“this beast / this child”: Why Luther B?

Why does Smith waste so much time on Luther B? In the midst of so much human tragedy, why does Blood Dazzler go out of its way to elegize a dog? Firstly, because Smith is the poet and can do as she likes. Also because the Luther B poems are not simply about the “Rottweiler, / bull, whatever that dog is” and his perspective, although I don’t think they’d be less valuable if that’s all they were.
The Luther B poems — “Won’t Be But a Minute,” “The Dawn of Luther B’s Best Day,” “Luther B Rides Out the Storm,” “M’Dear Thinks on Luther B,” and “Luther B Ascends” — function in large part as a vehicle for the concerns of the dog’s owner, called m’dear, a resident of the “Ninth”. M’dear speaks “Won’t Be But a Minute”  and “M’Dear Thinks on Luther B” in the first person, and her spoken thoughts punctuate the beginning and end of “Luther B Rides Out the Storm.” In the sense that Luther B belongs to m’dear and focusing on him is a way of focusing on her, the dog is as valid an object, and no more a waste of time to write about, as the house that “Only Everything I Own” centers on. The spacing of the Luther B poems was touched upon in class: there are no more than three to five relatively short poems between each of the initial initial four poems, but between “M’Dear Thinks” and “Luther B Ascends,” there are 23 poems and 34 pages of text. This gap, I think, points most clearly towards the Luther B poems being largely reflective of what  m’dear knows or can imagine about Luther B. The reader’s return to the dog after such a long pause in his story only to find him “smashed level with the mud” can be read as emotionally reflective of the lived experience of someone who was forced to leave their pet behind as Katrina closed in and returned to find them dead. The experience is made all the more rueful given that the reader knows that m’dear has been consoling herself with thoughts of Luther B’s scrappiness (“Nah, don’t y’all worry none bout Luther B. / He harder to shake than a bucktoothed man.”) and also that the dog thinks of himself, before the storm begins, as “fat with future.”

Although Luther B merits discussion as a literary tool to examine his owner, the dog bears examining himself. Luther B is not an inanimate object, and Smith makes it clear that he has some kind of consciousness; the “looped reloop of dog thought,” as she calls it. Veronica brought up in class the thematic link between this dog and the one that features in The Day After Tomorrow, Buddha (whose owner’s name, coincidentally, is Luther). Both dogs are named after religious figures, although Luther B’s religious symbolism is probably easier to read than Buddha’s.  Luther has his own conception of God, which he understands to be the sky: “All that’s reachin’ for him now is the sky, the God daddy, / pressing down fast, cracks of purple in its fingers.” Watching the sky in this poem (“The Dawn of Luther B’s Best Day), the dog “watches / his deliverance come closer.” Luther B has some understanding of human religion, too: as he paddles in the floodwaters, the dog remembers his owner’s “Lawd ham mercy […] slow and real Baptist like, every time some kink / swerved her day” and he “wonders about that Lord, and mercy.” When we find Luther “sketched against a wearied patch of earth” in “Luther B Ascends,” there is no thought from the dog or his owner, and the poem seems to be told by an omniscient speaker when it says that Luther has been “smalled / by roaring days, and a sky / he trusted.” Luther has placed his trust in the God daddy sky, and has died. This dog of unknown breed seems to be positioned by Smith, however improbably, as a Christ figure. Luther’s abandonment, and the final line of “Luther B Ascends” — “this child —  make it difficult not to read these lines as anything but a direct reference to Jesus’s “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross (Matthew 27:46). The title of the last poem also clearly draws a parallel to Jesus’ ascension, and Luther’s name itself calls to mind the Martin Luther of the Protestant Reformation.

What does it mean if Blood Dazzler’s Christ figure is a dog? “Their Savior Was Me” brings us once again into the mind of Katrina, who thinks that the people she has killed should have treated her as God, and instead of praying to “the ghost in the air, my rumored father” should have “smothered [Katrina] with kneeling.” The following poem, “Voodoo VI: Healing” instructs the voodoo practitioner to “Separate God’s name from your prayer, and hope / He remembers the brutal long-ago ways of magick.” In the reality Smith presents, established religious beliefs become totally undone. Upon the publication of Blood Dazzler, the literary critic Anis Shivani asserted that Smith’s political poetry is successful through making its reader reader  “simply see the absurd relationships between the components of such a tragedy […] We see the callous outlines of the cosmic joke, overwhelming everyone from the president down to a lowly dog, and everything in between.” Luther-B-as-Christ may well be part of that cosmic joke: if things can fall apart in the way that they do and the President is a “cowboy grin[ning] through the terrible din,” and the hurricane has supplanted God, why can’t a dog be Jesus?


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.