Red Cross Dog

All I Can Do

I am the reason someone gets up
in the morning; I am the Red Cross Dog

and I notice how the country heaves
with unrest, how right before snow falls

the air smells like lightning (it’s then
I dream of cut grass and flying stars)–

all the while, there is that deep rumble
in the distance, and even though I am minding

my own business and even though there is someone
telling me “Red Cross Dog, I know you’ll help me

find my way back home,” I cannot forget
that my country is falling and I cannot pick

it up. I cannot do this.

Review of Red Cross Dog by Sarah Särah Nour in High Plains Reader, 2014

{.. Patricia Zontelli’s} Red Cross Dog, is an evocative, atmospheric, and beautifully written collection of poetry. Currently teaching art at the University of Wisconsin, Zontelli first established herself as a powerful writer with her first book of poems, Edith Jacobson Begins to Fly, years before, which showcased a union of her talents as both a writer and a painter.

With “Red Cross Dog,” her lucid visuals and potent turn of phrase also give the impression of being as carefully rendered as a landscape painting. There is an understated yet vibrant energy to these poems, and they eloquently elevate the everyday world into the ethereal.

The first section of this book—bearing the same title as the book itself—contains poems from the point of view of (you guessed it) a Red Cross Dog, offering a thought-provoking and sometimes comedic look into the mind of man’s best friend. This dog is characterized as dutiful, wise, and observant in poems such as “Red Cross Dog at Prayer” and “Red Cross Dog Contemplates the Universe.” Other poems delve philosophically into mankind’s rapport with canines throughout the centuries, ranging from the predator/prey dynamic with “Wild Dog” to the modern playful camaraderie with “Frisbee.”

The second section, entitled “Backward/Forward,” is ripe with descriptions of natural landscapes, particularly those of lakes and rivers. Some are gritty and at times somber depictions of nature, such as “A Deer Hangs in a Neighbor’s Yard,” while others are more whimsical and lighthearted, such as “Naming the Water” and “Fireflies.” The painter in Zontelli also emerges in poems such as “Inside a Painting by Magritte,” which references the Belgian painter Rene Magritte, and “Frida,” a tribute to the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

The third section, which is by far the most memorable, is entitled “Morton Salt Girl,” referring to the girl with the umbrella on the Morton Salt logo. Despite a title that suggests whimsy, this section is surprisingly dark, as the poems assemble into a linear story about the girl trying to escape her abusive stepfather. The result of this bold and unusual take on a culinary mascot is a haunting, hypnotizing narrative that transforms a one-dimensional cartoon into a compelling character.

There’s something here that will appeal to dog people, nature lovers, art enthusiasts, or anyone willing to be taken on a journey through a visually striking, dreamlike world of imagination. For those qualities and more, Red Cross Dog is a highly recommended read that will not be easily forgotten.

This article previously appeared in the High Plains Reader.
– Särah Nour

“Red Cross Dog uses clear, bright colors to convey a disturbing, alert sense of unease–but unease touched by beauty and compassion.”
— Rachel Hadas
Prolific and masterful poet, essayist, translator

“[Zontelli’s] poems are like the work of a skilled painter, each brushstroke made without waste or hesitation”
— Louis Jenkins
Prose-poet extraordinaire, most recent collection: Tin Flag

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