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Pure Nose Poetry


Mr. Willoughby (photo by Meg Curtis)

From shoulder to rump, he's pushing two feet. Add another two feet for head, neck, and tail. His length allows him to reach up to counters, tables, and waist-high windows. His speed unleashes a tumbling gymnast in a hair-raising floor routine. As described by Pet Planet, this is the big dog on short legs of the canine world: the basset hound at the age of six months.

He possesses Javier Bardem's eyes. Nefertiti loaned him her eyeliner. His breed inspired the original Hush Puppy, and he pads around on heavily cushioned soles. His shoes consist of pure white gloves with extravagantly strong fingers. Rarely, however, does he need hushing. The exception occurs when real alarm strikes him: If his squeaky ball runs under the sofa, it must come out -- RIGHT NOW!

But Dog Owners' Guide leads us straight from this dog to Shakespeare. The Bard bestows the Basset Hound on the Duke of Athens in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Nobility explains its mythological lineage:

My hounds are bred out of the Spartan kind,
So flew'd, so sanded; and their heads are hung
With ears that sweep away the morning dew;
Crook-knee'd, and dew-lapp'd like Thessalian bulls;
Slow in pursuit, but match'd in mouth like bells,
Each to each. A cry more tuneable
Was never holla'd to, nor cheer'd with horn,
In Crete, in Sparta, nor in Thessaly:
Judge when you hear them. (IV.i.119-27)

Thus, Shakespeare supplies a harbinger of what will come: No matter how playful Willoughby can be as a puppy, he will assume proportions out of legends. His mighty ears alone should tell us the Bard knew his dogs. In cry, this puppy can already hit notes cascading from a carillon.

Currently, a fondness for toys means you'll find the giant sleeping with his squeaky bear tucked under his chin. He carried his personal teddy into the kitchen tonight as a sign his bed now lies here, at my feet. When I continued typing, he slipped back into the living room. At first, I couldn't find him. Then, he jumped back off the futon, where he pretended to be a bolster, slipped in among the pillows. My sneaker hung from his teeth.

Any loose object becomes a toy to his imagination. He practices found art, too, like a religion. He values electrical cords, perhaps, because they approximate the shape and size of snakes -- especially the ones servicing the computer. These he attacks with a vengeance, to keep me safe. Those reptiles can never be trusted, and he winds his way past my watchful eye in case their circuitous paths slide beneath my observation. Outwitting both of us, he prefers them to lunch.

Likewise, the shower offers an entire assortment of precious objects. The loofa sponge escaped first, with his help. Next, I found the Irish Spring soap in the corridor, full of teeth marks, evidence of his experiments with cuisine. When quiet descended again, I knew a surprise lay around the corner. Sure enough, his head emerged stealthily -- with a razor between his black lips. After suffering a mild heart attack, I got down to brass tacks: Either the dog harbors a secret shower obsession, or he's asking for another bath.

He loves the water so much that, every time I turn the shower on, his head peeks around the curtain. "Whatcha doin', Meg?" he seems to ask. As I race to take the fastest shower on record -- my most feverish attempt stands at 90 seconds -- I anticipate the canine version of Hitchcock's famous shower scene. Only no knives threaten my neck or shoulder. Kissed to Death by Basset -- would that make a good headline? He obviously hopes to train me to turn the water on whenever I find him in there in studious seclusion.

Taking the Nose for a Walk should be a national sport. Dog Owner's Guide reminds us that the Basset Hound possesses the Second Best Nose in the Dog Business. What would I do with The First Nose in my life? This one already specializes in vacuuming the outdoors. "No vacuuming! No vacuuming!" I constantly preach -- to no avail, whatsoever. On sidewalks, he's even more of a killer. He can probably tell where I went last year. He may even be able to identify every creature that walked down these avenues for a thousand years.

This dog illustrates pure nose poetry. Theodore Roethke should have owned a Basset. Then, he would have written an ode to this creature, instead of "The Sloth," ending with a tribute to a nose that "you just know he knows he knows" (l. 12). And that poet wasn't even talking about a nose with freckles, a nose so big that, like a three year-old, he can get Fruit Loops up his nose. Catullus, too, would have offered his dinner guest a chance to turn into the satin-eared dynamo, instead of promising: "I will make you wish you were all nose, Friend" (my translation). For connoisseurs of Latin erotica, the Internet provides the original text at http://www.obscure.org/obscene-latin/carmina-catulli/13.htm.

On the hunt, of course, he becomes a dangerous beast. No sleazy centipede better come within range of his jaws. He plays the shark, occasionally, looking me straight in the eye -- and clicking his teeth. Last night, two black ninja flies slipped like cat burglars -- their point of entry unknown -- into this ancient stone house. In thirty seconds he slammed them flat, becoming the largest fly swatter known to humankind. At butterflies, he springs faster than a tennis champion. They always escape, though. I wonder if he only kills monsters.

His diet mystified me for the first week. Flies alone will not get him to the eighty pounds he may achieve someday. Even grasshoppers, with an abundance of protein, will not fill out his frame -- unless we suffer a biblical plague. Turtles he would need to work on for at least a day, and soup would just leave his long ear-tips dirty. This quandary continued until I began to prepare pizza. Mr. Basset appeared before the stove as if he mistook it for a shrine. Since that memorable afternoon, occasional treats of hot dogs and spaghetti keep his alertness at a level that the Home Security Office can only envy.

Terrorists, take heed. A basset hound can trip you, no matter in what direction you head. He also finds ankles downright amusing. Like a cat, he chooses to believe that rodents hide inside socks, and dispatching them demonstrates his raw talent.

How many breeds combine the loyalty of a German Shepherd with the wounded expression of the guy who came in second in the Nose Contest? Dog Owners' Guide avers that his relative, the Bloodhound, takes first place. But Number Two challenges every assumption. I expected a basset hound to plod through life or sleep in my arms. In the TV detective show, Columbo, Peter Falk's assistant played the straight man -- between trips to and from the back seat of a pale blue convertible. I even recalled The Hound of the Baskervilles. This classic, starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, supplied favorite childhood entertainment.

Nothing prepared me for an Open Tri-Color Basset Hound. This variation on the standard tri-color dog allows white to be his base. Every mark then becomes a splotch of paint on a bare canvas containing enormous eyes. The ears become veined drapes beside the head -- one milk-chocolate brown, one chalk-white with delicate milk-chocolate drips. The white feet make the canvas walk. A black and brown patch on his rump defines the breadth of muscles always ready for launch. He may grow up to be a painting, but he already masters art.

He hangs his face on my knee like a portrait. I fold his ears under his chin and bend to receive his kisses. He begins at the throat because his, like mine, means strength. He hides his nose behind my ear. His voice never stoops to growl or whisper. He speaks straightforwardly with his eyes: "Come." I lift his chain collar from the table. Together we explore Main Street, the Freemansburg Canal, the Lehigh River, and Monroe Street. He knows this neighborhood better in two weeks than I ever did without him.

He leads to the glen -- a retreat still bedecked with Shakespeare's dew and glimmering lights. There, under the overhanging branches, in a world never bereft of dreams, he stretches out full-length into the clover, running his famous nose among the curling leaves. His legs sprawl flat out behind him, the very picture of happiness and ease. Then, in a flash, he leaps into the air. So ecstatic he cannot contain himself, he dashes right, then left, then starts laps with me in the middle, laughing at his exuberance. I must pivot quickly or turn into a wrapped May Pole.

Thus proceeds the Dance of the Happy Dog and the Writer. It already involves this village. A generous neighbor caught my eye as she cornered onto Main Street. Catching up with me before we mounted the steps to the door, she called out: "Oh, Oh, is that your new dog? I want you to know that, if he ever goes missing, all the kids will form teams and hunt for him. He's so lovely! Aren't you happy?" Yes, I thought, as he lapped her cheeks. But my happiness exceeds bounds when people race up to greet this lovely beast.

Was the dog truly the first socialized animal? Or did we socialize first at his feet, dancing round and round, because -- God knows how -- we found each other? Treats accumulate, and I expect to hang out a sign: The Hound of Freemansburg lives here -- yes, the one with ears of a different color. He will be available for autographs as soon as he can dip his paw in an inkwell -- and leave the ink there, instead of bathing in it. The message in his eyes anticipates Doyle's dedication. To Robinson, who gave him the world's greatest dog story, the creator of Sherlock Holmes simply wrote: "Yours Most Truly."

Meg Curtis

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