Friday, May 16, 2008

Uncle Dog: The Poet at 9

Photo by Lynn Lundstrum Swanger

Kai is serving here as place holder. He has the attitude and manner of famed *Uncle Dog, though not the "mongrelness" of that legendary animal, a nine-year-old's vision of a Chicago garbage man's dog.

Uncle Dog was the first animal I ever saw who seemed to have some sense of purpose, dignity, pride, and self-regard. Fuck the human species. This Heinz 57 mutt refused to cringe or bark, or in any way even acknowledge other dogs. ‘Uncle Dog.’ He was the one who rode around with the once-weekly garbage man. This was Chicago back in the mid-1940s, and we lived on the second floor of a two-flat apartment. Rent: $65. a month. And the best of it was our back porch where I hung out with animals. But never my favorite, the garbage man's dog, dog of dogs!

I think of him now in our age of "companion animals," "designer dogs," a time when 69 million American households have dogs--73.9 million dogs! Dogs. Dogs. 39 billion dollars a year goes for the care and feeding of American pets.

Anyway, more than any family member or school teacher or, for that matter, yoga instructor... it was Uncle Dog who taught me the importance of carriage and self-regard. Self-respect. We’d gotten dogs from that notorious Cook County prison (c. 1940), the Chicago Humane Society and, no fault of their own, those canines were a sorry lot. Three hungry days in a cage and, broken-spirited... either they were“selected” by some dog-lover or were gassed. That's where we got some real "suspects," canines picked up off the street... dogs without street smarts, without credentials, without license. without class ...victims of human self-regard, the ruling class, "human exceptionalism."

Uncle Dog. The mongrel prince of princes. Dog of dogs.

In 1957 at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop I wrote the thing. And, surprise! it got accepted by the Chicago Review. Then the Chicago Review Anthology, Hayden Carruth’s The Voice That is Great Within Us, David Swanger's The Poem as Process, and some others. And, in low moments, needing publication to nourish my ego, to do for me whatever needs doing... needing inspiration, a voice from the past... no barking, no, speaking rather...

I can hear him now: Woof, woof! Woof fuckin' woof!


I did not want to be old Mr.
Garbage man, but uncle dog
who rode sitting beside him.

Uncle dog had always looked
to me to be truck-strong
wise-eyed, a cur-like Ford

Of a dog. I did not want
to be Mr. Garbage man because
all he had was cans to do.

Uncle dog sat there me-beside-him
emptying nothing. Barely even
looking from garbage side to side:

Like rich people in the backseats
of chauffeur-cars, only shaggy
in an unwagging tall-scrawny way.

Uncle dog belonged any just where
he sat, but old Mr. Garbage man
had to stop at everysingle can.

I thought. I did not want to be Mr.
Everybody calls them that first.
A dog is said, Dog! Or by name.

I would rather be called Rover
than Mr. And sit like a tough
smart mongrel beside a garbage man.

Uncle dog always went to places
unconcerned, without no hurry.
Independent like some leashless

Toot. Honorable among scavenger
can-picking dogs. And with a bitch
at every other can. And meat:

His for the barking. Oh, I wanted
to be uncle dog--sharp, high fox-
eared, cur-Ford truck-faced

With his pick of the bones.
A doing, truckman's dog
and not a simple child-dog

Nor friend to man, but an uncle
travelling, and to himself--
and a bitch at every second can.

(from Four Incarnations, Coffee House Press, 1991 and The Collected Poems,
Black Moss Press, 2006, Literary Press Group, distributor.)

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