Elegy for the Family Dog by Steve Henn


Elegy for the Family Dog


I.


When we suffered the youth of Emma she would dash

out anytime it was warm, run the neighborhood

as if driven by a lashing of reckless joy, of abandon


until one day she dashed and I took after,

I’d been playing basketball weekly and was closer

to soccer playing shape than I’d ever be again

and I staked my authority on running her down


She went awhile and I went after

and she’d jog and I’d jog

and she’d dash and I’d dash and eventually

her spirit broke or her lungs had given all they could—

she stood panting, waiting for me. “Come on!” I hollered

pointing toward the house, and she trotted ahead

I was her master now

From now on when I barked she listened


II.


Princess, Emma’s mother, was one reason why

Lydia and I loved each other. We liked nothing

better when she was pregnant than filching a leash

from the doggie detritus at her mother’s house,

walking Princess in the park – a sweet dog, she greeted us

with the sweetness we wanted to feel for each other –

an avatar for the sweetness we felt even though

Lydia stabbed me with a fork once sitting at Dig’s Diner

as if testing, to see if there was a length and an end to my love,

and how could we know there would be?


Princess had puppies and we waited for our own pup,

the daughter dubbed “buppy” as a diminutive, the girl

who at 3 years old loved “burgercheese” and chased a llama

round a field. With her, we took Emma into our modest house

with 3 bedrooms we’d fill with ourselves and three more eventual

children and the band practice space in the basement

and the gutters we waited so long to clean

helicopter seeds sprouted maples in the stuck fermenting leaves


III.


With family and animals Lydia always wanted

more, bigger, so we took a brown poodle mix

called Chocolate from her mother like we’d adopted

the hapless foil in the family sitcom who always

got treated like an asshole even when innocent,

even Emma disliked Chocolate

and Emma was a reflection of ourselves


So Emma, middle-aged, still too much a puppy, still

excitable, tried so often to sneak through the gaps

in the plastic-fenced poopyard we had a handyman

chickenwire the interior side but yet Chocolate would

get out, the little bitch would not be caught and so

would not be ruled and during Lydia’s third pregnancy

when Luke was booting  at the wombwall from the inside,

Chocolate was sent back to Lydia’s mother’s


IV.


to befriend googly-eyed Roman, the old weirdo

Zaya loved, a blue and white dog with one dark eye

and one crazy white one  but she was a sweetheart

in the way an old gentle dog can be, looking up

with her crazy face, asking to be loved,

not exactly cute, not exactly hideous


isn’t that the way it is? Lydia might say or she might

prefer “ain’t,” her spoken grammar embarrassed her

for years she used a made up word for a bad mood

“sturly” – “my mom was pretty sturly so I took off”


It wasn’t that I wanted or didn’t want to be cruel

not telling her it wasn’t a real word, I just didn’t

want to negotiate the fallout, the wailing and the

gnashing of teeth, the Oh God What The Fuck

Is Wrong With Me Theatrics, then

 

a year or two before her death she discovered

“sturly” was her invention and asked why

I never said anything, but we were divorced

by then, I made an effort not to love her any more


V.


When Lydia died my only public emotion

was anger, was drinking, our kids didn’t know

how to carry their sadness, I wasn’t modelling

anything worth imitating, then the first sober

summer since Lyd died—4 years later—

they talked me into a dog, we testwalked

shelter strays  – the first time a total disaster,

two hounds Dan and Ann sniffed along

the perimeter of the building as if detecting bombs


a third was chilled, casual, respected a walk but

went nuts with predator instinct by the small dog pens,

almost tore my arm off, a shelter person took the leash,

also got knocked on her ass – but we went back

and met a beagle with a tattooed S in her ear

and she was so anxious, so nervous, so eager to please


after we had her a few months Frannie caught me mumbling

in my sleep about how she’s my “soul-brother” – the shelter

called her Liberty but we renamed her Libby, we didn’t

want to seem like the kind of people who would name

an anxious beagle probably rejected as a hunting dog “Liberty”

           

And now she’s barking loud and friendly at Oren’s bedroom door

while Luke and his friends play D & D and 90s indie rock is on the record player


this dog too will sit at the window and look for the kids

to come back from wherever they are, as Emma used to,

as hapless Chocolate used to, so many dogs we’ve outlived

or haven’t – we must be like gods to them, we must be

some mighty beings of power and warmth who never falter.



Steve Henn wrote Guilty Prayer (Main Street Rag 2021), Indiana Noble Sad Man of the Year (Wolfson 2017), and two previous books from NYQ Books. Find out more at therealstevehenn.com.