of absurdity that are funny and enlightening. But these moments are always undercut by the return to Argos’ longing. In parts of the text, the anticipation seems almost romantic, sexual, the longing of lovers – in others, a partnership that stretches beyond physical distance. His sadness at being separated from his master is further emphasizes this with the repeated use of “weeping” throughout the text, a sadness that sinks into Argos’ bones and defeats him. By the end of the text, he is a once proud warrior defeated by the absence, not the loss, of a partner.
So the collection ends not with triumph or glory but rather with a tragic aging. The hero Odysseus finally returns home to his wife and dog, yet Argos is so broken down he cannot appreciate his return. He is unable to spurn the creep of time as Penelope turned away potential suitors. A re-reading of the text provides the audience with the real and striking tragedy of the work: growing old. In this way, the reader leaves the text with Argos as a far more human creature than Odysseus. Odysseus is a timeless hero, a fictional, epic adventurer; Argos is the man going about his life before simply coming to the end of it.
Originally appeared on agorareview.ca