Last week while I was traveling my wife had to put down our sweet dog Charley. Charley wasn’t named after the Steinbeck book, Travels with Charley (he came with that name from the Humane Society), but he was as worthy of adoration as Steinbeck’s poodle.
Though Charley usually came to the studio with me, I never took him on the road. I probably wasn’t as good of a companion as Steinbeck. One of Steinbeck’s previous dogs, an Irish Setter named Toby, chewed up half of the only existing manuscript of Of Mice and Men. Steinbeck wrote to his agent, “The poor little fellow may have been acting critically.”
I’ve spent a lot of time this last week looking for the perfect dead dog poem. Most of them are pretty terrible. (I’ve posted eight here). But this one by Gerald Stern feels about right:
By Gerald Stern
What I was doing with my white teeth exposed
like that on the side of the road I don’t know,
and I don’t know why I lay beside the sewer
so that the lover of dead things could come back
with his pencil sharpened and his piece of white paper.
I was there for a good two hours whistling
dirges, shrieking a little, terrifying
hearts with my whimpering cries before I died
by pulling the one leg up and stiffening.
There is a look we have with the hair of the chin
curled in mid-air, there is a look with the belly
stopped in the midst of its greed. The lover of dead things
stoops to feel me, his hand is shaking. I know
his mouth is open and his glasses are slipping.
I think his pencil must be jerking and the terror
of smell—and sight—is overtaking him;
I know he has that terrified faraway look
that death brings—he is contemplating. I want him
to touch my forehead once again and rub my muzzle
before he lifts me up and throws me into
that little valley. I hope he doesn’t use
his shoe for fear of touching me; I know,
or used to know, the grasses down there; I think
I knew a hundred smells. I hope the dog’s way
doesn’t overtake him, one quick push,
barely that, and the mind freed, something else,
some other, thing to take its place. Great heart,
great human heart, keep loving me as you lift me,
give me your tears, great loving stranger, remember,
the death of dogs, forgive the yapping, forgive
the shitting, let there be pity, give me your pity.
How could there be enough? I have given
my life for this, emotion has ruined me, oh lover,
I have exchanged my wildness—little tricks
with the mouth and feet, with the tail, my tongue is a parrot’s,
I am a rampant horse, I am a lion,
I wait for the cookie, I snap my teeth—
as you have taught me, oh distant and brilliant and lonely.