"They knew me as one who shot reeking crap out of cages with a hose--" opens "A Full-Service Shelter," from Amy Hempel's first collection in about fifteen years, Sing To It, "and liked it. And would rather do that than go to a movie or have dinner with a friend."
It's a safe bet that an Amy Hempel character will usually get along with animals--dogs, by and large--better than they do people.
We think that, because we've got language, that we can express ourselves, make ourselves known and clear to one another. But communication between people is always tricky in Hempel, as it is in life. An attempt to explain oneself has a way of burying us deeper, has a way of distancing instead of connecting.
Fittingly, Sing To It begins in confusion. Its titular, opening story sets the tone: "At the end, he said, No metaphors! Nothing is like anything else. Except he said to me before he said that, Make your hands a hammock for me. So there was one."
We don't always know what we want and we certainly don't know how to ask for it. Pain and joy have a way of getting distorted or complicated or occulted by people. But the pain and joy of animals, in their unevolved inarticulation, have a way of being straightforward, unfiltered. Art--particularly poetry--has an equal ability to express a feeling, a truth without attempting to speak it directly. And so an Amy Hempel character won't find much truth in people, but will find no end of it in both art and animals.
"Will Rogers called vets the noblest of doctors," recalls the narrator of "Nashville Gone to Ashes," from Hempel's inimitable debut Reasons to Live, "because their patients can't tell them what's wrong. The doctor has to reach, and he reaches with his heart."
The same might be said of the ideal reader of a Hempel story. Her work oscillates between poetical and plain--any directness usually is sure to fail at its task of clarification--and, to get anywhere, you've got to reach out with your heart. Anyone who's ever made a connection with an animal can tell you a bit about the reward in store.