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Dog Gospel

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When I dare at last to imagine hunger,
see farmer wandering his parched fields
knowing nothing to do, finally, but sleep
the day out in the barn's long shadow,
dreaming of the family dog he drove
deep into a neighboring county
and abandoned by the side of the road.
Weeks later a boy finds it in a ditch—
timid and gimp, a halo of gnats
festering between its swollen testicles
and wormy flanks—and he coaxes it
into some pines, tethers it with a tentstake
and a chain as the late summer light
spirals and drapes over the branches,
a mirage the dog slavers and snaps at.
Consider the boy's amusement
as he imagines the animal jerking the light
down and the ruckus of bells that clang
and catapult from the treetop belfries,
the canopy rent like a piñata, spilling licorice
and circus peanuts, coins and fluttering dollar bills.
The real possibilities are beyond him.
The dog as a parable of pain or loss.
Hunger as some small iridescent thing at work
inside the animal, hovering around its heart
the way a lone dragonfly skirts the dry pond crater,
dismantling the day—light unstitched
from dust, dust unbuckled from air.
By now, the dog's given up, and the boy
watches its tongue loll in the pine needles,
the heave and fall of its stomach, its eyes
following birdflight in and out of the shade.
Restless for something he cannot name,
he imagines the music he might make
if he thumped the dog's belly like a drum.
Imagines its eyes are the color of iron.
Imagines the unimaginable and does it,
the tire tool and the belly unwilling instruments,
and the dog's caterwaul is not like music
at all and when night comes the cricketsong
dulcifies nothing, the dog's body
is just a body, is not paltry, is not glorified.
What hunger is this that haunts the boy,
that haunts the man sleeping in the shade?
Watch as the dragonfly dips into his open mouth
and keeps going, a blur between bone and sinew,
a wet thread collapsing soft caverns of flesh,
gone to where his body is a field
honed by sleeves of sunlight,
to where the boy ceases to be and the man wakes.
He knows what flits through him now
keeps the time with its thrumming,
carrying him away from himself
into himself, to where the dog roves in the shadows—
ravenous, luminous—its tail bobbing
in the heat, a winnowing sliver of light.

Source: Poetry

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This poem originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of Poetry magazine

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Dog Gospel

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  • Brian Barker earned a BA from Virginia Commonwealth University, an MFA from George Mason University, and a PhD from the University of Houston. He is the author of two collections of poetry, and has been published in journals such as Poetry, Indiana Review, Sou'wester, Pleiades, and River Styx.
    Barker’s first collection, The Animal Gospels (2006), won the Tupelo Press Editor’s Prize. The Black Ocean (2011),his second collection,won the Crab Orchard Open Competition in 2011. Barker is the recipient of various awards and honors, including two Pushcart nominations, an Academy of American Poets prize, and the 2009 Campbell Corner Poetry Prize.
    Barker teaches at the University of Colorado, Denver, where he co-edits Copper Nickel, a journal of art and literature. He is married to poet Nicky Beer.

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