March 30, 2014 in Features

American Life in Poetry

Ted Kooser U.S. poet laureate

Considering that I’m a dog lover, I haven’t included nearly enough dog poems in this column. My own dog, Howard, now in his dotage, has never learned a trick of any kind, nor learned to behave, so I admire Karla Huston for having the patience to teach her dog something. Huston lives in Wisconsin.


The cruelest thing I did to my dog

wasn’t to ignore his barking for water

when his tongue hung like a deflated balloon

or to disregard his chronic need for a belly rub

but to teach him to shake hands,

a trick that took weeks of treats, his dark eyes

like Greek olives, moist with desire.

I made him sit, another injustice,

and allowed him to want the nuggets enough

to please me. Shake, I said. Shake?

touching the back of his right leg

until he lifted it, his saliva trickling

from soft jowls, my hand wet with his hunger.

Mistress of the biscuit, I ruffled his ears

and said good dog until he got it. Before long,

he raised his paw, shook me until he got

the treat, the rub, the water in a chilled silver bowl,

the wilderness in him gone, his eyes still lit with longing.

Poem copyright 2013 by Karla Huston from ”A Theory of Lipstick” (Main Street Rag Publishing Co, 2013), and reprinted by permission of the author and publisher. American Life in Poetry is supported by The Poetry Foundation and the English department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

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