Clouds of Hungry Dogs, a collection of poems by Gabriel Ricard, is fraught with imagery that can’t be pinned down with the usual literary terms we learned as tools for analyzing poetry in AP English classes and MFA programs, respectively. And therein lies its allure: The poems in Clouds of Hungry Dogs blur the line between the literal and the allusive, the line between transrealism and surrealism. “Music bores her to tears that later turn into concrete pigeons, and fly away,” from ‘Drawing Circles with your Teeth,’ sounds like it could be lifted from a Magritte painting. “The junkyard packs its bags, and looks into real estate properties on mars,” from ‘Firestone on a Weekday,’ sounds more like Dali. Analyzing the surreal is never an easy task, and more so when the poems carry a level of realism one suspects is only achievable through Gabriel Ricard’s extensive travels and experiences across North America. The best writers write what they know, and you know that Gabriel Ricard has in fact seen “…a sun as big as a city made from old issues of National Geographic” (‘Case Closed, Minnesota’).
While a melting clock wouldn’t be out of place in any of Gabriel Ricard’s poems, some do defy the odds of the genre of surrealism and tell a cohesive story. ‘Lovely Janice,’ a story of sex, betrayal, and aging, borders on a ballad, while ‘Survivors of the Sky’ is too abstract to be a ballad, too cohesive to be abstract, and somehow compliments ‘Nuclear Devastation and Quick Kisses’ with its underlying themes of love, devastation, and loss. There’s a common theme running through most of the poems in Clouds of Hungry Dogs, and it’s as difficult to pin down as the affection that replaces love when mutual respect is obstructed by a sudden onset of mental illness and/or other catastrophe, or the simple and less-exciting slow fade of love that follows a slightly disappointing wedding, or the desperate love between an unfit mother and her surviving children. Like the great surrealist paintings, some of the poems are alarming, while others are calm and soothing in their madness; ‘Humor Demands Distance’ picks up a theme of mental illness that dwells just below the surface of most poems, a reminder that the things we live with every day don’t make sense, and that’s ok.
Does Clouds of Hungry Dogs make any sense? I think that question is best answered within the poem ‘While at Sea':
“It’s a weird song.
Hope you can juggle fifteen stories at once,
and almost twice as many characters amongst them.
You may even forget
the three of them existed in the first place.”
You’re just like everyone else. You probably believe one in a million
really do get to take the long nap
on one of those ocean liners.
This narrative is just cliff notes.
It’s not going to tell you
how they found each other.
Who called who against their better judgment.
How they all lived together for a little while.
It’s not going to draw a line
at the exact point where a renowned
can tell you
where the sex ends and the violence begins.
Find that stuff on your own.
Even if it’s a story you’ve heard before,
you stand to meet a lot of peculiar, passionate characters.”
Even the greatest surrealist artists have difficulty incorporating narrative structure into emotion-evoking imagery, something that Clouds of Hungry Dogs does stunningly well, if confusingly. This is probably, in my opinion, due to Gabriel Ricard’s ability to travel unrestrained between the genres of surrealism and transrealism, or to bridge the gap between the two, or perhaps Clouds of Hungry Dogs wedded the two into a third genre we don’t have a name for yet. Fitting, perhaps, for a collection that defies classification.
Mik Everett is the author of two novels, along with several short stories, essays, and poems. She is a staff editor for Kleft Jaw Press
Editor’s Note: Gabriel Ricard is Film Editor at Drunk Monkeys. Mik Everett is a guest critic unaffiliated with the site.
Clouds of Hungry Dogs is now available from Kleft Jaw Press.