I read Master and Margarita, Bulgakov’s masterwork and often acclaimed one of the greatest novels of all time, right on the heels of digesting Good Omens (Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman), and found the parallels between the two romps through the Ends Times and the Stalinist theater world, respectively, deliciously complementary, although I couldn’t tell for certain whether the authors of Good Omens were familiar with Bulgakov’s work. No matter. If you loved Good Omens, you would certainly enjoy Bulgakov’s sense of humor, too.
This poem was inspired by another of Bulgakov’s novels, which has been adapted to the stage and even the opera, and remains open to a variety of layers of meaning on interpretation. Heart of a Dog deals, on the surface level, with a scientific experiment run amok and a social engineering experiment gone off the rails. An analysis of the themes in this story using the templates in Systems of Survival is tempting, because of how prominent a role corruption and systems of perverse incentives play in the plot. This satirical novel also deals rather pungently with the animal nature lurking just below the surface of human behavior, which is so easily brought to the fore by a little scientific or cultural tinkering, sometimes with appalling results.
Now, Bulgakov didn’t share the warm and fuzzies you and I reserve for our four-legged friends. To appreciate his sense of humor, you have to see in the dog the pejorative metaphor for those all-too-human instincts for grasping, guzzling, chasing, heckling, grovelling, and just generally making a ruckus that writers in by-gone days heaped on those same companion animals that we cherish today for their innocence, loyalty, patience, sympathy and fortitude.
So this poem might make you a little uncomfortable, if your best friend has a wet nose and a wagging tail. The book certainly made me squirm a little when I read it. But it must’ve gotten under my skin, too, because when I sat down to write a poem based on the 19th psalm, I ended up with this little tribute to Bulgakov.
The blue Earth’s mirror alleges man’s glory,
and his genius satellite orbits attest.
Day to day sounds of traffic mark his passing
and sleep to sleep his habitus rests secure.
There is no common language for this insight,
only a bald, ineffable mastery.
Through every surface of the earth there pours out,
to the very stratosphere, man’s naked force.
For the sun he refracts in pillars of fumes –
and he like a groom from his glass tower steps,
stretching like a killer refreshed from a nap.
From the farthest scrap of sky his mirrors wink
and his cargo hustles round the globe below,
and no sparrow, root or weed is spared his heat.
Man’s leverage over nature is complete,
inventing and supplanting lifeforms undone.
Man’s covenant with power is resilient,
it makes a giant out of any old fool.
Man’s instincts elevate the boundless present,
the tastes and colors that stoke the appetite.
The measure of man’s kingdom is as precise,
the light in his eyes as bitter as sunlight.
The fear man inspires is absolute,
over all else hangs the risk of extinction.
As man is the measure of falsehood and truth,
all of his doings conform to his justice.
More sacred than water, his covenant’s axe,
than abundant sweet springs in the great badlands,
and intoxicating in its action, clean
and clear as the nectar of honey and meade.
Your poodle, too, is observant of the laws.
in licking the heels of power – great reward.
What can dogs know of nakedness, or of shame?
Of unwitting trespasses, forgive my tail.
From forward strangers hands preserve Your servant,
let them not seize me up and rebrand my hide.
Then I shall be content with the threats I know
and secure from the wrath of alien apes.
Let my muzzle’s whines and yaps be welcome here
and my tail’s wagging appease your blandishments,
Man, my great gaoler, my shield and my succor.