Best, Luke. Cadaver Dog. University of Queensland Press, 2020. RRP: $24.99, 128pp, ISBN: 9780702262999.
Miriam Wei Wei Lo
More than any other genre, poetry is not just about what is said, but how it is said. The what of Cadaver Dog is psychological thriller—a family trapped in their Queenslander in the Toowoomba foothills in a devastating flash-flood. The water rising with unbelievable speed. The husband running to save his own skin. The wife trapped in the house with the sleeping children. Faster-than-you-can-blink deaths. Physical disaster entwined with relational disaster. Madness after. The cadaver dog that recovers in more ways than one.
The how of Cadaver Dog is verse-novel, but in a unique form. This is poetry as discipline—narrative unfolding in strict 9-line stanzas with a fixed rhythmic pattern. The flesh on the bones of this structure is language-that-bears-witness: exquisite, lush imagery that draws us into the internal and external landscape of devastation:
The yard like a flipped fritter, or a
topsy-turvy swatch of plush pile, its
woven roots, stark and reaching to the skies,
like sinners at the altar, but dumb. Me, the inter-
squelching through with my boots, inciting a reply,
interrupting the mad silence, muttering their prayers in
‘This work was written after trauma’, the notes tell us at the back of the book (115). The 2011 Queensland floods, in which thirty-three people died, are referenced. This is important context, but again, it is the how of this text that astonishes—particularly the choice to narrate from the point-of-view of the woman in this story; a bold choice for a male author. Also bold is the decision to use fiction to entwine relational disaster with natural disaster. Why?
The text itself asks us to ask questions:
So think of the mud as porridge, my yard
as the bowl, the slope behind, just as it is, the house—
swollen Paddle-Pop shack it’s become—as a dwelling-cum-
deathtrap. Then think, why the cadaver dog. Why the story—its
retelling. (8, emphasis mine)
Why indeed? It is possible to read Cadaver Dog as a warning. Much of the chatter (online and in reviews) surrounding this book approaches it from an eco-critical framework. Certainly, this book functions as ecological warning. This-is-what-happens-when … we don’t pay attention, when we selfishly abandon the next generation. This is the devastation left behind. Be warned. To Best’s credit, these warnings are not delivered as clichéd ideological slogans, but emerge organically from the poetry and the story told. The warning is more powerful because of this.
There is, however, more than simply ecological warning in this text. The book begins with an epigraph from the book of Job—a book from the Bible that wrestles powerfully, in poetry, with the question of suffering. Job, who has all the trappings of success—marriage, wealth, children—suddenly loses everything. God, in a wager with Satan, even takes his health. Job’s wife urges him to curse God and die. His friends come and argue with him, for many long chapters, insisting that he must have done something wrong to deserve such punishment. Job insists on his innocence.
There are many Biblical references scattered through Cadaver Dog, but it is the book of Job that the text keeps coming back to. One of the messages of Job is that suffering can be inexplicable. There are not always easy causal equations. Those who appear to do right and those who appear to do wrong often suffer together, or suffer in a manner not equal to their sins. In Cadaver Dog there is a symbol that appears above every stanza: ≠. This is the mathematical sign ‘does-not-equal’. It functions as a warning: perhaps ‘we-are-not-equal-to’; perhaps a caution against being too quick to judge or to condemn.
In this context of both ecological and spiritual warning, the eponymous cadaver dog emerges from this verse-novel with a loud woof of grace. It is the unexpected visitor that brings warmth and kindness. It is the undeserved rescuer who saves us in spite of ourselves.
This layered, haunting, yet beautiful verse-novel is a deserving winner of the 2019 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and should find a home on the shelves of any reader wrestling with grief or trauma.
Miriam Wei Wei Lo writes poetry to explore what is true, beautiful, and good. She teaches creative writing at Sheridan Institute. Find her on Instagram @miriamweiweilo.