Sunday Poetry: Another Dog’s Death, by John Updike

Another Dog’s Death

For days the good old bitch had been dying, her back
pinched down to the spine and arched to ease the pain,
her kidneys dry, her muzzle white. At last
I took a shovel into the woods and dug her grave

in preparation for the certain. She came along,
which I had not expected. Still, the children gone,
such expeditions were rare, and the dog,
spayed early, knew no nonhuman word for love.

She made her stiff legs trot and let her bent tail wag.
We found a spot we liked, where the pines met the field.
The sun warmed her fur as she dozed and I dug;
I carved her a safe place while she protected me.

I measured her length with the shovel’s long handle;
she perked in amusement, and sniffed the heaped-up earth.
Back down at the house, she seemed friskier,
but gagged, eating. We called the vet a few days later.

They were old friends. She held up a paw, and he
injected a violet fluid. She swooned on the lawn;
we watched her breathing quickly slow and cease.
In a wheelbarrow up to the hole, her warm fur shone.

— By John Updike
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First of all, just give in and enjoy the poem. It gets you, doesn’t it? The thought of an old dog and his fond master – it’s classic, and we’re all suckers for it. It’s okay, really – go ahead and enjoy it.

Now, having been human for just a moment, it’s time to be an English major and start poking around the poem to find out what’s going on in there. First off, what’s with the title? “ANOTHER Dog’s Death”? The first word we encounter robs this poor animal of individuality.

Then, boom, the “B” word in the first line. Yeah, of course it is rescued when we realize we’re discussing a female dog, but Updike knows his stuff, and he knows he’s dropping a percussive word to slap us awake.

Then he plays with us a little bit – no solid rhymes in this poem, but a nod to the thought with words pairing off like acquaintances instead of couples. Short A’s alternate with long A’s in the first stanza, then other subtle plays later on – “along” sniffs at “gone” and “wag” plays with “dug”. The final stanza uses “he” and “cease” and “lawn” and “shone” – subtler than rhymes but somehow making the lines hang together.

We never learn the animal’s name. Does that universalize the poem, or lessen the bond? And if it lessens the bond, is it because the bond didn’t fully exist, or because the author is striving for the distance to deaden the pain?

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