Our relationship with man’s best friend is explored in a new book of poetry from the University of Huddersfield’s Dr Michael Stewart, the acclaimed author of Ill Will.
The Dogs touches upon the origin myths of dogs, how they have been viewed by different societies through the centuries and how man co-opted dogs into everyday life. It also looks at the effects of genetic changes to dogs through breeding and imagines a future world where dogs have learned to speak and are demanding better treatment from humans.
Dr Michael Stewart is Course Leader in Creative Writing at the University of Huddersfield and he earned widespread acclaim for his 2018 novel Ill Will, which imagines a narrative for Heathcliff’s unexplained absence in Emily Brontë’s classic novel Wuthering Heights.
Michael explains the inspiration for The Dogs on the moors of West Yorkshire.
But it was the sad plight of a dog that Michael saw regularly that inspired his latest work.
“Every day for over 10 years, I passed a dog tethered in a yard on Low Lane near where I lived,” he says. “He was guarding a pile of scrap metal. His only shelter was a corrugated sheet. He had a bowl of rainwater, and his leash allowed him little freedom. Every day two men would appear in a flat backed van, piled high with old fridges, broken microwaves, burnt out pans, rusted toasters, disused brackets, and other metal bric-a-brac.
“They would unload the van, then one of them would open a tin of unbranded dog food and pour it onto the floor near to the dog. The dog would eat this greedily, then the men would get back in the van and drive off. They never touched the dog or spoke to him. That interaction was his only human contact.
I had nightmares about that dog. I would wake up in the middle of the night, tortured by the image of this creature. I thought about trying to reason with the men, but I knew they would just give me a load of abuse.
Dr Michael Stewart
“In short, I wracked my brains trying to find a solution, but none came. Then one day, I passed the yard, and the dog had gone. I felt relief. Had he died? At least he would suffer no more. But then, a few weeks later, I saw his replacement. They had another younger dog, tethered to the same post. I never walked past that yard again. This book is dedicated to the dog of Low Lane, and all the dogs around the world that never experience warmth, adequate shelter, or comfort.”
The Dogs is enhanced by the pen-and-ink illustrations of Louis Benoit which will be on display at Artworks – The Everybody Gallery in Halifax, which is free and open to all to visit between 12 and 3 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays until 12 August.
Spilt into three parts, The Dogs takes many of its cues from the work of Ted Hughes, who spent his formative years in the landscape between Huddersfield and the moors made famous by the Brontë sisters.
“When you write a poetry book about an archetypal animal you invite comparisons to perhaps the best known of these: Ted Hughes’ Crow. Like Crow, my book has a Loki-like character that reaches across time,” adds Michael.
“Mine is called ‘Dog’ and he features throughout the collection. He is the ultimate outsider. Everybody hates him but he doesn’t care. But as my colleague and poet, Steve Ely, has pointed out, Crow in Ted’s book is never a crow, whereas my dogs are always dogs.”