Monday, October 04, 2010

Harry Owen, Non-Dog

Harry Owen, the inaugural Poet Laureate for Cheshire (UK), moved to South Africa’s Eastern Cape in January 2008. He is the author of four poetry collections: Searching for Machynlleth (2000), The Music of Ourselves (2004), Five Books of Marriage (2008) and Non-Dog (2010). He also hosts the hugely popular monthly open-floor poetry event called Poetry @ Reddits in Grahamstown, where he lives. Further details can be found on his website: 

Harry has this to say about the move to South Africa and the genesis of his collection Non-Dog:

When, in January 2008, I moved to the Eastern Cape from England I had no idea what to expect of life there. Indeed, some of my closest friends had warned me against going to live in such a ‘dangerous’ place. But now I know that, for all its many problems, South Africa is one of the world’s most stunningly beautiful and genuinely miraculous places. The poems in this, my fourth collection, represent my response to that realisation.

Perhaps the most telling feature for me of living in South Africa after many decades of being in the wholly Western (and Northern) cultures of Europe and the United States was the abrupt need to view the world from an entirely different perspective. What had seemed so ‘normal’ before that I had never seen the need to question it suddenly began to take on a new and revelatory significance. The phrase ‘non-white’, for instance, as a kind of catch-all for other racial groups appears to me now, in post-apartheid South Africa, to have been deeply insulting, implying as it did that there is a norm, an ideal of humanity, and this is expressed as Whiteness.

To be non-white, therefore, means you don’t achieve this ideal. You are defined, not positively and actively as, say, Black, but negatively, passively, as Non-White, and by implication as somehow deficient. No one had ever mentioned such a possibility to me before I heard the remarkable Saleem Badat, Vice Chancellor of Rhodes University, speak of it publicly. And I began to reflect on what it means ‘to be truly oneself’ rather than someone constructed by society as something other.

I hope it is not trivialising a concept of real importance to say that I often found myself reflecting on this while walking our two dogs, Dora and Daisy, who had willingly adopted me when I arrived, unannounced, in their home. As someone who had not owned dogs before, I had to get used to their ways just as they had to adapt to mine – and I’m not ashamed to say that I have learned an enormous amount from them. Indeed, the fact that they have always been (especially on those walks!) exactly and unapologetically what they are – dogs – has taught me one of the biggest lessons of my life: hence the poem ‘Non-Dog’ and the collection itself.

Copies of Non-Dog (signed, if requested) may be ordered directly from me (£8.00 or R100.00, including P&P) via my website or simply by emailing me at
Alternatively, you may do so from the publishing house at or via the publisher’s own website


Dora, most solid Ridgeback,
wears her non-nylon,
non-green collar honestly, bravely,
and is, of course, decidedly

while Daisy, standard Poodle, non-bright,
wears a smart non-leather collar
around her sleek French neck
and is assuredly

All day,
racing together around the field, eyes bright,
reading the earth's text with their noses,
barking at strangers or just
keeping me quiet company
here in the house,
each is simply herself:
neither one is, despite everything,

Harry Owen


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